Life as a River
The New Mathematics of Grace
The first two parts looked at four parables - one each from the four Gospels and how Grace cannot be viewed from a literal or mathematics mindset.
Today - The 3rd and final article from Phillip Yancey.
It was altogether in character, then, for the scrupulous apostle Peter to pursue some mathematical formula of grace. “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” he asked Jesus. “Up to seven times?” Peter was erring on the side of magnanimity, for the rabbis in his day had suggested three as the maximum number of times one might be expected to forgive.
“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” replied Jesus in a flash.
Some manuscripts have “seventy times seven,” but it hardly matters whether Jesus said 77 or 490: forgiveness, he implied, is not the kind of thing you count on an abacus.
Peter’s question prompted another of Jesus’ trenchant stories, about a servant who has somehow piled up a debt of several million dollars. The fact that realistically no servant could accumulate a debt so huge underscores Jesus’ point: confiscating the man’s family, children, and all his property would not make a dent in repaying the debt. It is unforgivable. Nevertheless the king, touched with pity, abruptly cancels the debt and lets the servant off scot-free.
Suddenly, the plot twists. The servant who has just been forgiven seizes a colleague who owes him a few dollars and begins to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demands, and throws the man into jail. In a word, the greedy servant is an ingrate.
Why Jesus draws the parable with such exaggerated strokes comes clear when he reveals that the king represents God. This above all should determine our attitude toward others: a humble awareness that God has already forgiven us a debt so mountainous that beside it any person’s wrongs against us shrink to the size of anthills. How can we not forgive each other in light of all God has forgiven us?
As C. S. Lewis put it, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
The more I reflect on Jesus’ parables, the more tempted I am to reclaim the word “atrocious” to describe the mathematics of the gospel.
I believe Jesus gave us these stories about grace in order to call us to step completely outside our tit-for-tat world of ungrace and enter into God’s realm of infinite grace. As Miroslav Volf puts it, “the economy of undeserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral deserts.”
From nursery school onward we are taught how to succeed in the world of ungrace. The early bird gets the worm. No pain, no gain. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Demand your rights. Get what you pay for.
I know these rules well because I live by them. I work for what I earn; I like to win; I insist on my rights. I want people to get what they deserve — nothing more, nothing less.
Yet if I care to listen, I hear a loud whisper from the gospel that I did not get what I deserved. I deserved punishment and got forgiveness. I deserved wrath and got love. I deserved debtor’s prison and got instead a clean credit history. I deserved stern lectures and crawl-on-your-knees repentance; I got a banquet — Babette’s feast — spread for me.
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