The great, central theme of the Bible, in my judgment,
is grace, God's favor. God's love is literally unaccountable:
It can't be put in any ledger of accounts. Yet the mindset of
merit, of buying, selling and earning, is common. Until you can
give up that mindset you cannot understand the concept of grace,
or truly experience it.
A biblical image for that is the banquet or meal.
That's true in the Old Testament, and even more so in the New
Testament. Open table fellowship is Jesus' most common audiovisual
aid. He gives us the meal as the great image of his unconditional
loveof a different consciousness, a different way of reading
Interestingly, at the meals in the Gospels Jesus
always says the wrong things, eats the wrong food, doesn't practice
the right rituals, invites the wrong people. There is a message
in his actions.
Most people never move beyond the merits and rewards,
crime and punishment. It's the mindset that's behind almost all
novels, almost all plays, almost everybody's script. It's what
makes capitalism run. People are always talking about the price
of things, and being able to afford things. When you think that
way day after day after day it can become the only name of the
To think of life as being solely about buying and
selling is what I call meritocracy. It's a world based on earning
merit badges for some and punishment for others, for those who
have not done it right. This merit system mentality seems so ingrained
in the human person! Yet, the only thing we know Jesus made (see
Jn 2:14-16) is a whip of cords, which he used to go into the Temple
to destroy the system of buying and selling.
Until the mindset of earning and punishing is somehow
eliminated you basically cannot understand the gospel. It's been
my great sadness during 30 years of priesthood to meet so many
Catholics who never move beyond crime and punishment. That's what
they think God is for. We don't let the gospel subvert our very
consciousness. Yet almost all of Jesus' parables are doing that.
We're all familiar with the parable of the vineyard
worker who comes at the last hour and gets paid as much as the
one who comes at the first hour (Mt 20:1-16). Let's be honest,
most of us don't like that. It goes against our familiar accounting
system based on merit! We've been trained well as North Americans.
We all say, "Thanks be to God," when we hear it at Mass, but we
don't believe it or like it for one minute! It's not the way you
and I have organized the world.
Biblical scholars tell us that the parable is a
unique form of literature, which is always trying to subvert,
to undercut our notions. Parables are supposed to be illogical
at the end so we're confused for a few moments and can't think
the way we did before. But we don't let parables do that. We try
to figure them out inside our existing consciousness. Yet, as
Einstein said, "No problem can be solved by the same consciousness
that caused it."
Christianity, in its early years, was much more
attuned to the radical nature of God's mercy. After it became
the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, you see two
concepts changing quickly. Grace and forgiveness become basically
politicized, legalized and organized. Suddenly we think we have
the one and only measuring gauge to find who's in and who's out.
We began to find ways to earn grace, ways to jump through the
correct hoops. Yet that distorts the very concept of grace.
GRACE IS A GIFT
Here is an example from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians:
"God has loved us with so much love that God was generous with
God's mercy. When we were dead through our sins God brought us
to life in Christ. Know that it is through grace that you are
saved" (Eph 2:5). Clearly Paul is telling us that our salvation
is a free gift from God.
Nobody can claim the credit. If this is not the
case, grace is not grace. Once you try to organize it and create
a "worthiness system" or "merit system" for it, you have destroyed
the very possibility of it. Our tendency is in that direction,
though. When someone gives you a gift you want to sort of think
you earned it. Just to sit there and be unworthy of it is very
hard for most of us. Perhaps you plan to "repay the debt." But
simply to receive a gift in our nakedness, in our emptiness, usually
will not compute inside our system of thinking. So the good news
remains bad and old; not good and not newthe same old story.
People remain in a fear-filled and often infantile
world, with a calculating mind toward God, not a surrendered,
trusting mind. The "buying/selling, merit/reward, punishment/crime"
world is basically the world that we all begin with as children.
It is a less-than-mature understanding of reality.
This view is like the reward/punishment system many
people use with children: lollipops for the good children and
punishment for the bad. Most people never move beyond that level
of parental control in our understanding of religion. We may resist
it, but it's the central recurring theme in the Bible.
