Luke | Sheepish goats and the scandal of grace

As long as we judge others, and preach that one criminal goes to heaven and the other to hell, we will not know God’s culture. (Listen.)

As is the way of things, whenever I meet middle class people, they ask me what I do for a living. When I say I’m a pastor, they almost invariably reply, “Oh, I don’t go to church—but I’m a good person!” And I think to myself, “Good on ya!” Because the older I get, the more certain I become that every single one of us has an incredible capacity for good—and an incredible capacity for evil.

Yet this is not the way our society trains us to think. Instead, we are taught to identify insiders and outsiders; goodies and baddies; sheep and goats; wheat and weeds. And this way of seeing and sorting the world affects how we hear and interpret everything, including the Jesus stories.

It especially affects how we interpret tonight’s story. To recap, Jesus is crucified between two hardened criminals. One mocks him; the other acknowledges his own sinfulness and asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What we usually hear and assume is that the mocking criminal died condemned; while the other, having acknowledged his sin, died forgiven and was guaranteed a place in heaven. To draw from the metaphor of the workers in the field, the repentant man never even gets to the field, let alone works a full day; yet he receives the full reward simply for turning to Jesus immediately before his death.

So this text has generated a lot of writing and a lot of sermons about Jesus’ scandalous act of forgiveness, since he forgave even a hardened criminal who, at the eleventh hour and while dying an excruciating death, turned to Jesus. Such forgiveness is certainly scandalous. But if we look closely, we might discover that it’s a whole lot more scandalous than that.

The scandal is in the Greek. In English, we no longer distinguish between singular and plural when it comes to the word ‘you’; in Greek, the words are completely different. When we go back to the Greek text, we find a fascinating plural, a plural which is ironed out in the English. For when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” the first ‘you’ is plural. Now, he has been talking with both criminals. And when he says that first ‘you’, he is addressing both of them. He is saying, “Truly I tell you both, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Of course, if we believe that forgiveness is a transaction—we repent, we ask for mercy, God forgives—then the Greek can’t be right. If we believe we can earn God’s love through our faith or our works, then it must be wrong. If we believe there are goodies and baddies this world, and if we pride ourselves on our own holiness, then it is deeply offensive. It suggests that the repentant good feller and the unrepentant bad feller are both welcomed into Paradise. How can this be?

Like everything, it goes back to our understanding of God. We talk about God’s unconditional love and acceptance, but most of us live as if it’s conditional. If we just work hard enough, and do the right thing, and have a strong enough faith, and go to church—if we are just ‘good people’—then we will be beloved and forgiven. Unlike those people over there, whoever those people are.

But this is not the way it is. God is love. God loves the people we identify as insiders and outsiders, the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats, unconditionally. And Jesus shows us just how far this love goes. For he loves all the wrong people—all the religious outsiders—and he makes them the centre of God’s culture. His love and acceptance do not come about because of their good behaviour. His love comes first; any behavioural change comes later, and may not come at all.

Jesus’ attitude of loving continues all the way to the cross. For even at the point of death, he shows nothing but love and forgiveness: to the crowd which demands his death, to the leaders who scoff at him, to the soldiers who torture him, to the criminal who mocks him.

He shows that love and forgiveness aren’t meted out in small doses to those who earn or deserve them. Instead, they are poured out lavishly and abundantly upon friends and upon enemies, upon the just and upon the unjust, upon the peaceful and upon the violent, upon the religious and upon the atheist, and upon ourselves. There is nothing anyone can do to earn God’s love and forgiveness; and there is nothing anyone can do to render themselves unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness.

God knows the ugliness smuggled in every human heart; God knows the violence of the world; and yet God loves, and loves, and loves. And it is because God loves, that God shows us a new way to live: a way in which peace and freedom and gentleness and forgiveness are the norm.

Clearly, this is not the world we live in. And as long as we try to earn God’s love and prove ourselves righteous, it never will be the world we live in. Because as long as we try to earn love, we will be in rivalry with others, and we will not be living in God’s culture. As long as we preach that one criminal goes to heaven and the other goes to hell, as long as we try to define insiders and outsiders, sheep and goats, as long as we deny the complexity of the human heart, we will not be living in God’s culture.

But if we can admit that we are, let us say, goats in sheep’s clothing, and if we can recognise that we are already loved and already forgiven, and so is everybody else, then we cannot help but participate in God’s joyful culture. For we will no longer need to strive; nor will we need to compare ourselves to everybody else. Instead, we will be free to love, just as God loves us.

For those of us convinced of our own righteousness, this is the scandal of grace. It is offensive to us that grace is unearned; it is a scandal to us that grace is doled out in infinitely large measure to friends and enemies alike.

But to the rest of us—to those of us who have caught a glimpse of our own selfishness and arrogance and sanctimonious self-righteousness; to those of us who recognise our destructive tendencies; to those of us who have come face to face with our lust for violence and control; to those of us who are sickened by our hypocrisy or our fear or our greed or our cowardice—this is all good news. For we cannot fix ourselves, nor can we make ourselves worthy of forgiveness; but we can accept God’s forgiveness which is already ours; we can accept God’s love.

And when we do this, when we open ourselves to what is already ours, we are transformed from the inside out. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are remade in the image of Christ, and we become part of God’s cultural renewal as it unfolds here on earth. This, then, is life in abundance: a life of freely and wholeheartedly participating in God’s life, which is already here, and already among us.

Does God’s generosity make us angry? Or can we celebrate it with joy? Again and again in Luke’s account, Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is like a party. We can stand there with our arms crossed tight, mocking the host, criticising the other guests, hating the music, turning down every hot nibble while our tummy rumbles, and loudly announcing that we don’t drink. Or we can be in the middle of the crowd with our red shoes on, dancing and laughing and singing and talking, and handing out bread, more bread, and pouring wine, more wine, and greeting even the most awful people with a hug.

Take, eat—or turn it down: God’s scandalous party is going on all around you. You can mock it to the death, or you can join in at any time. It’s always already happening. Whether or not you join in is the only choice you have. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Luke 23:33-43 given to Sanctuary, 17 November 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Image credit: Tristan Gevaux on Unsplash.

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