THE OUTRAGE OF GRACE
By Don Milam
In Matthew's Gospel account, Mary's pregnancy is described as happening "before they lived together." What an embarrassing statement for an upright man like Joseph! This scandalous
situation immediately threw Joseph into a moral conundrum, an unsolvable circumstance. What would he do?
Should he expose her to the law, which he was committed to with all his heart, or should he find some other way more
in line with the power of his love for her? John Shea calls Jesus the "embryonic troublemaker" because even in the womb Jesus is forcing man to face the issues of law and grace. Right there in Mary's womb He is creating a troubling
situation for the righteous-and the trouble He causes finds its root in the tension between what the law requires and what love demands.
A Troublemaker in Israel
Beginning in the womb of Mary, Jesus would continue to
force men to make choices between the restrictions of legalism and the embrace of love. Will you be content with a spirituality that is derived from your human effort, or will you release yourself into the arms of a loving God? In
Jesus, the Father's love was extending itself, offering a relationship founded on the benevolence of love, not the stringency of the law.
Many chose to accept that invitation, but for the religious rulers it was an offer
they could not accept. In fact, let's be truthful, it is difficult for all of us. It is easier to expect that we must do something to earn this precious grace. I know that though I am reveling in the revelation of unmerited grace,
I still feel the pull of law upon the strings of my soul. Surely, there is something I must do to continue to enjoy the presence of my sweet Lord. Maybe, this really is too easy!
The actions of Jesus were colored with a
mercy unacceptable to the religious. His stories were insulting and offensive to their religious sensibilities. Understanding clearly the moral of His stories, they felt as though He was undressing them in front of the nation. They
wore their religious clothing with great pride and hated Him for leaving them feeling naked. They did not understand that in their nakedness, like Adam, they would be most invincible. Jesus' message of grace and mercy was
unraveling the cords of rules and regulations they had carefully wrapped around God's children. By His every word and action, Jesus repudiated everything they held dear.
Severe laws were harshly enforced against the company
of lepers. They were driven beyond the walls of the city and were forced to announce their coming with cries of "Unclean, unclean." Tax collectors were looked upon as a hateful blight on the Jewish culture; they were viewed as
traitors to the Jewish cause. Women were relegated to the lowly role of servants in the male-dominated society. Publicans became the accepted catch-all term for sinners who transgressed the oppressive laws laid down by the
The spiritual community of Jesus' day had evolved into a caste society set up by the priestly aristocracy to eliminate the accessibility of the "defiled." The brotherhood of rabbis and priests constructed a
wall that kept them safe from contamination by the dregs of the lower classes. (Quoted from The Lost Passions of Jesus)
God's grace has always been a scandal to religious men. Just ask Jonah. Jonah was a good Jew. He
believed with all his soul in the absolutism of the law and in moralism. This spirit of elitism was the foundation of his life. It gave order and definition to his world. He was so glad he was not like others-the heathen. He
considered himself a fire-and-brimstone prophet.
God gave Jonah a mandate to take a message to Nineveh that He was very angry with this people for their great wickedness. This should have been right up Jonah's alley-a
chance to preach about an angry God. But you see, Jonah knew something. He knew that while Jehovah was holy, He was also merciful. So Jonah ran the other way.
God was forced to use extreme measures to get Jonah where He
wanted him-in Nineveh, which was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah despised the Assyrinians. They were the heathen dogs who had swept across Israel pillaging and killing all along the way. They should be judged by God's
wrath for having touched His chosen people. But he had a sneaking feeling that God was just itching to touch these heathen with His love, and cover them with His grace. Jonah wanted nothing to do with this mission. He says:
"Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah was not lacking in spiritual perception. In fact, he was very perceptive. While he personally felt more comfortable with Jehovah, the thundering God, he was aware somewhere deep inside that there was another side to
this One he served.
So this call to Nineveh created quite an internal dilemma for Jonah. He didn't want God to go soft on him and repent of severely judging this people. He wanted Him to wipe them off the face of the earth.
Not daring to run the risk of being an instrument of mercy, he ran. He would rather camp out in the belly of a whale than be that instrument.
Not much has changed since then; mercy is not as palatable to religious men as
judgment. There is a road less traveled, and blessed are those who take that path of mercy. It leads straight to Father's heart.
