Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Did Jesus Have to Die for Our Sins?

This morning we continue our sermon series Questions from the Floor. All of our sermons this summer are based on questions that you submitted. Today’s question is "Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why didn’t God just love us enough to forgive us without Jesus having to die?"

At the beginning I need to acknowledge my reliance on two sources. The first is a chapter from a book by the late Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., who taught theology at Columbia Seminary in Georgia and whose book Christian Doctrine generations of Presbyterian ministers have used to cram for their theology ordination exam.

The second source is a book by my college classmate Tony Jones, which is entitled Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution.

Imagine the Scene. 

A young boy goes to a revival meeting. He had grown up in a Christian home and in the church, but he heard something that night he had never heard before.

The preacher held up a dirty glass. “See this glass? That’s you. Filthy, stained with sin, inside and outside.” He picked up a hammer. “This hammer is the righteousness of God. It is the instrument of God’s wrath against sinners. God’s justice can be satisfied only by punishing and destroying people whose lives are filled with vileness and corruption.”

The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately drew back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall.

 But a miracle happened!
At the last moment he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other.

Then the preacher said, “Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe in him.”

When the boy went to bed that night, he could not sleep. Meditating on what he had seen and heard, he decided that he was terribly afraid of God. But could he love such a God? He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him. But how could he love a God who wanted to “get” everyone and was only kept from doing it because Jesus got in the way? The thought crossed the boy’s mind that he could only hate such a hammer-swinging God who had to be bought off at such a terrible price. But he quickly dismissed the thought. That very God might read his mind and punish him. (Illustration from Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, 250-251).

The question for us this morning is can we think about the atonement in such a way that helps us to love both God and Jesus? Can we think about what happened on Calvary long ago in a way that makes it clear that God is for us and not against us?

Listen again to the two scripture readings that were shared this morning. From Romans 5, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And from First John 4, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

It’s about Love. Love Wins. And God is the one who loves us, and God loves us every bit as much as Jesus loves us. Whatever theory best helps you understand the atonement, make sure that it enables you to sense and experience the love of God.

According to Shirley Guthrie there are at least four main perspectives that emerge from the New Testament to interpret the meaning of the death of Jesus.
The first is redemption. This is the financial image. Imagine a slave market. People have lost their freedom and are being sold into slavery. But someone steps forward and pays the ransom, the price for the purchase of all the slaves. The price is high. His life for ours. But Jesus on the cross pays the price of our redemption and sets us free.
The second perspective draws upon the imagery of war. Jesus is the liberator. A terrible cosmic battle is being waged between God and Satan. Satan has stolen humanity from the Kingdom of God and carried it to the kingdom of darkness. At the cross, the devil takes the prisoner, Jesus, captive and wins the battle of death for but a moment. But on Easter morning, Jesus the prisoner becomes Jesus the liberator and wins the final victory delivering humanity from death to life.
The third explanation of the cross has to do with sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Humanity stands guilty before God, deserving of punishment. There is no hope except that the sins be assuaged. But a priest comes forward and serves as the mediator between heaven and earth. The priest makes a sacrifice to atone for the people’s sin. Blood is shed. The lamb is slain, reconciling humanity to God.
And the last of the perspectives comes from the language of the courtroom. God is a righteous judge, who sits behind the bench, with humanity standing in the dock as the accused. The facts are placed in evidence. The defendants are found guilty, and all receive the same sentence: death. 
But a righteous and good person comes forward and offers himself as a substitute for the guilty, taking their punishment to himself even though he has done nothing wrong.

Whichever perspective resonates with us the most, we should make sure that we interpret each of these images in a way that makes it clear that God loves us just as much as Jesus loves us and in a way that makes it clear that God is for us and not against us.

For example, the financial model does not mean that God is bought off by Jesus.
It means that we are purchased for God. God purchases for us the gift of a new life, much like the bishop in Les Miserables gives to Jean Valjean as a gift the very silver that Jean Valjean had tried to steal from the bishop. And the Bishop tells Jean Valjean to use the gift of the silver to make for himself a new life. “I have bought your life for God,” the bishop tells him.

