the texts we have read this morning there is an interesting range of uses
of the terminology of justice and justification. One reads
in Job the pessimistic revelation of Eliphaz the wise man of Teman, Job's
finger-wagging colleague. Job suffers greatly, and Eliphaz, who is not
suffering at all, not even suffering fools, finds himself in the place
people in my profession are used to: smack dab at the bedside of a
sufferer, on the spot to say something helpful or insightful.
I used to find myself
often at the bedside of the Job-like Emma Gianetti, a woman who lived in a
sobbing nightmare of anguish. I never had anything to say to her that made
any sense--to me, at least. She wondered why God would make her endure all
this. I had no idea. The best I could do was to be there and listen and at
least show her she had not been forgotten. At least not completely
But one thing I had the
sense not to say to the poor wretch was what Eliphaz says to Job:
that it was his own fault he was going through Hell. Eliphaz
insists that Job's protestations of innocence are groundless since it is
flatly impossible for a mere human being to be righteous before the
infinite creator. That is what one of the Rephaim, the spirits of the
dead, a strayer from Sheol, had said to him in a nightmare.
And Paul agrees. Unaided,
one cannot be righteous before God. As Jesus says in Mark, when the
disciples ask him rhetorically, "Who can be saved, then?" "With men
it is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Paul says there
is after all a chance of being righteous before God. What is that
chance? It is simply that God himself has provided that righteous standing
through the self-sacrifice of Jesus.
The mechanics of
atonement are beyond our field of inquiry this morning. The biggest issue,
I'd guess, is that separating Protestants and Roman Catholics. Does God
make the sinner righteous? Or does he merely count the sinner
as righteous? The latter would be a kind of saving legal fiction (like
when we used to balance the budget by renaming certain things, counting
the numbers differently!).
So for Paul "justifying"
seems to mean "being made right in the eyes of God." But then we have a
different usage of this terminology again in Luke. There we see one who is
hoping to justify himself. And, strangely enough, it is only
this use of the term that does not sound strange to us. We are quite
familiar with that term. We use it all the time. We seek to justify
ourselves all the time. What do we mean?
What this man is pictured
doing is trying to defend or legitimate his own religious mediocrity. He
is saying, "I have reached this particular degree of open-heartedness, and
I hope not to have to open my heart any further. This is wide enough,
isn't it? I'm OK, right?"
In my high school days,
when (believe it or not) I used to "witness" to people door to door, in
the bus seat next to me, in Brookdale Park, I saw plenty of examples of
this form of self-justification. I would never do again what I did then,
but it was an interesting lab experiment. It was like a kind of religious
Candid Camera. We used to put ordinary people on the spot. We used to ask
them to become religious zealots like us. Now it is hard, on the spur of
the moment, to come up with a good reason for not being more religious
than you are already.
But they tried it.
Usually the response was: "I'm OK as I am. I'm a pretty good person. I
haven't murdered anybody!" Oh what Soren Kierkegaard would have said about
this! Imagine the Rich Young Ruler approaching Jesus to ask, "What
must I do to inherit eternal life?" Imagine this response: "Oh, not much.
Just try not to be Hitler, Charles Manson. I'm not asking much." Hey! Now
that's a savior we can live with, wouldn't you say? Not the
nuisance from Nazareth, huh?
Again, I well recall a
student in some of my seminars at Drew back in the late 70s. She really
seemed to feel she already knew enough. You remember: I've told you about
her before. Whenever a new idea would come up, she'd be relieved if it
sounded at all like something she'd already heard. Then she'd ask the
professor, "Uh, that's pretty much just the same as So-&-so idea, isn't
it?" She would whittle away at the professor's explanation as if she were
trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Once she reduced it to
something she already knew, she could breathe a sigh of relief. Then she
needn't spend the energy trying to understand a new concept.
I had only one question:
what was she doing in school? Well, there was an obvious answer:
she wanted a piece of paper that would congratulate her for knowing what
she already knew! She figured she deserved some sort of equivalency
diploma! She was, in case you hadn't noticed it, justifying herself and
her present state of knowledge.
this sense is pretty petty, really no more than a joke. Only the joke's on
the self-justifier. He cuts off all the opportunities to become more than
he or she already is. "I'm fine the way I am." Those are famous last
words. They are magic words, like in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum.
