It’s said that CS Lewis was at a conference comparing the world’s great religions. When participants tried to identify what was distinctive about Christianity Lewis suggested “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
Lewis was wrong. In Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture David DeSilva points out that grace was well known in the ancient world. Aristotle described it like this:Grace may be defined as helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper, but for the advantage of the person helped
Grace was spoken of in the context of the patron-client system. This was a relationship where an influential person would adopt a person of lower status as a ‘client’. The patron would do favours for the client – help him secure land, pay debts, provide a loan, etc. The client could never hope to repay the patron, but was expected to honour the patron, show loyalty and perhaps provide some minor services. And so grace, the generosity of spirit that bestows favour on another who is unable to repay the favour, was well known.
In the parables Jesus tells, eg the great banquet, it seems he wants us to image God as our patron. I find this an incredibly powerful way to think about God. He is my patron, bestowing favour on me, even though there is nothing I can do to repay him.
And here is where the distinctive contribution of Christianiy lies. God offers his patronage to every person on the planet. What is distinctive about Christianity is not grace but the extent of grace. The expectation for many in Jesus day appears to have been that God’s favour rested only on a select group, inevitably the one to which they belonged. The genius of Jesus was to show that God’s favour rests on all his creation.
Jesus declares that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”, citing this as evidence that God acts with favour to those who return his love and those who do not (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus embodies favour to all by dining not only with Pharisees and disciples but with tax collectors and prostitutes, significant given meals were one critical way people in his day signaled who was acceptable and who was not. Jesus tells parables of a graceful God that speak of his favour on all – his story of two sons, one who is very good and the other who is very bad, a prime example. The bad son has deeply shamed his father, yet the father longs for his good.
It’s an amazing thought – God regards me with goodwill and favour and wants to bring good into my life. But how does that work? How is it more than words? How do I realise God’s favour in my life? Jesus suggested a few things that ring true for me.
- God favours me with a beautiful, productive earth. Jesus saw the planet as God’s gift for our provision (Matthew 6:25-34);
- God favours me with his interest. Jesus saw a God who knows me intimately, down to the number of hairs on my head!
- God favours me with guidance. Jesus words provide the foundation for a life well lived (Matthew 7:24-27);
- God favours me with discipline. A God who seeks to bring blessing into our lives and world must confront that which destroys. Jesus had strong confrontations with those who act without favour to others. He declares woe on those who exploit the poor, upbraids those whose religiosity blinds them to God’s heart for inclusive and just community, warns people that by setting themselves against what God stands for they are excluding themselves from the kingdom, corrects his followers;
- God favours me with his presence. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus closing promise is “I am with you always”. Whatever I experience in life I will never be alone;
- God favours me with forgiveness;
- God favours me with hope. God is at work transforming me and my world and one day will welcome me into his new world;
- God favours me with his love.