There was a show in the 90’s called Full House. Some of you probably remember the cheesy glory that was Full House. Bob Saget, Dave Coulier, and John Stamos were the saccharine odd trio who somehow found a way to work together to raise three girls. In one episode Uncle Jessie (played by Stamos) had to make a decision. So, he got one of those old school balance scales. He piled up red and black checkers in front of himself and settled into the decision making process. Every pro was a black checker on one side. Every con was a red checker on the other. In the end, the decision was as simple as looking for which side of the scale was heavier.
Even if we have a real sense of the Grace of God, there is still somewhere in our collective psyche this image that God decides our fate in the same way as Uncle Jessie. We maintain this notion, maybe just subconsciously; that there is a balance sheet somewhere and that when we die we’re going to sit through a film of our lives with God and St. Peter standing behind us saying, “tsk, tsk, tsk.” In some cases it’s almost something we crave. A friend once told me that he wanted to go to a church where the preacher stepped on his toes. He wanted to leave knowing that he was doing wrong, and to be told what sins he was committing. I can almost understand where he’s coming from.
There’s a beautiful freedom in the Gospel. But there is also an incredibly frightening aspect of it as well. When we realize that God has made the ultimate sacrifice for us, we then realize that we owe him everything we are. If God is a ledger keeper, then we just need to be sure that there are more black checkers than red. We don’t need to worry about our motives. We don’t have to worry about our heart. If God is a ledger keeper, then we just need to make sure that we come down on the “not-sin” side more often than not. And we want to be sure that when we do sin that we make up for it by feeling good and guilty. Is this what God is about? Is that really Good News?
To find out the reality of how God operates we need to look at what Jesus says of him. Jesus tells a lot of stories. People ask questions, and Jesus either answers with another question, or simply starts into a story that contains the answer. When discussing God’s nature, and the nature of God’s love for us, Jesus tells stories of beloved things that are lost. He tells of a woman who lost a coin and searched everywhere until she found it. He tells of a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One was missing, so he left the 99 and went to find the one. He tells of a man who’s son said, “I wish you were dead”, took his inheritance and left. After squandering his money this son saw the error of his ways and returned. The father ran to him with open arms. There was no need for explanation. There was no need for guilt. There was no need for these things because there was true repentance. When the prodigal son realized what he had done, he soon discovered that the father’s lavish love was waiting for him the whole time. He discovered that his punishment was self-chosen when he ran from the father. And He discovered that the father did not require the penance he prepared for himself. All that he needed to do was to repent, turn around, and walk back to the father (who was waiting for him all along). When he did that, the father ran to meet him where he was and walked back with him. Then he celebrated the return of his once lost son.
When my friend told me that he preferred a church where the preacher stepped on his toes and made him feel guilty I was forcibly reminded of a poem my Shel Silverstein. The final lines of “The Quest of Gimmesome Roy” sum this up very well (I will edit it for the more sensitive reader):
“Well, that is that,” says Baba Fats, sitting back down on his stone,
Facing another thousand years of talking to God alone.
“It seems, Lord”, says Fats, “it’s always the same, old men or bright-eyed youth,
It’s always easier to sell them some [lies] than it is to give them the truth.”