10. The Law and Grace
The ancient Hebrew religion, as you find it in the first five Books of the Bible, was based on Law and Justice. The main principle by which God was supposed to rule the world was known as the Law of Retribution or Retaliation. God was just, and justice pervaded everything. He rewarded or punished mankind according to the principle: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." What a man did to others came back upon himself. God bargained with man and man had to bargain with God. Those who had the commandments of Moses and lived strictly in accordance with them, would be appropriately rewarded; whereas the gentiles or heathen, who knew nothing of the commandments and therefore did not keep them, would be punished ... not because they were morally guilty, but because, in the nature of things, evil actions brought evil consequences. It was an inexorable and merciless law. What you put in, you got out.
Later on, as religious thought developed, doubts began to be raised about this "eternal law of tit for tat." The Prophets began to put forward the suggestion that God might be not only just but also merciful. Now obviously, if God could be merciful and forgive a sinner, the law of retaliation was being broken! Where would be the end of it? God might even end by forgiving the gentiles, and the Jews would lose all the advantage they had gained by their loyalty to the Law of Moses! The strict Pharisees therefore disregarded the more liberal-minded prophets, and appealed only to the Law. "What is written in the Law?" they would ask. "The Law's the thing!" As for the experience of forgiveness, they conceded that God might forgive a repentant sinner in certain circumstances. God's mercy was a "little door" through which it was sometimes possible to wriggle; but the grand system of rewards and punishments was still regarded as the basis of Divine Ethics.
This principle of Retaliation, "measure for measure," did not die with the coming of Christianity. The Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock imported the concept of Divine Justice into the western hemisphere. "You must work, boy! You must put a lot out, if you want to get a lot back in! You must serve God day and night if you want God to serve and save you." Work became the basis of the Puritan ethic. The worst sin was to try to get something for nothing, whereas it was an admirable virtue to make millions of dollars and amass huge estates as a result of hard work. Well, there is a lot of good in this attitude. It is manly and healthy, and appropriate to life in a pioneer country. And it is quite true that in a negative way there is a kind of tit for tat. Meanness begets meanness, hate begets hate. He who takes the sword, perishes by the sword. Even Jesus said that if we did not acknowledge Him, He would not acknowledge us.
Tolstoy tells a story of a pot of honey in a clearing of a forest. A heavy log hangs on a rope from a high tree branch just over the pot of honey. A bear comes along, sees the honey, and pushes the log aside so that he can eat it. The log swings back and shoves him away. He is annoyed and pushes the log away again, much more violently than before; it swings back, and hits him hard on the snout. He is furious. He takes the log in his forepaws, and throws it away with all his force. "That disposes of that!" he thinks to himself, and settles down to his meal. The log sails up into the air, then reverses its direction. Down it comes with increasing speed, and deals the bear such a blow that it kills him. The Law of Retaliation!
But that is negative, and operates only for as long as we are in that particular stage of development: an immature stage. Those who are willing to accept God as a loving Father, slip out through the little door of mercy. "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way," said Jesus, but it "leadeth unto life." It is the entrance door of heaven.
When Jesus came into the world and began to preach on the grassy hill slopes of Galilee, one of His most startling teachings was the inadequacy of justice. In parable after parable, love was shown to be superior to justice. One of the most outrageous of His stories was the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. That shocks many of us today, if we take it at all seriously. Our whole moral, ethical and economic system is challenged by this insistence that an employer has the right to pay the same wage for one hour's work in the vineyard as for a whole day. Again, the prodigal son, who has wasted his substance with riotous living, is received home with rejoicing. Jesus takes Mary's part over against Martha's; and Judas, who objected to a useless waste of money, was reprimanded. Zaccheus, who had swindled his own people, was forgiven just because he said he was sorry; and harlots and wastrels were admitted into the fellowship - just like that! Even Samaritans, who were not Jews at all, received His commendation. No wonder the Pharisees put Him to death! he was turning the whole system of Divine Justice upside down! And, if Jesus came back today and said the same things, most of us would be wanting to do the same, condemning Him as a communist or a hippie.
Since Paul of Tarsus was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, we can well understand the fervor with which he originally persecuted these Nazarenes who were denying the validity of Divine Justice. But Paul "saw the light" on the Damascus Road, and, after a great deal of agonized thought, struggled through the narrow door from the Law to Grace, from Justice to Mercy. To explain the new concept to his Pharisaical friends, Paul told a little allegory about a rich young heir to a fortune who has not come of age. The estate is in the hands of trustees who only give him a modest allowance, and he is taken around by a pedagogue - a trusted slave whose job is to control the wild spirits of the lad and teach him good manners. He cannot shake this pedagogue off, and it irks the boy, who feels restricted and frustrated. At last, however, he reaches his majority; now the trustees and pedagogue release him, and he can enter into the freedom of his inheritance. According to Paul, the Mosaic Law is this pedagogue, given to us to keep us in order during our minority, to curb man's wild spirits, to discipline him and punish him according to his deserts, and to teach him habits of hard work. But, with the coming of Christ, we enter the freedom of our inheritance as children of God, and the Law no longer applies to us. As John said: "The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." To expound this doctrine of Grace was Paul's main concern, especially in the Epistle to the Romans. It changed Christianity from being a sect of Judaism (a reward given to the Jews for their race-long loyalty to God) into a universal religion, admitting equally Jew and gentile, slave and free, men of all races and colors. For, if God is our Father (as Jesus maintained) then He must love all His children equally, and will not require that they earn or deserve the freedom of His household. A mother will not turn away any of her children from the dinner table. All human beings are admitted without question to the meal table of God's grace, if only they want to come.
