[Repost] Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

[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.

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“A Wretch Like Me”?

Grace. Philip Yancey called it “the last best word”. As Christians we sing about it, rest on it, depend on it. Getting the good things of God that we don’t deserve.

But it occurs to me that sometimes the way we preach about it and proclaim it is kind of dysfunctional.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me” is true, from a certain perspective. All our righteousness is like filthy rags. We fallen human beings aren’t capable of achieving the righteousness God is looking for on our own. Sin gets in the way. We’re saved by grace, not because of anything we’ve done. Alongside God’s righteousness, even the best unaided human is, well, “a wretch” isn’t too far off.

But I think sometimes we go just a beat or two too far with it. It becomes “you are junk, but God loves you anyway”. God is willing to pay an incredible, ludicrously high price, for junk. Because He loves us.

But we’re still junk.

On Sunday I heard an interesting message about God’s grace depicted in the story of King David and Mephibosheth. It was a pretty good message, but it definitely did this.

For those of you less familiar with the story, after King David’s kingdom was established, he called in his servants and asked them if there was anyone left from Saul’s family to whom he might show kindness, for Jonathan’s sake. Saul’s son Jonathan was his best friend, not sharing his father’s enmity to David. And David, for his part, never seems to have hated Saul the way Saul hated him, consistently refusing to take his life even when given the opportunity on a silver platter.

His servant Ziba, who had once been one of Saul’s retainers, tells him that there’s one of Jonathan’s sons still alive, a man crippled in both feet by the name of Mephibosheth.

David brings Mephibosheth to his palace. Mephibosheth comes, probably fearing for his life – after all, he is the last descendent of David’s enemy Saul.

“Don’t be afraid!” David tells him, saying that he intend to show kindness to him on account of Jonathan. He gives him all the property that once belonged to Saul’s family, instructs Saul’s servants to work the land for him, and invites Mephibosheth the cripple to eat at the king’s table.

“What is your servant, that you take notice of a dead dog like me?” is Mephibosheth’s response.

So often, we seem to want to let this response stand. Mephibosheth’s story is a picture of God’s grace to the undeserving. King David is the picture of God, and we are Mephibosheth. And we still think we’re a dead dog and that there’s no earthly reason why any sane God should love us and show favour to us.

Jesus died for you, with all of your mess and chaos. No matter how messed-up you are, He loves you and died for you.

You’re junk, but God is willing to show you favour anyway. Even die for you. For junk.

No!

God is omniscient. We focus a lot on His omnipresence – His nearness and with-us-ness and care for us – or His omnipotence – His power and might, the One who made the starry universe almost as an afterthought – and omniscience is a sort of poor relation that just rounds out the three but doesn’t really mean much.

But His omniscience is the foundation of many of His attributes, so when we downgrade it we’re in danger of doing violence to His character. In this case, what it means is that He sees truly. He knows all things, so He knows exactly what anything is truly worth. There are no smokescreens or marketing ploys that can deceive Him.

So if He says I’m worth the ludicrous price He paid, then that is really what I’m worth. God is not insane; He doesn’t die for junk. He knows better than we what we’re worth.

Mephibosheth is indeed a lot like us, and King David in this story does behave like God. But we’re missing the point if we think Mephibosheth’s own judgment of his value is accurate.

The first thing that needs to be brought out of this story is not actually in the story at all, but predates it. When Jonathan was the King’s son and David merely the young warrior who killed Goliath, David and Jonathan made a covenant. A covenant is like a promise, in this case a promise of friendship, but in Old Testament Hebrew culture covenants were inherited. By looking for a descendent of Saul to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake, what David is doing is exhibiting God’s character trait of Covenant faithfulness.

Similarly, God made covenants with human beings. Specifically with Israel, but study of the Scriptures can show that it was always His intention that that covenant relationship not be exclusive – that the Gentile nations would be grafted in to the same covenantal root. God shows kindness because of that covenant, which is why Abraham and Moses can both talk Him down out of destroying sinners. They appeal not only to His mercy, but also to His Covenantal faithfulness. This is also why we can rely on His grace and mercy today. If it were just like a human feeling, it might evaporate tomorrow, but He has promised to show mercy and grace. It’s who He is; He cannot turn His back on His own nature.

The second thing I want to bring out is Mephibosheth’s situation.