The kid decides he doesn't want to grow up, so he just stops growing. You
will, too. It works. You can stay there and enjoy mediocrity if you want
to. But you don't have to.
And yet this morning I
want to talk about a different sort of self-justification. And for this
one I need to go back to Paul. Or maybe to Luther. Or maybe even to
Bultmann. Bultmann made the profound observation that every statement
of theology has an anthropological side to it. That is, everything
someone says about God reflects on, impacts on, the human being who says
it. What does it say about us when we say God accepts us by grace?
I think it means
something about self-identity and self-acceptance. What are we really
afraid of deep down when, like Martin Luther, we say we are afraid of not
passing the judgment of God? That we will not be saved if it is a matter
of meeting God's requirements? What is the relief we feel when we hear
that God is not going to make us satisfy some list of requirements before
he will accept us? What is the human subtext?
God-acceptance are intimately connected. Let me give you a related
analogy. I have known three friends who were insufferable braggarts. If
you were going to be their friend, you just had to decide you could get
used to it. It was no coincidence that in all three cases, the braggart
had long before been told by his dad that he would never amount to
What do you suppose was
the source of all that bragging? Of course, even though their fathers
might by then have been long dead, they were trying to prove to their
fathers that they were wrong. Why continue even when dad was gone?
Because one's selfhood was shaped in the process of interaction with the
family. The father's condemnation was internalized. And once dad was gone,
one still had to try to prove to oneself that dad was wrong, that
you are someone. You are acceptable. Otherwise you can never accept
It is the same with God.
If you can believe that God has accepted you, then you can accept
yourself. When Luther cried out for a forgiving God, it was a
forgiveness of himself by himself that he sought. God is the
super-ego which grants or withholds permission for the ego to be what it
Here is the subtext of
justification by grace, I think. Do you feel you must achieve some
particular thing, live up to some particular set of demands, before you
will be acceptable to yourself? If you fail, and somebody else gives you a
D or an F, will you wear it on the inside like a scarlet letter?
I think that
justification by grace means that your worth need not depend upon your
success as defined by some external standard. It is not defined by your
income level or your grade average. (At least not if you are responsible,
if you are doing your best. If you are a slouch, a coward, and you do not
even try, then, good, you should feel ashamed. But I am assuming
It is not that I do not
take failure seriously. I do take it seriously, especially when I
fail. I am not asking you to make light of failures. Least of all am I
suggesting that you avoid failure by avoiding risk. I am asking you to
look at tests, criteria, and even failure in a different way.
What should you conclude
when you fail at something? I think it is simply a gauge. It means that
you must set the bar a bit lower for the time being. And in the meantime
you must try to learn to jump higher. Failure is a measure of how much you
have yet to do before you succeed.
Or maybe failure is
telling you where you have no business competing. Maybe you ought to enter
a different event. I have known individuals who did not excel in
academics. And yet they were quite intelligent, quite witty. Just couldn't
do research papers. I don't think they were down on themselves, either.
But the thing is, you
have to learn that you are acceptable as you are. You must get that
established first, or your achievements will never mean a thing!
When you think of
yourself as a child of God, what is the subtext there? It is this: you
ought to think of yourself as you think of your own child. Or maybe of
your own friend, if that analogy is better for you. Here's what I
mean: don't you love your son or daughter or friend already, I mean
before they go on to meet challenges, before they pass or
fail them? You are thrilled when they triumph in a sport or get good
grades. But it is all the same if you find yourself comforting them in
sorrow after a defeat, after a failure. You love them before, during and
You are a bad parent, I
wax bold to say, if you withhold your love until your child accomplishes
something. No, your child will only succeed in life, in faith, in
morality, in business, if you make it clear to your child that you support
him, her, a thousand per cent first. You already back them before they
start. That's what will give them self-confidence. Paul draws a similar
analogy in Romans: God had decided he loved Jacob before he had done a
thing, while he was still in the womb.
And its the same with
you. You have to commit yourself to love yourself, to support yourself,
before you try, before you fail, before you
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