Let's look at this from the positive side. It starts
with the very concept of election, of being chosenwhat's
finally called covenant love. We hear about it in the Book of
Deuteronomy: God says to Israel if Yahweh set his heart on you
and chose you it was not because you were greater than other peoples.
In fact you were the least of all the peoples. That's the theme.
"It was for love of you and to keep the oath that He swore to
your fathers that Yahweh has brought you out with His mighty hand
and redeemed you from the house of slavery. It was not because
you were good but because God is good" (See Dt 9:1-6).
Some friends once made a bumper sticker of this
lifelong theme of my preaching: "God does not love you because
you're good, but you're good because God loves you." Goodness
is not something you achieve. I realize this more and more as
I get older, that God does almost everything. The good things
I've been able to do have always been a participation in who God
is in me. As we say at the end of the eucharistic prayer, referring
to Christ, "through him, with him, in him." The stupid, sinful
things I've done in my life have always been the work of my private
selfclosed off from God.
KING DAVID'S LESSON
Did you ever notice in the Gospels that Jesus is
not upset at sinners? He's only upset at people who don't think
they're sinners. It's a very different world once you accept that.
You can find roots of this approach in the Second Book of Samuel,
chapter seven. King David wants to build Yahweh a house to prove
to him that he's a good boy, that he loves God. Through Nathan
Yahweh says to David, "I don't want you to build me a house, I
will build you a house. I will give you rest from all of your
enemies. Yahweh will make you great. Yahweh will build you a house
and when your days are ended and you are laid to rest with your
ancestors I will preserve your offspring until eternity. I will
not withdraw my favor from David. I will be a father to you and
you will be a son to me" (see 2 Sam 7:1-17). In other words, God's
love or favor is a free giftnot something we earn.
Then we have in verse 18 David offering this beautiful
prayer back to Yahweh. This is the prayer of all of us when grace
has been bestowed upon us, just as it's the prayer of Mary when
grace is bestowed upon her. "Who am I, Lord Yahweh, and what is
my house that You have led me as far as this?"
That is something I want to say so often: Why, why
have you been so merciful and generous? It has nothing to do with
my holiness, my intelligence, my goodness, my merit. Let me tell
you something: To allow yourself to be God's beloved is to be
God's beloved. To allow yourself to be chosen is to be chosen.
To allow yourself to be the blessed one is to be blessed. It's
to believe it, to trust it, to allow it to happen. And so many
people will not be the beloved, they will not be the blessed,
they will not allow and imagine that God could be using them in
this moment. And once you allow God to use you, God does. It's
that simple, but so hard for us to believe!
From our faulty perspective, we don't believe it
yet because it's too much to believe it. No, we think, it has
to do with being holy. Or it has to do with me being intelligent
and obeying the law. No, we say, it doesn't have to do with faith
and trust in God's goodness, but your own. Think about that again
and again and again. This concept is the hinge of faitheverything
we do hinges on it! We want to turn it around because it's the
nature of the ego to hinge everything on our own, earned goodness.
Yet you'll never get anywhere with that! You have
lost the power and the biblical revelation at that moment. Life
does not hinge on your goodness, it hinges on God's goodness.
You do good things because you are good, thanks to God's free
Ezekiel prays in a way that shows the Hebrew belief
in God's goodness. In Ezekiel 36:22 God says, "I am not doing
this for your sake, house of Israel. I'm not doing this because
you've done anything right or because you're holy but for the
sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations."
In effect God is saying, "I'm going to display the holiness
of my name and the nations will learn that I am Yahweh. I will
display my holiness for your sake before their eyes because my
reputation's at stake."
In this beautiful chapter we see God announcing
he will purify the Israelites. It's an act of love, what we call
steadfast love, covenant love, faithful love, unconditional love.
Call it one-sided love if you will. We can never keep our side
of the covenant so God has to do it for us, urging us towards
cooperation. This is what makes the Bible different from the other
literature of the world. Meritocracythe "frequent-flyer-point"
mentality that says, "I can merit/earn God's love through
my good works"has once and for all been dethroned.
