Some things never change. Most things, in fact. “In times like these,” said one wise man, “it helps to remember that there have always been times like these.” Yes, and people, too.
While no one is absolutely one or the other, people here will always be by default basically cold people or warm people, institution people or “people” people, and, at heart, grace people or “law” people.
I remember a Bible study at our church when we found ourselves discussing Jesus’ “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:9-14). It’s short, pithy, and to the pointed point. A “respectable” toxically religious man stands praying “about himself,” thanking God that he is “not like other men,” sinners who fall far short of God’s mark. But a nearby (despised) tax collector won’t even lift his eyes to heaven but prays, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus indicates that the latter pray-er is the one God approves.
This was fresh on my mind as I was reading another of Ellis Peters’ delightful Cadfael Chronicles.
Brother Cadfael is an old soldier/seafarer turned Benedictine monk in 12th-century England who often finds himself acting as a sort of ancient detective/CSI operative solving mysteries in the village of Shrewsbury and surrounding Shropshire. (Hmm. My Grandmother Key’s maiden name was Shropshire.)
In one Cadfael story, a new parish priest has just been welcomed, but the welcome turns out to be premature. The fellow turns out to be a “law” person of the most ultra-conscientious, unbending, meticulously scrupulous—and odious—sort.
I disagree pretty completely with the theology in the examples that follow, but that’s not the point; the attitude is the point.
A child is born but so sickly that death is certainly coming soon. The priest is quickly sent for lest the child die unbaptized, but the priest is busy saying his prayers and refuses to be interrupted until he is finished with his holy observances. The child does die, unbaptized, and the priest then refuses to bury him in consecrated ground. He believes that he has no choice. (“Law” people never do.) He felt some sadness about it, but, no, no choice.
A weak and pitiable woman makes another in a sad line of mistaken alliances, bears a child, and asks for absolution. The same priest refuses, won’t admit her to mass. She despairs and ends her life. What else could he have done? No choice, he thinks. She had choices and made the wrong ones all down the line. A shame, but . . .
This priest stands not with his parishioners as a fellow struggler making his way through life and seeking to honor God even in the midst of human weakness. He is sure he is “not like other men,” completely dependent upon God’s grace. Sure that he needs little mercy, he has little to dispense. Too much grace and God’s holiness and justice will surely suffer, after all. (And if you think this man’s self-righteous arrogance is the property of any one religious group and not easy to find among any “flavor,” I think you’d be mistaken.)
Some things never change. We meet this fellow and his kinsmen every day, maybe even under our own hats. Those who choose to live by “law” will die by it, religiously cruel. We would do well to ponder Jesus’ words: God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” And when our Lord says that “the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,” I’m betting he’s telling us not just about a law or two but teaching us an incredibly important principle about living meaningful lives, lives filled with blessing.
When God walked this earth, he walked with us, full of grace.
Copyright 2021 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.