i’ve written similar things to this before, i know it – there’s a phrase that reverberates through my head from time to time, and it goes like this:
“when will i (she/he/they) get what i (she/he/they) deserve(s)?”
perhaps the most harsh sentiment in my theology is that we deserve absolutely nothing – cause we really aren’t that good. and i stand by that theology, but i think Jesus lived it out/demonstrated this truth in a much subtler way.
in Luke chapter 7, you can find the story of a Roman centurion who had a sick and dying servant. the centurion sends some of his people to go find Jesus and bring Him to the house to heal the servant, presumably because he caught wind of what Jesus is capable of. his representatives make the case for why Jesus should heal the servant – they appeal to his merit. they tell Jesus, “he is worthy to have you do this for him. he (a Roman) loves our (the Jews) nation and he even built our synagogue.” so Jesus heads off to the centurion’s house, and then as He’s approaching, the centurion sends more people out to say, “actually, i’m not really worthy to have You come inside, and i know that You can just say the word and he’ll be healed.” Jesus is amazed by this guy’s faith, and then when the centurion’s people come back to the house, they find the servant healed.
now, i know that there’s other stuff here that could be taken apart – i think that a lot of folks when they read this focus on what this passage says about Jesus’ authority, and i think there’s some wondering that could be done about whether or not the centurion is avoiding having Jesus in his house or why Jesus didn’t go anyway. but for the time being, what i find arresting about this passage is the way people think about worthiness.
see, the Jews that the centurion sent were appealing to Jesus’ love for Israel and for Judaism. they told Jesus that the reason He should help the centurion is because he treated the Jews well – in other words, “throw this guy a bone, Jesus. he’s not one of us, but he likes us okay, so he deserves something from you.” and at first, it might look like that’s why Jesus came to him. but then he (the centurion) has some second thoughts and says, “actually, i don’t deserve You. You’re the son of God and i don’t deserve You in my house – i know You can help me and if You say the word, it’ll happen – so i’m okay with it if You just say the word.”
i wonder if that’s the faith that Jesus was astonished at – not that the centurion was confident in what Jesus could do, but that the centurion knew who he was and knew who Jesus was.
a few verses later, we read about Jesus healing a woman’s dead son, all because He had compassion on her. now, i don’t have a whole lot to say today, but i think that those stories in that sequence say a lot about Jesus’ motivations toward us. God doesn’t do much for us based on merit. why do you think that is?
i wonder if it’s because “merit” is such a human term – and we use such human parameters to determine is. are you more deserving if you’ve worked hard and you’re rich, or if you’ve worked hard and can’t catch a break and you’re poor? does God help those who help themselves or does God help those who can’t help themselves? does God move on our behalf when we do what we can to lay the groundwork, or does God work miracles on our behalf when we do nothing but step out in faith? what exactly does God reward?
meritology (to coin a new phrase) is hard if not impossible to break down. and it’s hard because we have to look at the position of the heart and that’s really, really hard for us to do. the story of the woman tithing two gold coins comes to mind, for whatever reason. i think this gives us great insight into the way Jesus thinks. if you don’t recall, there is a story of Jesus in Luke 21 in which He points out that a widow, who only gave two coins to the temple treasury, gave more than all the rich people who were dropping in coins by the hundreds. why? because she gave out of her poverty, Jesus said – while everyone else was giving out of their riches. in other words, she gave more (i interpret with trepidation) because she gave until it hurt. she gave all she had. now, i think that we still have to be careful in how we read this, because i think there’s something to be said for godly people being wealthy. i think money is a tool in this world, and who better to have that tool than God’s people? there’s a lot of theology to unpack about money (and such has been the plate off of which i’m eating lately) but i don’t want to get into the situations of others, but i’ll tell you a story i’ve experienced.
in the last two weeks, i’ve been blessed with a new (to me) car. it’s still over ten years old, but all the repairs are up to date, it’ll get me around for a few years, and it’s such an upgrade on my old car. my old car has a laundry list of cosmetic damage, it was functional but not necessarily reliable, and i drove around town every day hoping that wasn’t the day that the brake fluid was going to leak again. this new car has already afforded me two trips outside of Lexington (something i was getting used to not happening) and has been nothing but a joy to drive.
i have paid $0 for it, and to my knowledge, i will only pay $0 for it. it was a gift.
now, let me tell you what i’m tempted to think. i’m really tempted to think that this is God rewarding a new way of thinking. i’m tempted to think that because i buckled down on saving well and spending well, that God is smiling on my efforts and honoring that. i’m tempted to think that God’s throwing me a bone because of something i did – because of serving the church or something like that. i really, really want to think i did something to deserve this car.
but i realize – and this realization is a mercy, not a credit to me – that the second i start thinking like that, my theology will be off center and simply wrong. i cannot afford to have a meritocratic theology, because that will be my doom and undoing. because just as soon as i get into bad habits or make a mistake, i would then deserve something bad, no? if i did or do anything to warrant God’s blessing, then i can do or undo things to un-warrant it.
that’s why grace is beautiful.
and i’m not just talking about material stuff here – a regret i have about this blog is that it’s had a lot to do with money and materials lately – i’m talking grace in general. i’m talking God’s very acceptance of us and desire to move on our behalf, beginning with the cross. to go back to an earlier point, Jesus healed the woman’s dead son because He had compassion on her. and He does this multiple times throughout the gospel – He has compassion, and He acts. the most famous verse in the Bible – John 3:16 – shows this too. God so loved that He gave. if you take nothing else away, take this:
God decides, so He does.
you don’t do so that God does for you. God doesn’t respond to our actions or our inactions. it is dangerous to interpret God’s action on our behalf as a reward for an action, a new habit, or a new way of thinking. (i will add, as a quick aside, that sometimes changes in habits or lines of thinking result in a healthier life, and this is a good thing, but it is still dangerous to conflate natural consequence with God’s blessing.)
God makes up His own mind. we can’t manipulate Him or convince Him into or out of anything. Jesus’ compassion on you is your merit. it’s His own choice and His own action, and there’s nothing we can do about it save to just take it in and be grateful.