"I shall pour clean water over you, you will
be cleansed," God says in Ezekiel. "I shall cleanse
you of your defilement; you shall be my people, and I will be
your God. I will rescue you, I will summon you, I shall make you
plentiful. I assure you, however, I am doing this for my sake
and not for yours." That's not a put-down. That's a basis
for great hope.
God is saying that, unlike what is usually the case
in human love, God doesn't rely upon people getting it right or
doing it right. Human love depends upon the other. Is that person
worthy? Is he or she attractive? Does that one merit my love?
That's the only way we humans know how to love. We hardly ever
say, "Oh, I love you, you're so ugly." We love because
we find something beautiful that we're attracted to. God's love
is completely different. God's love is not determined by the other.
Pause and consider this carefully: God's love is
determined by God's goodness, and is no way dependent upon us.
God tells us, I am being true to who I am in loving you. If you
want to get God, if you want to pray right, remember these passages
in Ezekiel and say, "O.K., God, you've got to do it. Your
reputation is at stake. You've got to show me your goodness because
I've told the people you're good. You've got to be a Father to
me and I will be a son or daughter to you"and the love
begins. That is the freedom of God's love that Jesus came to proclaim.
COME TO THE BANQUET
Jesus' image for this is the banquet. We hear the
parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22 and in Luke 14. A
king is having a wedding feast for his son and sends out his servants
with invitations. Yet many on his list have excuses, even very
reasonable excuses. One is getting married, another has a deal
on a cow coming in, and so on. (It's not the red-hot sins of passion
that keep people from God. More often it's business as usual.)
Eventually the king implores his servants to search for anyone
who will cometalk them into it! Tell them it's free, tell
them that they don't have to have a ticket. Make sure that my
house is full.
In Matthew's telling there is a highly symbolic
addition, where a guest is thrown out for not wearing a wedding
garment. One way to understand that is the wedding garment of
a ready heart. We need to have an openness and desire for God's
grace. We've got to yearn for it or we will not be ready for it.
Before the parable of the wedding feast, in Luke
14:12, Jesus says when you give a lunch or a dinner don't ask
your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbors, for fear
that they might repay you. Then you'd be back into the meritocracy
game. They might invite you in return out of courtesy.
Jesus is telling his followers: Get out of the worthiness
game entirely. When you have a party invite the poor, the crippled,
the lame, the blind so that they cannot pay you back. This will
mean you are fortunate. We see it at the wedding feast at Cana
in John's Gospel and we see it at the Last Supper. In the Gospels,
the banquet is a wonderful symbol of God's free and unconditional
lovea love that is often ignored or rejected.
It's still hard for us to believe. God is trying
to give away God. And no one wants God. We seem to prefer the
worthiness system, where we earn what we get. But that's not God's
MARY SHOWS US THE WAY
Christians can look to Mary for guidance on how
to accept the invitation. She received the gift perfectly. Perhaps
the men of the Bible were too proud? Mary realizes in her personhood
the whole mystery. She does it right, she does it simply, she
does it cleanly and trustfully and perfectly.
When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary God's plans
for her, he says, "Hail, Mary, full of grace." This
of course has become a central Christian prayer. We should listen
to these words very carefully. The words after the "Hi!"
(Hail), mean "you who are as favored as you can possibly
be favored." Our translation fails to grasp the power of
Favor is something that is given to you from another.
It's not saying something about Mary, it's saying something about
God's chosenness and election of Mary. That's what she received.
We call it full of graceone who is the absolutely perfect
receiver. She receives without questioning, without the worthiness
or meritocracy game: "Just let it be done unto me."
Yes, she is worried about not being married and
says so. But when she hears God's loving acceptance of her, she
sets her worry aside. She lets go and trusts God. She doesn't
bring up questions of buying and selling. She forgets about worthiness
and unworthiness. That's why she is full of grace.
She shows us what her son grew up to tell the world:
that God's favor is free, that God sets a banquet for everyone.
We have only to accept the invitation.