Cripples in Bible times were looked down on. Most cultures excluded them; they couldn’t fight or plough or do much of anything. Even the descendent of a king might be reduced to beggarhood. In a society in which good physical circumstances were seen as evidence and result of Divine blessing, a man crippled in both feet would be looked at as under God’s curse.

Worse, Mephibosheth’s family had been fighting against the current king. It seems like all the other descendents of King Saul had died fighting David. Mephibosheth was the last one left, maybe surviving only because no-one thought he was important enough to be worth killing.

He has, however, apparently had all or most of his property taken from him. He wasn’t able enough to stop people from taking his stuff, and with the King being the enemy of his family, no-one else was going to stand up for him either.

His response to David’s kindness shows what he thought of himself and his situation: “What is your servant, that you notice a dead dog like me?”

A dead dog. An animal doubly unclean – it’s a dog, for a start, but it’s also a corpse. “I’m junk. Worthless. Why are you doing this?”

How like our response to God sometimes!

And we think it’s the proper response!

“I’m junk. Messed up. Crippled by sin, and I’ve been Your enemy. I’m worthless. Why would You die for me?”

“Because I love you” is true, but not as helpful as we like to pretend. Because “because I love you” doesn’t address the issue of our value. I’m still junk, but God happens to like junk and is willing to pay a high price for it.

Tosh.

The real response of God to our junk self-image is not “I love you anyway” but “you aren’t junk”!

Trust Me. I know all things. I know what you’re really worth. I don’t lie. If I say you’re worth the price I paid for you – that is your true value!

The third thing I want to bring out is what King David does for him. What Sunday’s message focused on was that David brought him into his palace to eat at his table. It’s a picture of God bringing us into fellowship with Him. We eat at His table, in His presence from here on.

But it’s not the only thing David does for Mephibosheth. It’s not even the main thing; in fact, without the other, Mephibosheth is left in the position we often think of ourselves in. I’m at God’s table, in fellowship with Him, for some bizarre nonsensical reason, because I’m a dead dog.

No, what David does first is to restore Mephibosheth’s dignity and value. He restores his property. By Old Testament inheritance law – encoded in the Law of God – as the sole surviving descendent, all the property that belonged to Saul was rightly Mephibosheth’s. He didn’t have it, because people had stolen it from him and he hadn’t been able to stop them. But it ought to have been his.

David’s first response to Mephibosheth is to give him back his own. This doesn’t say “you’re junk, and the only way you’ll amount to anything is because I’m going to feed you”. It’s not “you’re worthless, so I have to give you stuff for you to have anything”. It’s not patronising charity, it’s a hand up. Here is what belongs to you. You are a valued human being and ought not to have been stolen from like that. You can’t get it back on your own, and you have no-one else to fight for justice on your behalf, so I will provide you with justice. You are valuable, valued, worth it.

Here are the servants you should have had all along. They will take care of the land for you.

This is also what God does for us. As fallen human beings, we’re in Mephibosheth’s shoes. The devil has stolen from us all the stuff that God intended for us to have – joy, peace, dignity, value, integrity. Relationship with the Father. Ability to walk in righteousness. The prosperity of our souls. We weren’t strong enough to stop him, didn’t understand what was happening, couldn’t or wouldn’t fight it. Fell for his lies. Whatever. And with God our enemy because of sin, there was no-one on earth who could or would plead our case in the heavenly courts.

What God offers is ourselves back. Here are all the things you ought to have had, but for sin. It’s a restoration of our dignity and a flat contradiction of the lie that we are actually junk that God just happens to love.

Being brought to the King’s table is just the icing on the cake. Without the other, Mephibosheth is right about his value. But King David isn’t seeing junk. He sees a son of Jonathan, the inheritor of his covenant. Son of kings.

And this is who we are! Sons of the King by creation, through Adam. Inheritors of the covenants made by God to all mankind through Adam and Noah. Valued. Worthwhile.

Like with Mephibosheth, the devil has stolen our perception of our value right along with everything else. We think we’re dead dogs, and get utterly amazed that God would pay that high a price for us. We’re so convinced we’re junk that it sometimes feels wrong of God to do that.

But God is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows the real value of everything.

And if He says that what I’m worth is Jesus dying on the cross, that is really what I’m worth! He’s not lying to make us feel better. Not trying to butter us up – why should He? Anyway, He doesn’t lie. He’s not paying a ridiculous price to give us value, but to affirm our value.

I’m not a dead dog. Really!