There was an elderly gentleman who lived just down the road from a junior high school. Everyday, two young boys would walk by his house and bang on his garbage cans. No amount of yelling, cussing, or threatening would stop them. So, one day, the old man changed tactics.
When the young boys came by and banged on his trash cans, the old man spoke, “Hey boys. Stop what you are doing and come here for a moment. I have a deal I want to make with you.”
The two boys cautiously approached the old man who had yelled at them countless times.
The old man spoke, “Gentlemen, I have had a change of heart. I used to hate you banging on my trash cans, but I have discovered that it is now music to my ears. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to pay you each a dollar a day to bang on my trash cans to your heart’s content. Is that a deal?”
The boys couldn’t believe their luck, and they readily shook. Everyday the following week, they banged on the trash cans with reckless abandon.
After a week, the old man called the boys to his porch. “Boys,” he said, “I hate to tell you this, but the landlord went up on my rent. I’m only going to be able to pay you seventy-five cents a day next week.”
The boys said, “That’s okay,” and then proceeded to bang on the trash cans another week.
After that week, the old man called the boys up once again. “I’m sorry, boys,” the old man said. “Cable t.v. went up. I’m only going to be able to pay you fifty cents a day next week.”
The boys looked a little forlorn, but they said, “Well, I guess that’s okay.” And they proceeded to bang on the trash cans every day the following week.
The next week (you know where this is going, right?), the old man called the boys once more. “Boys, I hate to break it to you,” he said, “but the old lady had to have dental work, and I’m out quite a bit. Next week, I’m only going to be able to pay you a quarter each day.”
The boys then said in disgust, “There’s no way we’re going to bang your trash cans for only a quarter. We quit!”
And the old man has enjoyed his afternoons of quiet ever since.
Now, we can talk about all kinds of things with this joke: the wisdom of the elders, how to trick folks, even the foolishness of living in a home near a junior high school, but what I would like to spend a bit of time on is being paid for your labor. This joke effectively highlights that if we don’t feel like we are getting paid for our labor–even if we are tricked into it; then we get angry. We have been taught that our time and our efforts are extremely valuable. We have invented a system of commerce–capitalism–that hinges on the idea that our time, energy, and efforts are valuable and worth compensation. We believe that if we work hard enough, our efforts should pay off.
Get a good education, and you will receive a good job.
Work hard at your job, and you will be paid, appreciated, and get a raise.
Dedicate yourself to improving your abilities, and you will climb the corporate ladder.
Practice hard enough in a sport, and you will excel.
And the list goes on.
This is so deeply ingrained in our being that those who believe in God oftentimes apply it to their life of faith. We are basically taught that if you are good enough, then you will receive God’s blessings. If you do wrong, God will bring curses. More than a few have a deeper belief in karma than anything else. If you do ill, then eventually, the universe will pay you back. And we generally believe we are on the good side of the equation. I mean, if you think about it, what is at the heart of that age old question, “What did I do to deserve this?” Have you asked that question? I’ve heard it numerous times. I used to say it. What did I do to deserve losing my job? What did I do to deserve getting sick? What did I do to deserve my family breaking up? What did I do to deserve my car breaking down? At the heart of that question is the idea that you don’t think you deserve this to be happening to you. At the heart of that question is the thought that you’ve been doing enough good to deserve good in return. Basically, you are thinking that you are owed a good life because you are working to be good.
There are many preachers and pastors who actually preach this kind of thing and grow large churches by this preaching. Just believe enough. Just pray enough. Just put enough in the offering plate. Just attend worship enough. Sing loud enough. Say the right words in prayer. Do all the right things, and God will rain blessing down upon you. This message resonates deeply because it gives us control–control over our lives and control over God.
St. Paul would have gone ballistic against this kind of thinking!! First off, he would have argued vehemently that you don’t deserve any sort of blessing in your life. From Romans chapter one verse 18 through chapter three verse 20, Paul has laid out his case that all have fallen far short of God’s required ways of living, and the only thing we deserve is God’s wrath. But in a shocking twist, Paul says we have been made right with God–not by any action that we undertook, but by God’s action through Jesus Christ. “We have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus whom God set forth as a sacrifice of atonement.” When we deserved death, God gave us life–as a gift, Paul says.
And now, Paul is going to go through great pains to show that this was how God sought to make people right all along. Not through their work. Not through some sort of quid pro quo. But through sheer grace–effective when we trust in God. And Paul will use the example of Abraham to show this.
We begin in Romans chapter 4 verse 1: What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Paul reaches back into the deep history of Judaism to start with Abraham. Abraham is considered the patriarch of the Jewish faith–the one to whom God made the covenant to start the Jewish people. If Paul can show that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works, Paul gives Christianity a very, very strong footing.
