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OT: Job 4:12-21

NT: Romans 5:1-11

Text: Luke 10:25-29

In 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 forgotten.

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.

Self-justification in 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?

Self-acceptance and 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 anything.

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 yourself.

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 is.

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 you try.)

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 after.

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 succeed.                                 




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