Some of the very best of the good news that we have as Christians is that God’s grace is truly scandalous in its application and implications. All too often I want to give grace only to folks with whom I agree and withhold it for those who hurt people I care about. That makes sense, I think. But recently I’ve been returning to the writings of bell hooks, who reminds us to hold folks responsible for the harm they cause while at the same time holding on to the humanity of those who mistreat others. In this week’s texts, we have beautiful examples of God’s grace that insist on right repentance while at the same time holding on to God’s Beloved humanity with unbreakable, faithful love.
Isaiah 50 contains the third of four “Servant Songs” that announce God’s chosen instrument in witnessing to God’s justice and grace for the whole world. Here in Isaiah 50, the servant receives pushback and abuse while serving God’s mission. The servant is beaten, spit upon and insulted. Why? What has the servant done to anger the people? A clue comes in the first verse that we read this week: God gave the servant the knowledge to sustain the weary with a word. And what is that word?
When preparing to preach lectionary texts, we do ourselves and our congregations a favor by always reading the surrounding context. The introduction to Isaiah 50 begins with God asking a series of questions. The meaning to be drawn is that while God’s people were disciplined for their own sins, God never gave up on the Beloved Community (1-2). The prophet insists that God’s body and power are sufficient to redeem and rescue. This is the message that has gotten the servant into trouble.
When all signs pointed to doom and gloom and punishment without end for national sins of injustice and idolatry, God’s servant spoke up and announced a better way. God is the God of both justice and grace. God sends prophets with a word that will comfort the weary and afflict the comfortable. As the season of Lent draws to a close, I wonder if that has been our experience: a time of discipline and comfort, simultaneously. God’s grace will always move hand in hand with God’s justice.
No matter who you are or what you have done, Jesus undertook a rescue mission that he knew would be fatal because of his love and grace for you.
Looking ahead to this week’s Gospel narrative, Jesus’ passion narrative centers on justice and grace. Jesus, as divine kinsperson-redeemer, rescues humanity from the depths of sin and death into which we have become trapped. Jesus mounts a rescue mission by entering into the horribleness of sin and murderous death on our behalf, and he experiences the consequences of our sins. This is God’s design for justice, that those with power would never abandon those who need help (Leviticus 25:25, 47).
And while knowing what was about to happen to him, Jesus throughout the passion narrative displays incredible grace. Immediately after instituting the eucharistic celebration, Jesus announces to his disciples that they will all betray him. When Peter protests that he would never betray his Lord, Jesus told his chief disciple that he would the greatest traitor. When Judas came to betray his teacher with a kiss, Jesus still addressed him as “friend” (Matthew 26:50).
Even as he was betrayed, Jesus still interacted with those who would betray him as beloved disciples. The passion narrative (and the rest of Scripture) is full of people who made bad choices, to be sure. Disciples betray. Soldiers arrest and torture. Crowds condemn. Priests and even other condemned prisoners mock. But their sin wasn’t who they were to Jesus. Instead, Jesus saw them as people worth dying for. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
So, as we take the journey to the cross this week in the final days of Lent, let us keep in mind the God who works salvation through the cross and empty tomb. God is a God of justice and grace, and the two are as inseparable as the love of the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit!). God’s grace is profoundly scandalous. For the sins of every person who, as we read about this week, hurt and humiliated God’s beloved Son, Jesus chose to die. The very good news this week and every week is that no matter who you are or what you have done, Jesus undertook a rescue mission that he knew would be fatal because of his love and grace for you.