Likewise, with the sacrificial image, we should interpret that image in such a way that God is for us and not against us. In the ancient world, many people believed that when the gods were angry at humanity, the gods had to appeased with sacrifice. But what if it’s not God that needs to be appeased, but it’s humanity that needs to see and understand that violence only begets violence and that violence is never redemptive?

RenĂ© Girard studied and taught world religions and ancient myths. He later converted to Christianity largely because of the theology of the cross. My college classmate Tony Jones summarizes Girard’s view in this way: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our systems of rivalry, sacrifice, and violence. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that these systems are bankrupt, that they do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus, as the ultimate innocent victim, is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise of sacrifice. (from Tony Jones, Did God Kill Jesus?Looking for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution, New York: HarperOne, 2015. See especially chapter 16.)

Girard draws upon the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers try to kill him but decide to sell him into slavery instead. Joseph eventually rises from a slave to being second in power only to the Pharaoh. Many years later, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt because there is famine in their land, Joseph does not seek revenge against his brothers. He does toy with them for several chapters, but he doesn’t seek revenge and he doesn’t try to have them killed. Tearfully, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them who he is. And Joseph tells them, what you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Girard’s view of the crucifixion is similar. What humanity intended for evil in killing Jesus, God intended for good. We see an example of this in President Obama’s moving eulogy on Friday for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. In that speech the President reflected on the shooter’s announced motive of hoping to start a race war. The President described that as …

"An act that [the shooter] imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas. (Applause.)

He didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The             alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the allen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn't imagine that. (Applause.)

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life. (Transcript of President Obama’s Eulogy of Rev. Pinckney from, retrieved June 27, 2015).

Truly, what the shooter intended for evil, God redirected for good.

Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God have just forgiven us without Jesus having to die? In the quote that is printed on the cover of your bulletin, Shirley Guthrie responds by saying that God loves us and cares for us too much to dismiss our sin and guilt with a flippant “It doesn’t matter.” God wanted to stand with us in the loneliness and alienation we bring on ourselves when we separate ourselves from God and other people. Because it is just when God comes to our side in our loneliness, alienation, and guilt that they are overcome. (Guthrie, 260).

In his book my college classmate Tony Jones takes this a step further and says that in the cross God identifies with us so completely that when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” that even God suddenly realizes what it is like to feel abandoned by God. (Jones, chapter 19)


And at the end of the day, contemplating the cross is more of a matter of the heart than of the head. And I’m not talking about the emotional manipulation of a preacher who points the finger and says that because of your sin Jesus died a horrific death. No. Instead, I’m talking about journeying to the cross in our hearts with honesty and authenticity. In the words of the old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it makes me want to tremble.” A theory of the atonement is not likely to make us tremble. A journey to the cross will.

I’ve had the good fortune to see the traditional site of the crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but in truth my real journey to the cross took place in a chapel service at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. It was a year after my father had died of pancreatic cancer. My mother was facing her own significant health issues, and I was an only child in my mid-twenties and feeling lonely and more than a little overwhelmed. In the chapel service we sang

                        What Wondrous Love is this, o my soul, o my soul,
                        What wondrous love is this, o my soul
                        What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of Bliss
                        to bear the heavy cross for my soul.

And I had this sense that all the fear, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, brokenness, and all the other heavy things were being borne by Jesus on the cross. And the tears started flowing and they wouldn’t stop.

            --All of you who grieve.
            --All of you who mourn the loss of life or the end of a marriage.
            --All of you who mourn the loss of a dream.
            --All of you who are living with a terminal illness.
            --All of you who deeply regret something that you have done that you wish more                                     than anything that you could undo.
            --All of you who worry about an adult child making his or her way in the world.

