The Good Works Savings Account

II Esdras (or IV Ezra) 8:20-36
Romans 6:1-2
October 21, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

In our responsive reading today, the author of II Esdras says, “For in truth there is no one among those who have been born who has not acted wickedly, and among those who have existed there is no one who has not transgressed.  For in this, O Lord, your righteousness and goodness will be declared, when you are merciful to those who have no store of good works.”

How is your store of good works going?  I imagine a man standing at the pearly gates holding out his savings account passbook to St. Peter who scans the entries to determine the current balance:  

“Ah yes,” St. Peter nods.  “I see you made a sizable entry when you took care of your neighbor’s chores while he was laid up… oh, but wait.  You used that up the night you screamed at your son for breaking the lamp.”  St. Peter continues to look through the man’s passbook, calculator in hand, while the man waits anxiously at the gates to discover whether his final balance is in the red or in the black.

It is hard enough to save actual money but most of us would agree that with all of the stress we face, the demands on our time, and the distractions to tempt us away from our good intentions, it is even harder to store up good works.  We might come to the end of a day pleased with ourselves because we were especially kind that day, or happened upon some opportunities for good deeds, but the next day we turn around and in a bad temper we speak harshly to a colleague, are impatient with children, turn a cold shoulder on someone in need, or hunker down in our self-pity.  And in the constant struggle to overcome our worst inclinations, we’re not even sure how much good is required to tip the balance to the positive side.  Is bringing in a can of food for the food pantry worth one or two sarcastic remarks to my spouse?  The author of II Esdras states our condition so poignantly when he prays to God, “In truth there is not one among those who have been born who has not acted wickedly.  Among those who have existed there is no one who has not transgressed.”  II Esdras is not making a philosophical argument about original sin; the author is simply looking around at the world of his experience and saying, “Lord, there is no one out here who hasn’t sinned.  If you in your justice require us to be perfect, then we are all doomed.”  

II Esdras was written by an author living in Palestine around 100 AD, about 45 years after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.  The early church circulated the book among its congregations because people found some of its observations helpful and applicable to their own faith lives.  In the passage we read today, for example, the author tackles some of the same questions that Paul addressed in his letter to the Romans, namely the relationship between human sin and God’s grace.  In Romans 7, Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” confessing the difficulty all of us have in trying to maintain our good intentions.  Like II Esdras, Paul knows that that is the problem with salvation by works.  If we have to earn God’s love by stockpiling enough good works to make up for our constant stumbling, selfishness, and stupidity, then we are in big trouble, my friends.  Look around this congregation right now.  Not to brag or anything, but the people sitting here today are probably more inclined than the average person to try to be good and kind, and yet even given our attempts to live lives of goodness, do you see anyone in this congregation who is perfectly good?  If we had one of those signs on the church wall that says, “Number of days this congregation has gone without sin,” would it ever read more than 0?

There is a story of a young boy who was home alone one day on a school break.  Before his mother left for work, she told her son that he was allowed to go out for a walk but he was not to go swimming in the swimming hole.  That afternoon, as the mother was driving home, she passed the swimming hole and there was her son, joyfully paddling about in the water.  Furious, the mother jumped out of her car, dragged her son out of the water, and demanded, “Why are you swimming?  Didn’t I tell you not to go in that water?”

The boy looked chagrined.  “I’m sorry.  I went for a walk like you said I could and the water looked so nice I couldn’t help myself.”  

His mother scrutinized her son standing in his wet swimming trunks.  “If you didn’t intend to swim, why did you bring your swimming suit?”

The boy replied with a smile, “In case I was tempted.”

None of us is perfect.  We all know the temptations of self indulgence, of cravings for that which harms instead of heals, even the temptation to give in to our bitterness and anger by returning hurt for hurt.  If we can only save ourselves by doing more good in the end than we have done wrong, by being more often kind than self-centered, than we are left with a terrible uncertainty about our fate.  With II Esdras, we plead, “O Lord, be merciful to those who have no store of good works, because I’m afraid I might be that person.”

II Esdras is an eloquent summation of the human condition, but his description of God’s response to our sin is not theologically appealing.  In the responsive reading, I only included the words of the author’s prayer but I stopped us before we got to God’s response, because when II Esdras imagines God’s answer to his prayer, the author tells us that God’s response to our pleas for mercy will essentially be, “Sorry, Charlie.  There won’t be many who make it to my throne but that will just make the few who do more precious to me in the end.”