Paul revisits the argument we dealt with last week about boasting. If Abraham were justified by his works, then indeed he would have something to boast about; but Paul says Abraham does not–especially before God. Why is this important?
Let’s do a bit of biblical history. As you read through the Old Testament, you will see that God gave the Law to Moses hundreds of years AFTER Abraham lived. Abraham did not have the Law. He was actually outside of the Law. The Jewish rabbis knew this, so they came up with the idea that Abraham managed to follow the Law unconsciously; instinctively. Because Abraham was able to do this, he was considered righteous before God.
But Paul knows better. He knows that Abraham didn’t follow the Law. Abraham was a polytheist before God called him. This means Abraham worshiped many gods. Abraham also lied and said that Sarah, his wife was actually his sister during a trip to Egypt. That caused a whole lot of problems according to the Bible. Even after God promised Abraham an heir, Abraham worried that God was acting too slowly, and he took a slave of his, Hagar, and had a child with her to be his heir. This was not trusting God, and Abraham certainly cannot boast about this. Then, when Abraham’s wife Sarah actually had a son, she became jealous of Hagar’s son and demanded Abraham drive him off. Abraham gave in to Sarah’s jealousy and drove Hagar and her son off. Does this sound like following the Law? Certainly, it does not. Abraham was not righteous because he followed the Law, and Paul points to the scriptures to show this as he quotes Genesis 15 verse 6, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Now, I want to point out here, as did the commentaries, that the Bible does not say, “Abraham believed IN God.” The words are, “Abraham believed God.” Abraham trusted God. Abraham believed that what God had said was true. Abraham trusted in the promises of God, and this is what made Abraham righteous. It was not any action that Abraham took. It was not any following of the rules. It was a trust that God would do what God said He would do. It was not something earned. It was something given.
This is the point that Paul follows up with beginning in verse 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. This goes back to my opening comments about being paid. If you work for something, you expect to be paid. You have a claim against the one who you worked for. You can demand your rights. You can demand your wages. If God justifies by works, then you can demand that God pay you. But, Paul says, you don’t work for God’s justification. He gives it to you as a gift. God even makes the ungodly righteous when the ungodly trust that He will do so.
This claim, that God would justify the ungodly, flew in the face of what the Law said. For the Law unequivocally said that God would punish the ungodly. There were many texts that could be cited. Of course, the problem with this is that all are ungodly. All would be punished. The only way they can be justified is by a gracious act of God.
And Paul points that such gracious acts have not only been done to Abraham, they were done to David as well. Paul ends by quoting Psalm 32 which is attributed to David: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’ David knew that such sins are covered by God and not by works of the Law. The Psalm points this out.
Now, Paul is actually not trying to emphasize David. He is trying to emphasize what God did in making Abraham righteous. He will continue this argument throughout the rest of the chapter. He wants to make it abundantly clear that when God began the Jewish religion, He did so outside the Law, and the founding Father was made righteous not by works of the Law, but by grace–sheer, undeserved grace.
This is a frightening thing for some. This is a frightening thing for religious belief because it means that we are not in control of God in the least. What do I mean?
Timothy Keller once shared an illustration of a lady whom he was trying to convert to Christianity. He told her the Gospel and that we are not saved by our works but by sheer grace. The lady to whom he was talking responded that this was a scary idea. Keller pressed her to say why. She responded, “Well, if I am saved by my works, then I can make a claim on God. I have my rights. I can say, ‘I’ve done this, God owes me.’ But, if I am saved by sheer grace, then there is nothing God can’t ask of me.”
Abraham knew was made righteous by God and not his actions, so when God asked Abraham to leave his family, his safety, his security, and go to a land that he knew nothing about, Abraham left. That’s scary to think about. That puts us into a world where we have no control. We are totally dependent upon God. Where we can’t know the future or plan for it. How many of us want that kind of life?
My guess is none. We like safety. We like security. We like having some control. We like to
think that we can bargain with God and obtain rights for doing the right things. But it doesn’t work that way. It works in a totally different way. We can’t claim anything from God. Instead, God claims us. God claims us. And He says, “Trust me. Above everything else, trust me.”
It would be a scary prospect to simply trust God in such a fashion. It would be terrifying–IF WE DIDN’T ALREADY KNOW HOW MUCH GOD LOVED US. For that is the piece of the puzzle that we must focus on. We must remember the cost God paid for us. It cost Him the Son. It cost death on the cross. God sacrificed Himself for us because He loved us. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. You were bought with great price. God doesn’t owe you anything. He has already given everything for you. The only question remains: will you trust Him? Amen.