Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Leveled by Grace

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Romans 3:21-31; Luke 18:9-14

            In 2014 a researcher named Paul Piff presented a Ted Talk

about a study he did with 100 pairs of people playing Monopoly. Through a flip of the coin one player was assigned to be player 1, and the other player 2. Player 1, however, was given several advantages. At the beginning of the game player 1 was given twice as much money as player 2. Also player 1 collected twice as much money for passing Go. Finally, player 1 was given two dice to roll instead of one, meaning that player 1 went around the board twice as often. Piff then secretly videotaped each pair of players as they played the game, noting how the advantaged and disadvantaged players reacted to the situation.

            He found that at first the advantaged players seemed puzzled

and even a little awkward about the situation. But as the game continued, the advantaged players began to act in different ways from the disadvantaged players. The advantaged players began moving more rapidly around the board, making loud slapping sounds with the marker. As the game progressed many of the disadvantages players became more subdued, while the advantaged players became more demonstrative, raising their arms to celebration when the other player hit properties that required paying rent. These differences showed up whether the advantaged player was male or female. But the most striking difference was at the end of the game. At the end, when asked to comment on the game, advantaged players often commented, not on the advantages they had but on the strategy they had used to win. They talked as if they won because they were better players, as if they deserved to win.

            The book of Romans is not about playing Monopoly; it's about

a right relationship to God. But at the church in Rome there are two groups of people, Jews and Greeks, one of whom had been given certain advantages when it came to knowing God. At the beginning of Romans 3 in verses 1-2, Paul says, "Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God." God gave special gifts to Abraham, Moses, and their descendants. God gave them the Torah, the law of God in the Old Testament, and prophets like Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah, calling them back to the life God meant them to have. The Jews were given special advantages when it came to knowing God, and this led at least some of them in Rome to think they were actually closer to God, more deserving of a relationship to God.

            It reminds me of the Pharisee in the parable Alan read a

moment ago. He stands before God and says, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." We could add terrorists or bigots or any of those derelict people in the Jungle-that homeless encampment. God, I thank you that I'm not like any of them.

            For a moment think about the advantages this Pharisee had

been given. He was probably raised in a good home. He was probably taught about God from a young age. He could give a tithe, a tenth of his income, because he had sufficient income in the first place. He could fast because he did not need to worry about where he would get his next meal. He had all these advantages and yet he somehow claimed credit for his relationship to God as if he had earned it.

            Later in Romans 3 Paul concludes that the advantages of the

Jews are not really advantages. He says in verse 9, "What then? Are we [Paul is speaking here as himself one of the Jewish people] better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin."

            At the first church I served in Potlatch, Idaho, I had a

conversation with a father whose children had just started coming to Sunday School. After some casual conversation about the weather, I asked him how he felt about his children coming to our church. He said, "It's great. I'm glad they are learning about religion." This surprised me because the father had nothing to do with church. His wife came, but he himself never came. So I asked him, "So what is your feeling about the church?" He said, "I went to church all the time when I was younger, but I don't go anymore." He paused and then said, "I guess, I just don't feel like a sinner."

            I have to confess that the man did not seem like a sinner to

me either. He was a faithful husband, a conscientious father, a hard worker, scrupulously honest, contributing to the community through the Jaycees. It was hard to see why he needed God's forgiveness.

            Deep down I think many people feel that way.  Sure, we all

have things we feel bad about. We have all done things for which we feel guilty. But on balance we like to think that the good we have done outweighs the bad. At least we are not as bad as some other people.

            The problem is that such an attitude does not really answer

the charge God has against us. In fact it aggravates the charge. If you look back at Romans chapter 1, Paul says that the basic charge that God has against people is idolatry, worshiping false gods. The root cause of all sin, Paul says, is the desire to replace God with something else, and in many cases that something else is ourselves. We want to be our own gods. In the garden of Eden the serpent tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit by saying, "You will be like God." The root of all brokenness in the world is the desire to replace God with ourselves.

            Can you now see why the idea of works righteousness-the idea

that we can earn salvation-is so dangerous? It reinforces the idea that we can manage our lives by ourselves, that we don't really need God. It aggravates pride.

            The only antidote to pride is grace.  Romans 3:23-24: "Since

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

            Grace is the antidote for pride.  Romans 3, verse 27: "Then

what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith." Once we get it firmly in our heads that we are saved by God's grace, we can let go of pride as well as our guilt, and replace both of them with the best motive of all for good works: gratitude. The best motive, the most helpful motive, for doing good in the world is not pride or guilt but gratitude.

            In his book What's So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey

tells this story:

I sometimes attended AA as an act of solidarity with a recovering alcoholic friend. The first time I accompanied him I was overwhelmed by what I found, for in many ways it resembled the New Testament church. A well-known television broadcaster and several prominent millionaires mixed freely with unemployed dropouts and kids who wore Band-Aids to hide the needle marks on their arms. The "sharing time" was like a text-book small group, marked by compassionate listening, warm responses, and many hugs. Introductions went like this: "Hi, I'm Tom, and I'm an alcoholic and a drug addict." Instantly everyone shouted out in unison, like a Greek chorus, "Hi, Tom!" Each person attending gave a personal progress report on his or her battle with addiction (p. 275).

            I don't know if you have thought of it this way, but in

effect this is what we do every Sunday when we share the peace of Christ. When we turn to one another after the prayer of confession and say, "The peace of Christ be with you," we are in effect saying, "Hi, I'm Ken, and I'm a recovering sinner. How do you do?" And the other person is saying in effect, "Yeah, me, too."

            We are leveled by grace.  That obnoxious kid at school, that

annoying co-worker, that troubled teenager, that difficult spouse, even those detestable politicians-they are all fellow sinners whose only hope is God's grace, just like for you and me.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7