Lenten Scripture Readings for the week: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3: 14-21
I don’t know whether because it’s the fourth week in Lent or that I have a growing awareness of the frailty of human life, I am becoming increasingly aware of grace – the need for unmerited favor from God, and going against every independent streak in my personality, the need for unmerited favor and help from others also. Mark Galli recently wrote, “To know and bask in grace is to relinquish control. To admit we’re not in charge and never have been.” Grace is woven throughout this week’s Lenten reading.
In the desert, the people rebelled against God, yet He provided them a means of grace so that they may live. The passage in Psalms describes the people as fools who suffered because of their rebellious ways and disobedience. Inspite of that when “they cried to the Lord in their trouble…he saved them from their distress. He sent out his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave.” The passage in Ephesians describes a God who is rich in mercy, who saves us by grace and makes us alive. He shows us favor, which we do not deserve. Grace is not just about forgiveness. It is also about experiencing the favor, help and the presence of God in the midst of frailties and desperate times.
A true experience of grace is transformative – that when I am unable to cope anymore, somebody steps in to help, resolve my problems, and provides me a way out of the mess that I am in; when desperate prayer is answered and God steps. In that moment, the gnawing fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness are suddenly transformed into a lightness and joy in our spirits that spontaneously burst forth into praise. The Psalmist in today’s reading writes, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.”
However, the experience of grace and God’s unmerited favor is not just a blessing that I hoard for myself, or something that we as a church limit to only people who belong to our community. Grace and compassion go together. The grace that we experience we extend to others. It is a way of living life.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells the story of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a descendant of an old Russian noble family, who supposedly suffered from epilepsy and other mental weaknesses. As he returns home from his treatment in Switzerland, he is immersed into a society that is obsessed with power, greed and sexual conquest. Relationships are destructive and are scarred by manipulation and the abuse of power in every way possible. Maybe because of his mental challenges, Myshkin is a simple soul, in a sense naïve, and as a result trusting. His goodness and his ability to extend grace to various people have no place in the midst of the ugliness of such a society, and he is labeled an “idiot”. Jill Carattini describes the impact of Myshkin.
Myshkin’s inclination is to help rather than to harm, to give mercy rather than malice, forgiving again and again, though surrounded by people who do not. In fact, it is this group who tirelessly labels Myshkin the “idiot” because he refuses to participate in the disparaging and destructive ugliness of their own ways but instead takes what is cruel and repulsive in them and dispels it.
Such a life is countercultural and demonstrates an alternative to ugliness, manipulation, cruelty, revenge, and death. The story of Myshkin is a parable. It is unrealistic to believe that being able to extend grace and show compassion as Myshkin did is humanly possible. It requires a transformed life for love to not be egocentric but be driven by grace and compassion. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Trust in God then frees us sufficiently from self to make us cognizant of and compassionate in relation toward the other – in particular, the other who suffers, who is hungry and thirsty, who is imprisoned; the other who “fell among thieves”; the other who knocks at our door at midnight in need.”
Maybe this is what Eph. 2:10 refers to as good works, that as we experience the grace of God, we are now able to extend grace and compassion to others.