In the scripture lesson before us today – this agonizing portion of Romans 7 – the Apostle Paul is praying passionately to be saved from himself. “For I do not do the good I want,” he exclaims, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Have you ever thought about it that way - being saved from yourself? I have. I am, for instance – I’m awfully self-important – too full of myself, I’m afraid, even when I might appear otherwise, when I would seem to be fairly altruistic – whether I may have others fooled or not. Have I been too privileged across my lifetime, a product of unfair advantage and opportunity? Have I merely gotten more than my share of “attaboys”? Which, at times, can unfortunately still seem never enough. Or as I often ask myself, if not derisively, “Who do you think you are?” If I were to be saved from myself, I have a pretty good idea of what that might involve.
And what about you, Day1 listener (or reader)? Who’s your own worst enemy? Who gets in your own way too often? In Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s called “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” (Step 4). It’s not unlike who’s the hardest person to first and last and finally tell the truth to?
Being saved from ourselves. That’s what Paul is praying for in the scripture lesson today: to be saved from himself. Which is, of course, what the Christian Gospel offers to each and every one of us – indeed to all the world. Or as Paul ultimately proclaims here in Romans 7 (and throughout his faithful witness in our Christian New Testament): “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Being saved from oneself. Nowhere is this ultimate, this most tragic of all ironies more profoundly illustrated than in the Bible itself, inarguably the most famous and familiar of Jesus’ many parables. In fact, I wonder if Jesus actually considered this his favorite? The story of two brothers in Luke 15.
In the story, the younger brother finally becomes thankful for a life he has – in his arrogantly ignorant lack of self-worth and immature impatience, his impulsive and care-less selfishness – a life he has so tragically tried to throw away.
The prophetic Bible scholar Clarence Jordan likened the younger brother to the psychotic character in Mark 5 and Luke 8 from whom Jesus casts out demons into some swine the guy has been living among. Or as Dr. Jordan observed, any good Jewish boy reduced to being hijacked by whoever owned all that black market pork – he’d fallen about as far as he could fall. All that sausage and bacon and ham, and those spare ribs that Jews aren’t supposed to eat or have anything else to do with – just across the lake (the Sea of Galilee) from the most sacred Semitic civilization in the history of the world, why, that kid, said Clarence, he had surely lost his mind! Only to be healed by Jesus and become (in one of the most beautiful lines in all of scripture) “clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15, Luke 8:35). [If you don’t know that particular Bible story, or don’t remember it, give yourself a treat this summer. Go to your own Vacation Bible School. You can read the same story in either Mark 5 or Luke 8.]
“Clothed” in what? Grace – amazing grace? A “renewed mind” (as in Romans 12:2)? In Jesus’ Luke 15 parable, that surely describes the younger brother who has found his way back home, to his father’s house. As T.S. Eliot put it (my paraphrase), “only to know it for the first time” (Little Gidding), eternally thankful for a life he has been so graciously given. In contrast to the older brother who is too proud to be thankful. Proud of – unlike his brother – proud of all the mistakes and poor decisions he hasn’t made.
The older brother, you see, has lived a much more circumspect, carefully calculated life; if you will, a life more calibrated to pride than gratitude. Because the older brother, he believes that worth has more to do with being good than grateful. For him, value is more achieved than received, more earned than granted, more conditional than unconditional.
The older brother is so anal about crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s (the Bible’s “jots and titles”), about making sure he’s read the instructions and checked his answers carefully. Or at least he’s successful enough to pay someone to do it for him. Hardly one for tolerating care-less-ness. If he’s your boss at work, he’s forever looking over your shoulder – even more so for wanting to make himself rather than for trying to necessarily make you look good.
At church, older brother types are typically in charge of things, particularly finances (like Judas, among Jesus’ first followers), and especially when it comes to ambiguous theological and ethical dilemmas which tend to promote controversy and division in church life.
Today, far too many people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or even as “NONES” – capitalized NONES: this, tragically, out of naïve rebellion against older brother types traditionally and just as unfortunately in stereotypical institutional church leadership.
Reflecting on before she became a reasonably credible Christian, the writer Anne Lamott says that she “could hardly stand to be in the same room with most Christians” (given her fairly limited and just as distorted sampling). Likening such folk to older brother types, she continues, “they seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren’t” [Traveling Mercies, p. 43].
Which is why in the Luke 15 parable, what really ticks the older brother off is that their father isn’t condemning of such a forever-screwing-up (can’t the kid ever get anything right?) loser of a younger brother. In other words, for the competitive-on-steroids older brother, for someone to be good, someone else has to be bad; for someone to succeed, someone else has to fail; for someone to win, someone else surely has to lose. But not in God’s economy. At least according to Jesus.
Since this story about the two brothers, it is finally even more about who God is. At least according to Jesus. Since it is of course Jesus – at least for those of us who are Christians – it is Jesus, as the Christ of our faith, it is he who reveals finally the fullest, the most and best we know, in the most human of ways, who God is.
Whether it’s the rebellious, the selfish, self-loathing younger brother in the pig pen, or the arrogant, self-made, “I-did-it-my-way” older brother running things in either the corporate board room in the world or at church, both of these guys are lost – each in his own way. Or as Jesus would one day lament from a cross, “…for they know not what they do.”
Except eventually, the younger brother is confronted by a non-judging, non-condemning full-of-grace God to and for whom he is at least thankful enough for a life he has been so graciously, so unconditionally given; indeed, a God in Christ who saves him – the younger brother – who saves him from himself.
Whereas his older brother? He worships a different kind of god. In his world, not unlike in ours, everything is competitive and conditional, and the older brother, painfully proud as he is at being so successful at winning, has no room left in his life for being thankful. He thinks he deserves the life he has won, a life he has achieved, he has earned – all on his own. And he remains just as lost – lost in and lost to himself – at least according to Jesus.
The older brother’s god is a god who seeks value, who seeks worth, unlike the God of the younger brother, the God we Christians know most and best in Jesus, the Christ: a God who confers value, a God who grants, who so unconditionally bestows worth, from whom all of who we are and what we have is utterly and ultimately given. A God in whom all of life rests in this life and beyond it. Which thus frees us, as beloved children of such grace – yea, a grace that frees us to express our strengths and gifts in and to whatever our calling and certainly in and through whatever challenges we may face.
It is indeed how God finally saves us from ourselves. Or as Paul proclaims it, this good news, this gospel, in the most agonizing of circumstances, in this lesson today: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”