Tearing Down the Fences of Legalism
The Pharisees had constructed more than 600 laws to
"fence in" the righteous, and would probably have added more if they could have come up with them. Now this religious fence, or should we say palisade, was under direct assault by the man of grace. Nothing Jesus did made any sense
to these religious leaders who defined everything by the Law of Moses. He had certainly upset the apple cart of their whole treasured religious system. They took it personally and wanted nothing more than to be rid of this
troublemaker. They had lived under a schoolmaster of laws, precepts, and rules their whole lives and believed that chaos would reign on earth if this fence were removed.
The religious authorities were paranoid. They
believed this rabble-rouser was deliberately trying to undermine them in the eyes of the people. For instance, the shepherd principle that Jesus taught was in direct contradiction to the concept held by Caiaphas, the high priest.
Caiaphas advocated that it was best that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation should not perish (see John 11:50). (He was simply making a statement of fact as he saw it, but it was really a prophetic word of
Jesus' end.) In the minds of religious zealots every man is expendable in order to preserve the establishment. This principle has gotten a lot of good men killed through the years. Protect the system at all cost. No life is too
precious to be preserved if it threatens the religious hierarchy. This principle was true in Jesus' day, and unfortunately it is still true today.
In stark contrast to this insensitive tenet, the shepherd principle as
taught by Jesus elevates the value of the individual to being of prime importance. He declared that the shepherd-a true shepherd-would leave the flock, the ninety and nine, and go search for that one lost, foolish sheep till it was
found. Because not many of us today tend sheep, we might not realize just what a shock this was to the people of that day. No sane shepherd would endanger his whole flock, leaving them unprotected, for one sheep! On top of all
else, it was bad business sense.
For the Great Shepherd, no man or woman is expendable. Every life is precious beyond words. Yet, incongruously, on a certain level Jesus was in basic agreement with Caiaphas. His own life
was expendable for the good of the many! After all, that was the purpose of His mission on earth. By giving His life, He was going to bring mankind back to the garden, to the tree of life.
Jesus loves us as we are, and not
as we should be, since none of us is as we should be…He offers himself to each of us as a companion for the journey, as a friend who is patient with us, kind, never rude, quick to forgive, and whose love keeps no score of wrongs.
Religious systems and churches often start out with caring for the individual but end up working to preserve their systems and protect their positions. Jesus saw right through their diseased institutions
and identified the malady. The priests and leaders were living off the sheep, not for the sheep. Christ's love compelled Him to expose and do battle against this deeply entrenched system if He could only rescue one soul from its
clutches. He restored the dignity of the individual as He focused on the poor and despised "little ones."
Law and Grace and the Moral Majority
The Pharisees were quite happy that they were not like other men. They
truly believed they were above reproach. They scrupulously kept the letter of the law, seemingly unaware there was a spirit of the law. If God was pleased with anyone, they knew it had to be them. After all, they were religiously
addicted to every jot and tittle of the law. How satisfying to be able to look down from their pinnacle of perfection upon those poor pitiful lesser beings! How they loved the deference paid them. When walking down a crowded
street, people quickly moved out of their way. Entering a restaurant for refreshment, the owner always fawned over them giving them the best table in the house. Basking in the sunlight of the veneration of men, they lived out their
sad, circumspect lives in the dark shadows of legalism. " 'For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men' " (Matt. 6:5).
From the lofty security of
their self-righteousness, they looked at the people as candidates to become their disciples, if found worthy. There was much jockeying among the scribes and Pharisees to have the largest following. They took time for a man if they
thought he would join their "club," but when he was in, he became of little consequence. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you
make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (See Matthew 23:15.) They were committed to growing their sects, and that meant imposing on others the binding regulations they themselves lived under. The imposition of this
moralism upon others had become the albatross around the neck of the Jewish nation. They had become a people whose national identity was one of shame and fear far removed from their "glory day."
Jesus was able to pierce the
cleanliness of their self-righteous facades, disquieting them as He exposed their superficiality and the emptiness of their hearts. We know that Jesus was never impressed with the exterior of a man's life. He had 20/20 vision,
penetrating the pretentiousness of the flesh to see straight into the heart of man. To those who lived by legislated morality, this was frightening. Blinded to the real work their office prescribed-caring for the people of God and
drawing them back to Him-these religious men laid heavy burdens on men. Forsaking the message of grace, they misrepresented Father as a harsh, demanding taskmaster. In exposing the emptiness of their hearts, Jesus was attempting to
remind them of the divine calling that was theirs.