Jesus on the cross identifies with you in all of your struggles and even knows what it’s like to cry in desperation, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

God experienced humanity fully in the Cross of Christ. And the hope is this:
that just as God experienced humanity fully in dying a real human death--even a brutal human death--so we, too, can experience new life with God in the resurrection.

As I stood there in the chapel service with tears streaming down my face, those around me sang the third stanza, even as my heart was too full to sing myself. Those around me sang

                        And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
                        and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on
                        And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be.
                        And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

                        and through eternity, I’ll sing on.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Do We Mean When We Say "Jesus Saves"? Is Jesus the Only Way?

Sermon preached at Katonah Presbyterian Church

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Texts: Luke 19:1-10; John 14:1-6

Today we continue our sermon series “Questions from the Floor.” Today’s question is What Do We Mean When We Say “Jesus Saves”? Is Jesus the Only Way?

We’ll use the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 to reflect on the first part of the question, and we’ll use Jesus’ monologue in John 14 to reflect on the second part of the question.

First of all, what do we mean when we say, “Jesus Saves?”

A class of seventh graders asked a very similar question in a Confirmation Class. The pastor, Scott Black Johnston, invited the class of twelve to submit questions on 3X5 index cards. Four of the twelve cards came back with some version of the question “Is Jesus the only way to salvation?”

Before the pastor would answer the question, he asked the class, “Well, what do you suppose that Jesus is saving you from?” “Hell” most of them replied in unison. The pastor thought to himself, that’s a good answer, that’s certainly the traditional answer, but he worried that the class responded that way because they thought that hell was supposed to be the right answer.

So, the pastor decided to change tactics with the seventh graders. “Let me put it this way," he said to them, "if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?"  

Suddenly, the conversation got very interesting. One of the youth raised her hand and said, "Death." Another fellow offered that God could really help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test. Then one of the seventh graders said, "Pressure." And another youth said, "My parents' expectations." Then another, shy individual, almost in a whisper said, "Fear.  I want God to save me from my fears." All of these answers struck the pastor as more sincere than "hell."  Although it occurred to him that their comments gave a pretty clear picture of what "hell" looks like to a 7th grader.
 (From a sermon by Scott Black Johnston preached at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, April 5, 2009)

When we hear the word salvation in the Gospels, its meaning is almost as varied as the hopes of a 7th grade confirmation class. The Greek word sozo, to save, can mean everything from rescue or liberate to heal or comfort.

When Jesus announces to Zacchaeus that salvation has come to this house, what do you think Jesus means?

The faithful Jews in the crowd were most likely hoping for liberation from their Roman oppressors. So, how ironic that Jesus turns to a well-known collaborator with the Romans--the chief tax-collector Zacchaeus—and announces that salvation has come to this house!

When we hear the story of Zacchaeus, we hear Jesus promising salvation to Zacchaeus as an individual. Here’s someone who has gotten wealthy by taxing his own people, and when he encounters Jesus, he offers to give away half his possessions to the poor and to repay four times anyone he may have defrauded.

It makes for a great story if Zacchaeus is a greedy tax collector spending his ill-gotten gains on all kinds of vice who suddenly meets Jesus and turns his life around. But the story of Zacchaeus is more complex and nuanced than that. When Zacchaeus promises to give half his goods to the poor, the Greek verb tense is one that connotes present, on-going action. Zacchaeus is actually saying, “I have already and I am giving half my possessions to the poor, and I am already paying back four times anyone I may have defrauded.”

We might say that Zacchaeus is an honorable man doing the best he can in a despised but necessary profession, for which he endures a lot of ostracism from his own people. And when Jesus announces that “salvation has come to this house,” he then addresses the crowd about Zacchaeus and says, “for, he, too, is a child of Abraham.”

It seems to me that Jesus is not only addressing Zacchaeus, but he is also offering salvation to the crowd, promising them salvation from their own prejudice and bitterness even as he offers to Zacchaeus the very salvation and redemption that he needs.

What do we mean when we say Jesus saves? We mean that Jesus comes and gives us what we need the most, because we’re not capable of making it on our own.

