The Art of Grace

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38

            If you’ve spent any amount of time in the workforce, then at some point you have heard the pithy employment proverb, “work smarter, not harder.”  The idea behind this is to find the most efficient way to get the job the done.   However, some people twist this a little bit and they see working smarter and not harder as figuring out how to do the least amount of work and not get paid.   This has long been a problem which constant Internet access has only made worse.  A sociologist named Roland Paulsen determined that on average, American workers, waste two hours of the work day between doing activities such as smoke breaks, taking a long time to get back to work with coffee, or scrolling endlessly through social media.   There are some people who have taken not working to the next level.  One example is a Verizon employee whose termination agreement protects his anonymity and is referred to as Bob.   Bob outsourced his job to China for 20% of his salary.   This means while a programmer in China was doing the work, Bob was pretending to look busy while he watched cat videos and looked for good deal on Ebay.  His job was getting done, so no one questioned him.  In fact, Bob was considered one of the best programmers on the team.   Bob took the next step and started applying for other similar jobs that allowed him to work remotely and he outsourced those as well.  By time he was caught he was making around $200,000 a month and paying $50,000 to a Chinese firm actually doing the work.  

            Another example is Joaquin Garcia, a low level bureaucrat from Spain.  His job could be done from one of two locations a water treatment plant or a central office.   He told the treatment plant he would be at the central office and he told the central office he was at the water treatment plant.  In fact, he was at home doing whatever he wanted.   He pulled this lie for an amazing fourteen years, and he only got caught when he was to be recognized for twenty years of loyal service and no one could find him.   Being able to do the minimum amount of work and still get paid is a balancing act that actually requires an odd level of skill, this is why when sociologist Roland Paulsen wrote his article about the subject for the Atlantic Magazine he entitled it “The Art of Not Working.”  

            The art of not working is not a new phenomenon.   I can remember twenty years ago, well before social media and smart phones, when I worked at Pizza Hut.  I got really annoyed every time there was even a minor lull because literally everyone else rushed outside for 15-20 minutes for a “smoke break” leaving me by myself to do everything.   In his research Paulsen found that there has long been more people who report underworking than overworking.   Our technology might make it easier to slack off at work today, but I imagine as long as humanity has had a division of labor there have been people perfecting the art of not working.   The art of not working is all about getting the most you can while giving the least.  In this morning’s scripture, Jesus describes a different way to live.  Jesus describes the art of grace, which honestly is the opposite.  The art of grace is all about giving the most and being at peace with receiving the least.   The art of not working is all about finding ways to not work harder for personal benefit, but the art of grace is all about working harder to be more like God. 

            When it comes to the actual things that Jesus taught, perhaps this morning’s scripture is one of the best known.   This morning’s scripture has a parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel.   However, as we saw last week Matthew emphasizes more spiritual language while Luke gets down in the nitty, gritty practical details of life.   The best known part of this morning’s scripture is one of those details that does not appear in the same place in Matthew’s gospel, and that is verse 31:  Do to others as you would have them do to you.   We refer to this as the Golden Rule.   We recognize it is important, but we do not always do the best at following it.   In fact so much of conventional wisdom seems to go against this teaching of Jesus.

            For years I have seen social media memes that could best be described as “tough love” memes.  I imagine the people who post these like to think they are “Just telling it like it is.”   These posts meant to be shared and re-shared over and over again will have matter of the fact statements such as “Respect is not given, it is earned”, “facts do not care about your feelings”, or “act right if you want to be treated right.”   These could be seen as hardy salt of the earth proverbs, but the problem is they all go against the golden rule.   Because if respect is earned not given  then that means we do not need to treat someone with respect until they meet the standard we set as right.   If facts are always more important than feelings, then that gives us permission to ignore the feelings of those we disagree with.   Being held to and measured by someone else’s subjective standard or only having our viewpoint validated if someone agrees with it, is not how most of us want to be treated.   

            In fact the popular idea that respect is earned not given is an idea that Jesus seems to be explicitly teaching against in verses 32-33:  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners do that.”   There is nothing particular good or godly about being respecting the people who you think have earned it.  It is not much of a virtue to claim we are kind to those who have proven they are worth our kindness.   In fact the beauty of the art of grace we do not need to prove ourselves to receive it.   Thanks be to God for that amazing truth, because we would all be in a sorry state if we had to earn grace.   

