In his great work The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins by writing about the problem of cheap grace. Cheap grace, he writes, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices.” Throughout the years I’ve heard some people claim that the notion that there is a thing as cheap grace is wrongheaded because grace is free on account of Jesus’ death on the Cross. While I understand the concern of turning God’s grace into something that is to be earned I think Bonhoeffer’s words are particularly poignant for us today. I say this because of the things I’ve read from people associated with the now defunct pastor Tullian Tchividjian who pushed a message of “inexhaustible grace for an exhausted world”. To be sure, the emphasis on God’s grace is utterly important, but it is not simply about comfort, it is not simply about getting off scot-free. God’s grace leads us somewhere, to uncomfortable places, that is, places we’d rather not go. Jesus calls us to destroy our lives for his name’s sake which is rather unnerving. The call to follow Jesus goes beyond our inner existentialist crisis, it goes beyond our feelings of guilt. Hidden behind such things may lie a benign narcissism.
We all can recognize that Lutheranism has wonderful things to offer the law saturated evangelical world of American Christianity but reducing everything to the simple “comfort”of Jesus can also prove to be problematic. As Bonhoeffer sarcastically writes, “Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace-for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of grace!” What happens is there ends up being a huge gap between believing and doing when in all actuality they are deeply intertwined. Thus, Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it” or the words of his brother James, “faith without works is dead”. It’s in this line of thinking that one can begin to understand celebrity pastors being able to justify their sins while serving as pastors. Inexhaustible grace for everyone, including myself. One wonders, though, if this just becomes an easy way out for the narcissistic personality and/or abusive personality. Comfort becomes the goal, the god. Jesus died for me, I’m good, now let’s sin boldly in the name of the Gospel.
This brings me to something that I read from former NYU professor of Religious Education Gabriel Moran this past week for class. In his book Showing How: The Act of Teaching he writes: “A culture intent on making people feel good is a comfortable place for the rich but a hopeless place for the poor and the dispossessed…There is nothing bad about feeling good. It becomes bad only when individuals become obsessed with feeling good to the undoing of their own best selves and to the obscuring of severe injustices that support a feel-good culture.”
If comfort is the goal, even for Christians, then the very texts that we hold to will be read improperly and wrongly. Such words are important for American Christians to absorb given our first world biases. In such a context, Jesus is turned into a Docetic Jesus who, while being acknowledged as a human being, is mostly understood in very divine ways and images. Therefore, the gospels are read in an incredibly one-dimensional fashion without any sense for the historical, cultural and socio-political realities of the time. Healings are simply seen as that; healings. Jesus heals on the Sabbath because he’s God and he can do that rather than for the purposes of making a deeper point about the Law through an act of civil disobedience. Jesus feeds the five thousand to signify a Eucharistic event not to reveal the economy of the Kingdom where all have their fill and what they need. Jesus forgives the “sins” of the paralytic because he was so burdened by his “sins” not because the debt system was an unjust system that took advantage of such persons. Do you see the contrast? This fails to understand the deepness of sin, of evil and its causes. A great caricature of this is captured in the overly simplistic characteristic of the Pharisees as the self-righteous boogie men who hate Jesus because he freely loves people. The gospels are all about Jesus’ justification of the sinner. That’s somewhat true but not the whole picture.
When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue it’s about much more than exorcism as we understand it today. The location, what is said, how things play out, all reveal that Jesus is embarking on a ministry that will free people from the powers that be and call them to a new way of life. These powers manifest themselves in traditions, teachings, social systems that resist God’s ways, that hurt people and keep them in bondage. Jesus calls us to leave these things behind, to change our minds, to begin with new wineskins. Grace is free yet costly, and not only for Jesus, but for us as well. It’s one thing to follow Jesus around Galilee with a sword on one’s side, it’s another thing to be restored by Jesus like Peter and to refuse to bear the sword ever again, to refuse to fight with friends and relatives for the honor and sake of the Temple. It’s one thing to be healed of one’s blindness, it’s another thing to lose one’s source of income and begin anew with the gift of sight trusting in Jesus for all. It’s one thing to have salvation brought to one’s house, it’s another thing to make restitution for all the wrong committed through monetary means. Do you see the deeper dimensions at play here? With healing, with forgiveness, with restoration comes the call to follow Jesus which results in concrete action. Of course, Jesus calls the unlikely and the scandalous but they leave those behaviors behind, albeit with great struggle and continual struggle. The call of Jesus, while comforting, creates an incredibly unsettling world that moves beyond the needed comfort of assurance. The Gospel calls for new wine in new wineskins not new wine in old wineskins.
My point is that the gospels ought to make us uncomfortable, continually (I know, you probably think I’m a glutton for punishment). If they are not then we may not be reading them correctly. Not everything can be boiled down to the simplistic understanding of the rich man seeking to justify himself before Jesus. Such a story is about way more than law and gospel or self-righteousness and God’s righteousness. The rich man is confident because he’s rich which according to the traditions of the day meant that he had God’s favor. Jesus throws that out the window understanding that he probably attained his wealth through unjust means (‘do not defraud’ insertion earlier). This is why the disciples are astonished. Jesus is throwing their cultural understandings upside down by telling the man to redistribute his wealth which is what we see Zaccheaus do. How does this not make us first world Christians uncomfortable? And that’s probably a good thing. (I’m probably scaring some of my faithful Lutherans out there with such a take on this story but bear with me as I have a source. It’s right here, check it out, amazing stuff.)
As Paul Tillich once wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”