One of my favorite writers Frederick Buechner preached a sermon entitled, “The Sign by the Highway.” At the time, during the late 1960s, he was the chaplain of Phillips Exeter Academy, and he did his best to maintain the interest of high school boys who would rather be anyplace else besides the required chapel service. In that sermon Buechner imagines someone driving down the highway who notices a spray-painted “Jesus Saves” on the concrete abutment of a bridge. The driver winces and feels that the graffiti is vaguely embarrassing, evoking too many negative associations with revivalism and fundamentalism. Buechner goes on to say ...

       And maybe, at a deeper level still, Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing, if any part at all of what it is trying to mean gets through, what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved. Rich man, poor man; young man, old man; educated and uneducated; religious and unreligious—the word is in its way an offense to all of them, all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, “You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.” That is an unpardonable thing to say to a man whether it is true or false, but especially if it is true, because there he is, trying so hard to be happy, all of us are, to find some kind of inner peace and all in all maybe not making too bad a job of it considering the odds, so that what could be worse psychologically, humanly, than to say to him what amounts to “You will never make it. You have not and you will not, at least not without help”? (Frederick Buechner, “The Sign by the Highway,” in The Hungering Dark)

Jesus saves, reconciling the tax-collector Zacchaeus with members of the crowd, and offering each one of us the kind of salvation we most need.

The second part of our question this morning asks whether Jesus is the only way.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus bids farewell to his disciples. His death is imminent. He offers them final instructions. He tells them that they know the way, and Thomas immediately rejoins, “No, we do not know where you are going! We do not know the way!” And Jesus responds, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I hear these words as words of assurance. Jesus is reassuring troubled disciples that they have indeed chosen the right path, they have indeed chosen the right teacher, even if that teacher is about to be crucified.

And to me the important distinction is that Jesus says that he is the way. He does NOT say that certain exclusive forms of Christianity are the way; he says that he is the way. And I see Jesus as the human face of the God who is always reaching out to us, always seeking to reconcile humanity to God and to each other.

In our interfaith dialogues with our friends and neighbors, we could simply say something to the effect of “all religions lead us down similar paths,” but then the dialogue would be over and we would not have learned much about each other’s faith traditions at all. Wouldn’t it be a much richer and fuller discussion if Christians were to articulate a distinctly Christian hope for the world even as their Jewish friends talked about the meaning of Shalom and as still other friends expressed the distinctive hopes of their faiths?

To me as a Christian there is a distinctive message of hope as God in Christ reaches out, always seeking to reconcile us to God and to each other. And there is an optimism that this message will be heard, even in places where there is strong resistance. I find this hope expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Sower in Mark 4. Jesus tells a story about a sower who went out to sow. Some seed fell along the path and was eaten by birds. Some seed fell among the rocks and sprang up immediately, but when the sun came it withered because it had no root. Some seed fell among thorns, which soon choked the fledgling plants. And some seed fell onto fertile ground where it had the best chance to flourish. 

Why doesn’t the sower save all the seed for the fertile ground? Why does the sower even bother sowing seed along the path, or among the rocks, or among the thorns? 

Could it be because of a deep, underlying hope that even in those places the word of salvation might take root and grow and flourish?

Last Wednesday night, twelve people gathered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and studied the Parable of the Sower from Mark’s Gospel. They were discussing that very parable when a stranger walked in and asked to join them. They welcomed the stranger with open arms. An hour later the stranger took out a gun and killed nine people in a particularly heinous and racially-motivated hate crime.

