Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Scandal of Grace

Another bit from Capon. . .  His point is that grace is still scandal to us and we feel instinctively more comfortable with the law.  Who can argue that?  His questions are pointed.  Why do we pay more attention to the prodigal's confession or the elder son's resentment than we do the waiting father's love?  Why do we pay more attention to the inequity of those who worked from dawn till dusk and the late comers to the vineyard who all received the same wage instead of the generosity of the vineyard owner?  Why?  Because we identity with the law and not with grace.  Grace is a scandal to our mind.  We constantly look in Jesus' parables for something that would justify the grace shown or merit the mercy given.  So the confession of the prodigal makes it understandable why the father welcomes him and frames the bitterness of the elder brother.  So we rationalize away the grace of God has less than justice but still better than nothing -- as if God were fair with some and generous with others.

Capon reminds us that parables are not teaching devices meant to help us imitate God but rather a means to show to us the scandal of grace.  We are not supposed to moralize the prodigal son story so that we all become more like the waiting father.  We are meant to stand in shock and awe of such love, such forgiveness, and such raw grace -- unearned, unmerited, and undeserved.  In the face of such grace, we can only admit that we are unworthy.

Our problem with the parables is that we insist upon putting ourselves into the story and moralizing the story so that it has more to do with us than it has to do with the scandalous grace of God.  We are not to learn how to forgive as the waiting father forgave or how to be fair to some and generous to others who need more as we assume the vineyard owner was.  We are meant to scratch our heads and confess this is not reasonable, it is not moral, and it is not comprehensible -- it is grace.  Grace cannot be understood or explained -- only accepted and this is why the Spirit must unlock the heart to the wonderful grace that it may be a comfort to the heeart even as it is also a scandal to our reason.  We are not given to say "now I get it" but simply "Amen" to the grace Jesus shows to us.

In another place Capon asks why Jesus insisted upon healing the man on the Sabbath (Matthew 12).  After all, it was a second slap in the face of the law and the Pharisees.  Jesus had already harvested and eaten on the Sabbath.  The man in question had know the misery of his withered hand for years.  It was not life threatening.  It was not urgent.  What was the big deal in waiting until sunset?  Capon points us to see that if Jesus had waited, the Pharisees would have seen and understood the healing as a good dead occasioned by and the fulfillment of the commandments.  It would have been approved in their eyes as a moral act and shown Jesus to be a moral teacher.  That is not what Jesus wanted.

Jesus offended the Pharisees because His act of healing trumps the law and grace trumps the law every time. The scandal was not the scandal of the broken law but of grace -- how could you argue that this healing was good and yet why would God give it on the Sabbath and break a history of understandings about what the law said and required?  Because Jesus was not acting as an agent of the law but of grace -- the scandalous kind.

The same can be said of the analogy of the old wine and the new wine.  New wine is not smooth and mellow but pungent and sharp.  It is not the predictable flavor imparted slowly, over time, but the raw taste of something new and shocking.  New wine is volatile and still fermenting while the old wine is done -- it is waiting only to be drunk up and finished.  These are characterizations of law and gospel according to Capon.  Jesus proves to be the volatile and pungent taste of grace -- the new wine which is scandal and surprise.  If He had healed after sunset, Jesus would have been identified with the old wine of the law which Jesus was not here to bring.

Yes, there is much in Capon to make you think.  His writing is as raw and unpredictable as the grace he describes.  This is not the kind of stuff where you read and say yes to everything (it is not doctrinally pure or morally comfortable) but it sure opens some doors to your mind and gives us a powerful appreciation of the scandal of grace.


Anonymous said...

No. simply “Amen” is not enough, not even “Hallelujah” or forty “Hallelujahs” as in the most joyous of Eastern Orthodox services.

I suspect that this understanding of “Grace” is what Dr. Martin Luther had in mind when, just before meeting His Lord, he wrote, “We are beggars.” Certainly he did not believe that, like beggars, we have to constantly beg and grovel to obtain God’s favor. I suspect that he meant that like beggars, we simply do not have anything to offer God, and to pretend that we do is a grasping for the law. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Thank you, Rev. Peters.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Since I plan to steal your work, I want to make sure it's fully correct and complete:

Grace cannot be understood or explained -- only accepted and this is why the Spirit.

Is there an ending missing? Maybe "...why the Spirit is needed." Or "...helps us." Or ...?

I'd like to print this in our parish newsletter, with your permission, of course. Just kidding about stealing it.

Pastor Peters said...

I checked the draft and put the missing end of the sentence in... how strange it is that I read these over and somehow miss some of the obvious errors... thanks

Rev. Jon Micheel said...

Good thoughts. I read "Between Noon and Three" several years ago and had much the same reaction. Refreshing to hear an author so vividly proclaim grace, which is a shock to the system: "What?! How can God operate like that?"

Now, some of Capon's writing goes too far, and he dances on the line of universalism, or crosses it. Yet I still appreciate his willingness to let grace be grace, as scandalous as it is. I hear my own people sometimes wanting to qualify grace: "Yes, God forgives freely... all you have to do is ask for his forgiveness." Aagh! Let God forgive just because he wants to forgive.

Have you read Capon's "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus"?