[This is a repost of an earlier blog post. It seemed appropriate to Good Friday]
There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.
We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.
Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.
It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.
But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.
Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.
It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.
Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.
Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.
Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).
Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.
Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.
Not so the Son of Man.
He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.
But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!
“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.
I’m not worth this.
What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?
Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.
From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.
Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).
You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.
God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?
God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.
It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.
Grace. The free gift of the King.