This is how we see someone who walks off a stage in cap and gown having been awarded a degree. The years of study and hours of dogged application and self-sacrifice have finally paid off, with the due recognition. It is what we do when, having completed our education, we go out to prove our worthiness, or ‘earn’ a living. At the completion of service we allow people to occupy the deck chair of retirement recognizing they have earned it. As babies all we need is given freely, but later as parents we dangle the carrot of ‘earning’ an appropriate reward to stimulate a correct response or achievement. In contrast when someone engages in some despicable action and is brought to justice, or ridiculed by the community, we say “They’ve earned it” – they got what they deserved!
The idea of earning is an inherent component in the economic, commercial and business world; employees from the office cleaner to the C.E.O. have to earn their monthly wages. We come to God with that mindset.
The psalmist writes, ‘The Law of the Lord is perfect…the statutes are trustworthy…the precepts are right…the commands are radiant…the fear is pure…the decrees are firm…all are righteous, and then adds ‘in keeping them is great reward’ (Ps.19:7-11) very true, but it may suggest we can earn a favourable status, or ‘Brownie points’ with God. Such a possibility, or need, gets ‘blown out of the water’ by the gracious, magnanimous action of Jesus throughout his entire ministry. He recognized Zacchaeus (a sinner in the eyes of the community) as ‘a son of Abraham’ (Lk.19:9). The centurion didn’t earn the healing of his servant. The leper didn’t earn his complete restoration to the community, the demon-possessed man did nothing for his deliverance, nor did Bartimaeus do anything to receive his sight, the criminal alongside Jesus only made a request, “Remember me”. Scores of others just queued up to be touched by him.
Reward is mentioned a number of times in the gospels, for both good and bad conduct, but the large screen, full colour portrait of God portrayed by Jesus is one of extravagant generosity and immeasurable, inclusive, compassionate grace toward everyone- good and bad. John, the mystic, grasped this truth and in his gospel and letter he makes it crystal clear we cannot do anything to ‘earn’ God’s love. ‘God so loved the world he gave,’ ‘We love because God first loved us’. God loved us from the very beginning; before we ever knew him.
This eternal assurance should not lead us to draw the conclusion nothing is required of us. Ignoring the reputation Zacchaeus had and the defense mechanisms he had built around himself Jesus graciously broke through to touch his hungry heart and Zacchaeus reacted immediately with commensurate grace and generosity toward others. We respond to his love of us by becoming agents of his love to others.
A response to God may seem too easy, lacking challenge, however though we cannot do anything to earn God’s love, neither can we withhold anything; as one writer expressed it ‘The entrance fee is nothing, the annual subscription is everything’. Our formation in Christ requires sustained effort throughout life in every area of our being. No one is ever retrenched or classified as redundant in the kingdom of God. Our value is not determined by what we do, but in whose we are and what, by God’s grace, we can become.
Fr. Rohr understands God as ‘the fountain fullness of outflowing love and relationship itself‘. Grace would not be grace if it were not freely given. Forgiveness would not be forgiveness if there were conditions attached in small print. God’s nature cannot be changed, but ours undergoes a process of change as he gives of himself, (his grace, compassion, wisdom, life, mercy) to us by his indwelling Spirit. Every law-abiding action Paul had attempted he came to see as utter trash compared to the unmerited benefit of grace in Christ – God’s free gift to the world. We can never, never earn it by our own good works – it is the grace-gift of the Giver of life. Every morning the ‘gift’ appears in our ‘In-box’, waiting for us to open it, or more correctly, open ourselves to it. When Paul did that, his spiritual formation in Christ became God’s operation, as does ours.
I end with a quote from the French mystic, Simone Weil, who once said: ‘We cannot take a single step toward heaven. If, however, we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up’. Keep looking up!