Swedenborg carries this idea yet further. He says that when we die and wake up on the other side, no one is going to make an inventory of our good and evil deeds; there will be no balance sheets, no profit and loss account; no court room scene, with a cold inflexible Judge giving verdict of guilty or innocent. This is fortunate indeed, for most of us are worthy of punishment; if we had justice, who could stand? Mercifully, we leave justice behind when we die. We slip out of the treadmill of cause and effect. External actions and their consequences are for the external world; after death you enter the realm of motive. What you take with you is the "will behind the act," your ruling love. And there, in the eternal world where God reigns supreme, you are given His Grace so that you can do precisely what you want to do, you can go wherever your love leads you. If you find you want to live the life of heaven, you are certainly welcome to do so. The prizes are there in a pile; you can help yourself! - no question asked. On the other hand, many who think they have "earned" heaven, who did the right things, fulfilled all the requirements, and lived a life of good works, these expect a Reward, but no particular fuss is made of them. They are shown heaven, but find it disappointing. It is not all that attractive. The governing idea of heaven is to make others happy without any thought of recompense, or even acknowledgment. "What benefit is there in helping other people, if nobody knows you have done it? What good do you get out of it? If you cannot push yourself forward and feel important, where is the joy of life? What kind of Reward, is this, for all one's efforts and sacrifices? Is there no justice anywhere?" So they indignantly leave the sunny slopes of heaven, where their eyes were dazzled anyway, and seek out the company of "right-thinking people like themselves," in the shady nether regions.
Well, you can call this a kind of tit-for-tat if you like. Good produces good and evil produces evil. But this is not the Lord's doing. He treats all His children without discrimination. "He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). He pours His love and blessing on everyone equally. The sole difference between saint and sinner, angel and devil, arises from the way in which they receive or reject what the Lord is offering them. It is a question of whether the lid of the vessel is open or shut. If we expose ourselves to God, He will fill us with His own life and we shall become angels. If we wrap ourselves up in ourselves in a tight little parcel, not even God can get into us.
It is a perpetual source of astonishment to the angels that they are admitted into the delights of heaven. They do not feel they deserve it. Maybe at first they feel a sense of guilt because no questions are asked about their lives in the world: what church they attended, what political party they belonged to, their police record, and so on. It all seems too easy. They can go just where they like. All the doors are open; they are treated like sons home from school who have the run of their parents' home. What if they are prodigal sons? No one seems to mind! Then the joy of heaven suffuses them; they just want to give themselves out in love to the Lord and the neighbor - to make others happy; to give, give, give, wanting nothing again. And that is what heaven is all about.
This concept of heaven and hell is revolutionary, if we really understand its implications. It will make us think quite differently about the aim and purpose of life on earth as a preparation for eternity. It enables us to re-evaluate conventional standards of right and wrong. The .Christian definition of sin is implicit in Jesus' statement that the Law and the Prophets revolve around two Great Commandments: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and thou shalt love thy neighbor. Anything is a sin to the degree in which it interferes with the development in us of love to the Lord and the neighbor, or cuts us off from God and mankind. When we die, we shall be confronted with Love from the Lord and introduced into the selfless life of heaven: what will be our reaction or response? That is all there is to it! Nothing else really matters. Seen in this perspective, most of the so-called "deadly sins" of medieval theology are seen to be not so deadly after all. On the other hand, a materialistic outlook, or states of mind like complacency, self-righteousness, criticalness and condemnation of others, may take us to hell.
At the top of my list of deadly sins I would place "Egotism," an obsessive interest in self. Not necessarily pride, or love of power, or anything like that, but just complete and fussy absorption in one's own affairs and feelings and experiences and interests. The egotist talks incessantly about himself and his own concerns, especially his woes and ills; and if the conversation veers round to anything else, he tries to get it back to himself, and, if he fails, then he loses all interest and just sits back thinking of himself until the opportunity comes to start talking about himself again. He is, in fact, perpetually dictating his autobiography (and how boring it can be to those who have heard it all before!) Such a man, when he dies, cannot possibly get into heaven: he would be miserable there. And so I suggest that egotism is a deadly sin, far more damaging than murder, adultery, false witness, drunkenness, and so on, which can be left behind when we die, can be repented of, forgiven and wiped out by the Lord's loving mercy. The egotist may ask, "Where is the justice of it, if I must go to hell when I have done nothing wrong?" The answer is that God does not govern by justice, He governs by grace. Grace is offered to all. Blessed is he that takes it. Cursed is he that is so full of himself and his own concerns that he doesn't even notice that it is being offered to him! As Jesus said dryly, "He has had his reward."
Granted all this to be true, you may well ask what is the use of our daily life in this world, with its high pressure of things to be done, its allurements and temptations, its agonies, cruelty and suffering, its hopes and fears, achievements and failures? Here we are in the grinding mill of cause and effect, and everything we do has repercussions which cannot be evaded. Well, it is like Paul's allegory of the pedagogue slave whose job is to look after the young boy during his minority, reward and punish him, curb his excesses, beat him when necessary, get him into good habits of useful work: with the one overall aim of bringing him up as a gentleman. When the boy reaches maturity and comes of age, the pedagogue retires from the scene. Justice and the Law are no longer required as driving forces. Wealth and power are no longer sought after. Love and grace take over.
This should happen with each one of us, and if it has not happened yet with you, I hope it will do so from now onwards. Stop striving to achieve merit, to earn your way to heaven. You will not be judged by what you do, but by what you are. The Lord loves you infinitely; His grace is sufficient for you. Look towards Him, and His grace will be reflected in you. "Of His fullness shall we all receive, and grace for grace."