            Treating others the way that we want to be treated, means we let go of our standards of behavior and measurements we try to hold people to.  It means we give them the benefit of the doubt and we treat people with a basic level of dignity and respect even if they have nothing to earn that basic level of dignity and respect.   We should be willing to do that for others, because God was willing to treat us mercifully even when we did not deserve it.   In Romans Paul writes about this.   All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We have all done what we know is wrong, we have all made the willful choice to put ourselves first, we have all acted in ways that cause harm and deny God’s goodness.  By God’s standard we are all ungrateful and wicked.   If God used the standard of “respect is earned, not given” we would all be toast.  Thankfully, that is not God’s standard.   God is a God of Holy Perfection, God is a God of justice, but God is also a God of extravagant mercy.  It can be seen consistently throughout the entirety of scripture that God always ends up on the side of mercy.   After stating we all fall short of the glory of God, Paul makes this clear in Romans when he writes this beautiful truth: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

            Do to others as you would have them to do, is all about treating other people the way that we want to treated.   Ultimately the way we want to be treated is with grace and mercy.   Treating other people that way is the art of grace, and when it comes to doing that in our lives I think there are two things we should keep in mind as we learn how to be more grace-full people. 

            Before considering those two points though, there is a very quick and small caveat that has to be mentioned here.  Unfortunately, there are incidences where this morning’s scripture has been twisted to convince people (women usually) to stay in abusive relationships.   The idea is they should literally turn the other check to the person who is abusing them.   That is not what this scripture is advocating.  If you ever find yourself in a situation with people who are abusive or harmfully toxic, then get out.   We can and should forgive those who wrong us, but that does not mean we should forget.   We can forgive and still remove ourselves from the situation.  It is possible to be kind while still creating and respecting healthy boundaries for our safety.    

 

            That being said, I think my children are a great example of how this scripture points us in the right direction.  I cannot help but brag on my kids a little bit.  You see, we have learned that whenever we go to downtown Indianapolis, we have to bring some spare change with us.  This is because on a lot of corners downtown there are homeless people panhandling for money, and my children want to help every single one of them.  Now, I have heard the same cynical reports that you have.  That those panhandlers are not actually homeless, but they have made a career off of the charity of others or they are going to just take that money and use it all for illicit substances even though the sign said they were hungry.   In their mind they see someone in need, so they want to be able to help them.   I pray they never lose that innocent and godly desire to want to meet the needs they see around them.    

            I understand there are bad apples out there and there is a need for wisdom and discernment, but we should not let jaded cynicism or assuming the worst stop us from helping people.  That is not doing for others as we would have them do for us.  If we were truly in need, we would want people to help us out.  That is what we should do for them.  We should show mercy to others.  If it turns out they are trying to scam us out of a few bucks, then come the day of judgement that is on them.   May we be faithful in being merciful, doing good for all, giving without expecting anything back, and being kind to everyone even the ungrateful and wicked.   For that is the way that God treat us.  

            The second thing we should keep in mind is how we divide people.   This morning’s scripture even hints at how easily it can be for us to divide people into groups.  This scripture after all refers to our enemies.  Our enemies are those who we are crossways with, who we tend to assume the worst of, or we view as fundamentally different from ourselves.   It is frightfully easy to take those who we disagree with or who we do not line up with brand them our enemies, consider them “those people.”   When we label others as “those people”, we instantly create an “us vs. them” scenario.  When we do that, it becomes very natural to say things like “respect is earned not given” to those who we consider those people.

            However, it becomes easier to love our enemies when we tear down those “us vs. them” walls that create enemies in the first place.  We should realize that all people belong to the same group, specifically all people need Jesus.   Saints and sinners, friends and enemies, us and them- we all need Jesus.    There is only one category of people we should put people in and that is the category of people who need Jesus.   I need Jesus, you need Jesus, and thanks be to God because we need such a great savior God has provided.   Our Father in heaven has been merciful to us, and when we realize that we are in the same category of people who need Jesus it is easier for us to be merciful to others.  

May you be willing to do to others as you would have them do to you, and may you look to God for the best example of how to do that.  May you be merciful just as your Father is merciful.  Using mercy, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness as your colors of choice may your life be a beautiful masterpiece that illustrates the art of grace.