One of the many questions that haunts me is whether anything could have been said in the course of that hour that would have changed the shooter’s mind. Did the seed that was sown have any chance of taking root and flourishing amidst the rocky ground and thorns of racial hatred? Yet, they sowed anyway. And when the shooter had a bond hearing, families reached out to the shooter offering forgiveness--not an easy forgiveness that ignores the heinousness of such a horrific hate crime, not an easy forgiveness that excuses us from the difficult work of racial reconciliation--but a forgiveness according to God’s timing offered by the same God of justice and mercy who is forever reaching out, forever sowing seed on the rockiest and least promising of soils.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Prayers for Emanuel AME Church and for All of Us

I am hard-pressed for words this morning in the wake of the terrible news from Charleston, South Carolina. Pictured above is the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine people lost their lives in a mass shooting while they had been engaged in a Bible Study. It's likely that they had welcomed the shooter to the Bible Study with open arms and that the shooter even sat down for a while before commencing the shooting.

The late Jack Stott, a former president of Austin Presbyterian Seminary, offered the following thoughts in the weeks following 9/11, and I find his words helpful today ....

"No matter how dark and widespread the shadows of death, God is with us. To guide us. To comfort us. . . . And to point us to the day when all sit at table together, when former enemies become friends, when abundance overflows and covers the earth. We are bearers of a dream, a vision that refuses to be distorted by hatred, anger, and fear; a dream of forgiveness, love, and righteousness."

May such a vision give us courage to work for racial reconciliation as we have never worked before.

Questions from the Floor

This summer we are beginning a new sermon series at Katonah Presbyterian Church. A few weeks ago we asked worshippers to submit questions that they would like to see addressed in the Sunday sermon. These sermons will be preached on Sundays during the Summer, and they will also be published here on this blog, so that an online conversation can take place for those who are traveling and away and unable to attend worship as well as for anyone else who would like to take part.

Stay tuned ......

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reflections on Noah, Getting Ready to Journey with Abraham and Sarah

Thank you again for your participation in our journey to read through the entire Bible in 2014.

For Week Three (Monday, January 13th through Saturday, January 18th), please read the following:

Genesis, chapters 12 through chapter 25, verse 11.  These chapters tell the story of the Life and Journey of Abraham and Sarah.

How do Abraham and Sarah react when they are told that they will have a son?  
What does the name "Isaac" or "Yitzak" mean in Hebrew?
Would you characterize the faith of Abraham and Sarah more as a noun or as a verb?

Last week we read Genesis 4-11 and Psalm 69:

Here's a trivia question based on last week's reading.  Where in the Flood narrative does it state how the people made fun of Noah for building the ark?  

.... That is something of a trick question, because that detail isn't explicitly mentioned in Genesis but is hinted at in New Testament accounts about the "Days of Noah."  (See Matthew 24:36-39 and Luke 17:26-27).  As we read through the Bible this year, we will see how later biblical writers reflect upon and build upon the earlier stories.

Did you notice that in the entire account of the Flood, God speaks several times, but Noah doesn't speak at all.  Instead, the book of Genesis simply notes that "Noah did as God commanded him."  When Noah does finally speak directly near the end of chapter nine, it is regarding a mysterious incident with his grandson Canaan and not in direct response to something that God has said.  

Still, in the entire account of the Flood narrative, the primary actor is God.  In other ancient accounts of a Great Flood, including "the Epic of Gilgamesh," the Flood is a result of infighting among the gods with humanity caught in the middle.  In contrast, the Genesis account focuses on the actions of one God, describing the broken heart of the Creator and the Creator's subsequent promise not to flood the earth again.  

Psalm 69 on a first reading may have seemed like something that might have been expressed by a victim of the Great Flood. Traditionally, the 69th Psalm, after the 22nd Psalm, has been one of the Psalms most often interpreted by Christians to be a reminder of Jesus' sufferings during the Passion.  I also hear it as a prayer for anyone who might feel flooded or overwhelmed.

Thank you again for joining us on this journey through the Bible.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Reading the Bible in 2014

As you may have read in the January 2014 edition of the Broadcaster, we are inviting members and friends of Westy Pres to join us in reading the entire Bible in 2014.

As Julie Andrews sings in the Sound of Music, "Let's start from the very beginning."  For the first week in 2014, let's read the following texts on Creation:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Genesis 2:4b-3
Job 38-41
Psalm 8
Psalm 104
Proverbs 8:22-31

For each text, ask yourself the following four questions:
1)  What does this text say about God the creator?
2)  What does this text say about the creation itself?
3)  What does this text say about humanity?
4)  What does this text say about humanity's response to God the creator?