Parading around on the human stage in moral finery will never attract men to Christ. This is a retreat back to the old ways of the Pharisees, and it didn't work for them.
In our efforts to impose our doctrines of morality on men we will simply drive them off. The moral majority is a 2,000-year-old failed experiment. It didn't work in the times of Jesus, and it has failed in our time. Rather than
attempting to create an imperious army of moralists, the Church should be raising up a peace corps that will get down in the dirt and the mire of a nitty-gritty life and extend grace rations to the spiritually starving.
The apostle Paul joined in the battle that raged between the forces of law and grace. As a religious man with a pedigree that was the envy of many, his life was turned upside down when it collided with the grace of God. All the
hard-earned religious training he had gone through went right out the window, and he was left with just one message-grace, grace, marvelous grace. Having lived a regimented life under the condemning sword of the law, he was like a
new creature after his watershed experience with the amazing grace of a loving, forgiving Father.
Paul insisted that: "By its very beauty, the Law of God condemns us all until, while we are still sinners, grace comes and
liberates us from its curse without a single condition attached: no improvements demanded, no promises extorted-just the extravagant, outrageous, hilarious absurdity of free grace and dying love."
Legalism is a shameful
stain on the soul of the Church. Why have we still not learned that the law has never been able to cure the sin-ridden heart nor heal the sick and broken soul of man? It has no power to effect change. The law only binds people to a
legalistic observance of its self-proclaimed prescriptions of what is good and what is evil. The end result of that observance is death rather than life. Perhaps, its most insidious effect is the pride of life. "Look at me! Didn't
I clean myself up nicely? Who needs grace when I know what to do and I do it?" Then I begin to look with disdain at others I see who aren't doing half as well. Do you get my point?
Christianity is all about the revelation
of grace, not the imposition of law. Grace swallows up the law and makes herself its master. Whenever this order is reversed it has tragic results. Law exposes our moral bankruptcy while grace reveals the lavish savings account
Jesus opened for us. Father's unconditional, unable-to-be-earned love has laid up an inheritance for us that we will never be able to exhaust. Law emphasizes what I must do, while grace acknowledges what Jesus has already done.
Throughout the history of the Church, from the days of the book of Acts, there has been a never-ending battle between the moral demands of the law and the free price tag of grace. The two are in a life-and-death struggle for
dominance in the life of the Church. The outcome of this battle will ultimately determine the fate of the Church and, so, the world. Grace and law cannot sleep in the same bed together. They are incompatible lovers and should never
be forced to try to share the same house. Their goals and methods are diametrically opposed to each other. Watchman Nee persuasively explained the battle in this way:
"Grace means that God does something for me; law means
that I do something for God. God has a certain holy and righteous demand which He places on me: that is law. Now if law means that God requires something of me for its fulfillment, then deliverance from law means that He no longer
requires that from me, but Himself provides it. Law implies that God requires me to do something for Him; deliverance from law implies that He exempts me from doing it, and that in grace He does it Himself. I need do nothing for
God: that is deliverance from law." (Watchman Nee)
The battle between law and grace has a long and bloody history. Men have fought, killed and been killed in its wars. Whole peoples have been wiped out in its path. It has
been a holy war.
Subtly and silently the Christian community has been infiltrated with the need to perform. Men and women struggle daily to free themselves from the leadership and peer pressure to conform to rules and
regulations. I have wept inside as I have had deeply wounded brothers and sisters tell me stories of their handling (or mishandling) by pastors, elders, home-group leaders, and church family. When they have stepped out tentatively
in faith, daring to believe the Good News of grace, they have been rebuked, faced church "tribunals," been shunned, and then dropped from the "guest list" of fellowship events. I understand their confusion and pain because I walked
the same road. It's called friendly fire. Only the military could have come up with that term!
As the Spirit of Jesus, which is all-encompassing grace, has been forced out of religious life, the vacuum has been filled with
legalism, ritualism, and hierarchical rule. The ancient language so rich in grace can barely be heard over the chatter of religion filled with empty clichés. Because men could no longer hear the voice of God they chose to place
their lives in the hands of religious men who would tell them what God was saying. The code replaced the life of the Spirit, the glory that rested upon the place where God and man used to meet.