I’m a big fan of N.T. Wright.
If you read many of my posts, that probably doesn’t come as any sort of surprise. His thinking saturates my theology, as it does for so many others.
Last week, a friend of mine shared a quote from an old interview Read The Spirit did with N.T. Wright that, like so many of the things he says, drove straight to the heart of the issue and exposed the root of the problem.
In this particular quote, Wright was talking about health care. He said,
In your country, for example, there seem to be Christian political voices saying that you shouldn’t have a national healthcare system. To us, in Britain, this is virtually unthinkable. Every other developed country from Norway to New Zealand has healthcare for all of its citizens. We don’t understand all of this opposition to it over here in the U.S. And, we should remember: In the ancient world, there wasn’t any healthcare system. It was the Christians, very early on, who introduced the idea that we should care for people beyond the circle of our own kin. Christians taught that we should care for the poor and disadvantaged. Christians eventually organized hospitals. To hear people standing up in your political debate and saying—“If you are followers of Jesus, you must reject universal healthcare coverage!”—and that’s unthinkable to us. Those of us who are Christians in other parts of the world are saying: We can’t understand this political language. It’s not our value in our countries. It’s not even in keeping with traditional Christian teaching on caring for others.
What I love so much about N.T. Wright’s insights is that so many of them are drawn from history. He has such an elegant way of contrasting our contemporary assumptions about Christianity with the historical reality of the faith.
While the contrast Wright draws in this particular quote is fascinating and worth further exploration, this isn’t a post about the merits of universal health care.
At least, not specifically.
This is a post about the underlying problem that Wright draws out in this quote without specifically saying it. You see, the contrast between us and our ancient forefathers that Wright is describing isn’t simply one of practice.
It’s one of attitude.
When we read in a passage like Acts 2 that, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” many of us tend to squirm.
We don’t like the thought of giving away the things we worked hard to get. We especially don’t like the thought of giving away those hard earned things to people who “don’t deserve it” because “they haven’t earned it.”
Now, we could stop here and have a debate about how our money is being “taken” away from us and frivolously given to others, as if in a democratic society we don’t have the right to vote for our leaders, to have a say in public policy, or choose to live elsewhere if we actually think that public policy is so repugnant.
But the underlying issue that Wright brings up isn’t about taxes.
It’s about what “I deserve” versus what “you deserve.”
It’s about grace.
Grace is a funny thing. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, when you really think about it, it’s not just absurd, it’s a little off-putting.
It’s certainly un-American.
Being American is about working hard and getting everything you deserve.
But grace isn’t like that.
Grace is grace because it’s given to people who don’t deserve it.
Let that sink in for minute.
If you grew up in church, then I know you’ve heard it a million times before, but let it wash over you anew.
Try once more, maybe for the first time, to really wrap your mind around the radical and absurd nature of God’s grace.
We tend to transform God’s grace into the very opposite of grace. For many of us, grace is something God has to give us, something God owes us, something we deserve for going down to an altar and saying the right prayer.
But God’s grace isn’t like that.
It’s not given because we deserve it for doing the right thing. In fact, it’s often given because we’ve done just the opposite.
It’s a radical gift that defies our deepest sensibilities.
God’s grace isn’t just about having patience when a child who’s just taken their crayons to a freshly painted wall. God’s grace is about looking at that child after they’ve destroyed both your lives through a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and saying with conviction, “I still love you.”
God’s grace isn’t just about donating your old clothes to Goodwill. God’s grace is about visiting an old enemy who’s life has fallen apart and cooking them a meal, giving them a place to stay, and listening to their pain.
God’s grace isn’t just about a traffic cop letting you slide for speeding in a construction zone. God’s grace isn’t about looking at convicted murder and saying, “You’re forgiven.”
God’s grace looks at what we deserve, and offers us what we don’t.
When we deny our neighbors basic human rights, regardless of the reason, but especially because we think they don’t deserve it, then we aren’t simply denying them healthcare, food, or shelter.
We are denying them grace.
And when we do that, we become the unmerciful servant who has no claim to the grace God has extended to us.
Grace and peace,