Note that we've included six different texts on creation and not just the usual Genesis, chapter one.  Each of these texts will help us answer the four questions in slightly different ways.

One advantage of committing to read through the entire Bible in a year is that it can give us a new appreciation for the witness of the entirety of scripture, and not just the favored passages that we go to again and again.

Please feel free to use the comments section of the blog to post questions or thoughts about each passage.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Standin' In the Need of Prayer

Text:  Luke 18:9-14
A Sermon by Jack Cabaness

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost                                                         October 27, 2013

            There’s a story about a Sunday School teacher who taught the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector to her class, and then, without any apparent self-awareness or sense of irony, ended the class by saying, “All right, children.  Let’s say a prayer, and thank God that we’re not like that Pharisee.”[i]

            It is easier to hear this parable if we pretend that the Pharisee is not like us.  I must confess that I have my own tendency to sugarcoat this parable.  It’s much easier for me to listen to this parable if I imagine that the Pharisee is a real smug, holier-than-thou type,
who is always putting other people down and that the tax collector is basically a good and humble person who only got into the tax collecting business to pay for his wife’s medical bills and to send their oldest child to college.

            But if we want to experience the full impact of this story that Jesus told,
we need to take it straight up, without any sugar.  The truth is that the Pharisee really is a good man.  It’s the Pharisee who pays for his wife’s medical bills and the oldest child’s college tuition and who still faithfully tithes.  It’s the Pharisee who works two jobs to get all the bills paid, and who still fasts during the lunch breaks.

            And it is the tax collector who drives up to the Temple Mount in his stretch limousine, the floor of which is littered with mini bar bottles and other evidence of the previous night’s excessive carousing--all of it, of course, at tax payer expense.[ii]

            What makes this parable difficult to accept, what makes it truly shocking for Jesus to say that the tax collector went home justified but the Pharisee did not, is that the Pharisee really is every bit as good as he claims to be, and that the tax collector really is every bit as bad as he claims to be. 

            We sometimes imagine that the Pharisees were exceedingly legalistic, that for them justification was mostly a matter of good works.  We assume that there wasn’t much room for grace in their theology.  But biblical scholars like E. P. Sanders and others have helped us to understand that those stereotypes weren’t entirely accurate.[iii]

            The Pharisees were careful students of the scriptures.  They could quote chapter and verse out of Deuteronomy, when God is granting Israel the land of Canaan, particularly the part where the Lord says, “Do not say to yourselves, it is because of our righteousness that God is giving us the land to possess.”  (Deuteronomy 9:5ff)  The Pharisees understood themselves to be the chosen people, not because of any inherent goodness on their part, but because of God’s grace.  God had graced their lives so that they might be a blessing to the whole world.  They knew that.  They understood that.

            And so when this Pharisee goes up to the temple to pray, he goes there in a spirit of gratitude.  But at that precise moment, the stretch limousine pulls up to the Temple Mount and out stumbles the tax collector.  The tax collector was the ultimate traitor, someone of Jewish birth who collaborated with Rome to extort money from God’s people.  And the tax collector lived off the excess.

            The Pharisee’s mood darkens.  But then he remembers where he is.  He is standing in the Temple Mount, a powerful symbol of God’s enduring presence.
He may have even recalled a passage of scripture from the prophet Joel:

                        You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord                                     your God—no other exists; never again will my people be put to shame.                                      (Joel 2:27)

The Pharisee takes heart.  That tax collector standing over there, that collaborator with Rome, does not have the ultimate power to put God’s people to shame.  Even though the Pharisee has to work hard for everything he has, while the tax collector lives a life of leisure and ease, there is coming a day when there will be abundant rain and the threshing floor will be full and God’s people will never be put to shame by the likes of that tax collector.  (Joel 2:23-24, 27)

            And so the Pharisee prays, and in his prayer he gives thanks to God.  I imagine the Pharisee casting a sidelong glance at the tax collector and saying essentially, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  The Pharisee is thankful that he has not betrayed those closest to him, and he is especially thankful that, unlike the tax collector, he has not betrayed his entire people.