For II Esdras, God was willing to discard all the wretched and imperfect people like no more than failed pots in order to marvel over the few that came out perfectly.  This is probably why II Esdras never made it into the canon because this was not how the early church understood God’s love.  This is not how Jesus, who had dinner with sinners, who welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes into God’s realm, understood God’s love.  And it is certainly not how the apostle Paul understood God’s love because Paul couldn’t reconcile that view of God with his own experience of undeserved grace.  If anyone deserved to be discarded by God as a flawed vessel, it was Paul.  Before Paul became an apostle in the church, he was doing his best to bring down the young church, holding people’s coats while they stoned Christians to death, seeking out warrants to persecute them, and doing everything he could to stop this movement of Christ followers.  Paul was full of arrogant certainty about his mission, and didn’t appear to have even an iota of regret that made him worth saving, and yet God still chose to keep this man, and even invited Paul to join Christ’s work.  God sent Paul a powerful vision of Christ and then sent the compassionate Ananias to care for him and teach him the gospel.  And Paul wrestled with that experience for the rest of his life.  Why did God show him mercy?  Why didn’t God just toss him out with the rest of the garbage as II Esdras believed God would do?  Why doesn’t God give up on 99.9% of us and just keep the precious few who manage to live saintly lives, to marvel at the splendor of their perfection?  Paul came to believe that the answer had nothing to do with human beings or with our ability or inability to live lives of goodness and grace; the answer instead lies in God’s nature and who God is.  God, Paul came to realize, is a God of grace, and God’s nature is so loving, so pure in compassion and so thorough in mercy that it would be contrary to God’s very self to not show grace.  If God were a God of power and vengeance, God would have split the cross in two and rained terror upon those who dared nail Jesus upon it but the nature of God, the character of God, is mercy and grace and so God forgave because that’s who God is.

We think of God as being like a superior kind of human being.  Like human beings, God is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a mix of anger and forgiveness, of loving kindness and punishing wrath; and so we think that every time God interacts with us, God makes a choice as to whether to show us mercy or condemnation.  That is, after all, what we as human beings do.  Every time you meet another person, you choose whether to let the good side of you show or tap into the dark side.  But God is not human and is inherently consistent in a way that we can never hope to be.  In Hosea 11, God tells Israel that they deserve to be punished for their sins, but then adds, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not destroy.”  The first letter of John says that God is perfect in love.  Unlike human beings who are a mess of conflicting natures, God is perfect in character; perfect in love; perfect in mercy.  God cannot do anything contrary to love without contradicting God’s very nature and so God’s grace to us comes not because we have done anything to deserve it but because God cannot be anything other than God, who is perfect love.  As Paul looked at his own life, and his undeserved redemption in Christ, he came to understand that your store of good works can be empty, you can even be running a huge deficit, your sins far outweighing your kindnesses, but God will still show you mercy because that’s who God is. 

Of course, anyone with half a brain and even the least bent toward sinning — which means any of us — is bound to see the declaration of God’s unceasing grace as a mighty loophole to be exploited.  An old Peanuts cartoon shows Charlie Brown and his friend Shermy walking along one winter day talking about the approaching Christmas.  Shermy says to Charlie Brown, “I’ve got this Christmas thing all figured out.  If there isn’t a Santa Claus, then I don’t have to worry about being good so that he’ll bring me presents; and if there is really a Santa Claus, the guy’s got to be so wonderful and kind that he’ll bring me presents no matter how good or bad I am.  So why worry about being good, right?”

Charlie Brown looks puzzled, “Wrong, but I’m not sure why.”  

Paul anticipates our desire for a loophole by posing the question himself in Romans 6:  “What then, shall we sin so that grace may abound?”

If we have to do good works to earn our salvation, our task seems impossible and salvation is only reserved for the saints; but if God grants us salvation freely because God is a merciful God, then what is there to keep us from sin?  Why not beat the system, and live a self-centered life knowing that grace will save us in the end?  

Paul answer is that such an approach is impossible because once you accept the gift of God’s grace, Christ dwells within you and there is no longer room for sin.  Christ and sin are mutually exclusive — either Christ dwells within you or sin dwells within you; there is no room for both.  While we often talk about “sins” in the plural as specific acts that you can list like items on a cafeteria line, Paul understood sin as a state of being, about the covenant in which you choose to live.  It’s not that you won’t still have failures and slip-ups; but now your failures and slip-ups take place within the covenant — the framework —  of life in Christ.   It’s like two people getting married.  When they make their vows to one another, they are not saying, “We will always live in perfect love and harmony.”  There will still be failures but the marriage vows frame their lives together in such a way that even in imperfection, they promise to remain committed to living within the arena of love and commitment.  So too, when we enter into life with Christ our basic orientation is toward the things of God; God frames our lives, informs our choices, and when we fail, Christ turns our faces once again toward God so that we never get too far off course.  Therefore, Paul says, though good works will not earn you salvation, the person who is saved will still abound in good works because Christ will dwell within that person, believing in our capacity for kindness, drawing us ever away from self-centeredness and wickedness, and taking our hands to lead us toward goodness and grace for others.

Poor Esdras got cut out of the canon just because he got the cart in front of the horse.  He put good works before salvation whereas Paul said salvation first leads to good works after.  So whether you are doing good works in order to earn salvation or you are doing good works because you have experienced salvation, the fact is that either way, if you are taking the Christian life seriously, you will be doing good works.  So if you think you can be a Christian and escape doing good works, you’ve got another think coming, but if you are serious about following Christ, your faith will show in your good works.  With gratitude for the grace that God shows you, you in turn will exhibit that same grace toward others.  You will care for those around you as Christ first cared for you.  You will forgive those who hurt you or fail you as Christ first forgave you.  You will seek reconciliation and peace with others, just as Christ never gave up on you.  You will challenge the powers that oppress the weak and lost, just as Christ took on the cross for you.  Your good works will not be a fearful striving in an attempt to be good enough to earn salvation and the right to enter Christ’s presence but your good works will be the joyful expression of your gratitude for Christ’s presence in your life even though you did nothing to deserve it, and for the amazing bounty of God’s grace which re-makes you every day.