            I could be wrong in my portrayal of the Pharisee.  After all, the Gospel writer Luke introduced this parable by saying that “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”  (Luke 18:9)  And when the Pharisee prays, he does only pray about himself.  Perhaps he really is smug, arrogant, and self-congratulatory, vainly trying to conceal his self-righteousness by addressing his prayer to God.  Maybe sometimes even when we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” what we really mean is “Dear God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

            But if I listen only to the parable that Jesus told without the benefit of Luke’s introduction, I hear the prayer of a faithful and frustrated man who resents the way that his people have been treated.  I hear the prayer of a man who did almost everything right.  Almost.  What he did wrong was that he presumed to know the limits of God’s grace.  He presumed that he was more entitled, somehow more deserving of God’s grace, than the tax collector.  When the Pharisee casts a sidelong glance at the tax collector and says essentially, “There but for the grace of God go I,” he is saying more than he can possibly know. 

            Many people attribute the saying “There but for the grace of God go I”
to the English Puritan John Bradford.  He was imprisoned in the Tower of London during the reign of Mary Tudor, a.k.a. “Bloody Mary.”  It was a time when many Protestants were being put to death.  John would watch as other prisoners were taken to their death, and he would exclaim, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.”

            But for John Bradford, it was only a matter of timing.  When he said, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” he was not trying to imply that somehow his life was more graced than someone else’s.  He was simply saying that by the grace of God, he, John Bradford, had another day to live.  But eventually came that morning when John Bradford himself was taken out of his cell in the Tower of London to the place of public execution where he would be burned at the stake.[iv]

            If we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” because we are pondering the mysteries of life, that’s one thing.  When I was in college I had a friend who flew on Pam Am Flight #103 the day before the tragic crash over Lockerbie, Scotland.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Even then, I don’t think we want to take that famous saying too literally.  Do we really mean to imply that those who lost their lives in a plane crash were outside the reach of God’s grace, or would we rather affirm with the Apostle Paul that in life and in death we belong to God?  (Romans 14:8)

            And if we are ever tempted to say “There but for the grace of God go I” because somehow we think that we are better than someone else or somehow more deserving of God’s grace than someone else, then we especially need to be careful.  In that case, we haven’t understood what grace means.  Because the moment that we think that we are entitled to grace, then it is no longer grace!

            Our chancel choir sang as their anthem last week the old gospel hymn “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.”
                        It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.
                        Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
                        standin’ in the need of prayer.
            Notice that there is no comparison with the brother or the sister.  The singer does not sing out, “Dear God, I might mess up sometimes, but I’m so thankful that I’m not like my brother.”  That’s not the spirit of the song!!

            The second verse is much like the first:
                        It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.
                        Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord,
                        standin’ in the need of prayer.

            Now, this particular preacher, I’ll tell you, is standing in the need of prayer.  But please don’t presume that I am somehow more in need of prayer than you are, and I won’t presume that about you, either.

            The proper prayer, the proper song, is simply:

                        It’s Me, it’s Me, it’s Me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.

            All glory and praise be to our God.  Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Jack Cabaness, Pastor
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster, Colorado


[i] Fred Craddock, Luke in the Interpretation Commentary Series (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990), 211.

[ii] I’m in debt to the late Robert Farrar Capon for the creative anachronisms.  See Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988, 1996), 179.

[iii] E. P. Sanders makes this argument in his books such as Jesus and Judaism and Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

[iv] Bartlett’s Book of Quotations credits John Bradford with the saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”  I’ve gleaned other facts about Bradford’s life slowly over the years, but I must confess that I also relied on Wikipedia to check my memory.  “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”