Ark of Grace

Don: In recent weeks, we seem to have arrived at a conclusion that grace is actionable—that it needs to be passed on, that we have to do something with it if we have the right tools in our toolbox at the needed time and place.

Yet the amazing thing about grace is that it operates even when it is non-actionable, when our toolbox is empty. The thief on the cross, the woman caught in adultery, the woman with the issue of blood, the blind man by the road… all received lavish grace without the expectation that they would pass it on. But if we have the capacity to pass it on, then we are expected to do so—this was the message in the Parable of the Talents.

The first mention of grace in Scripture is in the story of Noah and the Flood (Genesis 6-9). God had judged Mankind to have gone so completely off the rails that He was prepared to cleanse the evil with a Flood. Water is the agent of cleansing sin:

Yes, You will cast all their sins
Into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)

Jonah was cleansed by being thrown into the depths of the sea. Baptism in water is also a symbol of cleansing. The Flood is the ultimate act of cleansing.

In the story of Noah we see the juxtaposition of grace and judgment:

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8, KJV—the NASB substitutes “favor” for “grace”.)

The grace that God bestows on Noah is actionable grace. The escape from judgment is laid out in detail in the form of a detailed blueprint and bill of materials for the Ark:

Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (Genesis 6:14-16)

In Jonah’s case, the saving vessel came along in the form of a great fish. The implication is that God’s judgment is tempered with God’s grace. The Ark took 120 years to build. In 2 Peter, Noah is mentioned as the preacher of righteousness. It seems that during this lengthy period, along with the building of the Ark, Noah preached to Mankind the need to take advantage of God’s grace. The invitation to join Noah in the Ark was implicit. God’s extension of grace is to all Mankind—indeed, it is to all living things.

There has long been discussion of what happens to animals, especially pets, after they die. Some people have told me they would rather not go to heaven if their pet cannot be there also. Churches generally, and the Catholic Church in particular, teach that animals will not go to heaven because (they declare) they have no souls and are not moral creatures, therefore they do not have the free will to choose between right and wrong or to choose to be in heaven. But if judgment is based on grace—as, clearly, it was in the case of Noah—then animals are also to be saved.

Note also that God allowed 120 years to arouse the interest of Mankind in God’s grace. But like those who turned down the king’s initial invitation to the wedding feast, there were no takers except Noah, because:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

But it would be wrong to conclude that Noah’s righteousness entitled him to God’s grace. Like all of us, he was not at all free from sin, and was therefore in need of grace. The fact that no living thing availed itself of God’s grace in a 120-year grace period (so to speak) only highlighted their need for it. And even after being saved from the Flood, Noah continued to sin:

He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. (Genesis 9:20)

In the end, God memorialized His grace in the rainbow covenant, in which He vowed never to destroy life again. The rainbow is refracted light. It is God’s signature. It is the symbol that God came into the world (John 3:19). It is the rainbow seen above the throne of the lamb of God in the Book of Revelation. It is the symbol of God’s grace.

The following passage also makes it as plain as can be that animals—“every living creature,” “all flesh”—are included in that covenant of grace:

It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:14-17)

What we do with grace in the judgment depends on your standing, on who you are, on what you are able to do. We see a spectrum in recipients of God’s grace. At one end are animals, with no free moral choice (or have they?) On the other end are the  sophisticated beings who make the right choice to pass on grace they have accepted (in the parable, those who were given and invested the talents they were given). At points in-between along the spectrum are those who have varying ability to pass on the grace, such as the servant given one talent but failed to invest it.

David: YouTube has many videos of “Good Samaritan” animals—a crow that adopted an orphan kitten, and many more. If such are not demonstrations of love and compassion for a fellow creature, I don’t know what can be. So either animals are given grace by God, as we are, or they have the God-like ability to dispense grace de novo.

Robin: I had a dog that could tell when I fell ill with a severe sinus headache. He would put his head in my lap and would not leave me. God is love. Animals can pass on the love God put in their hearts. Except cats. 😉

Don: There are no cats in heaven? 😉

Auntie: There are lions!

Don: Seriously, though, while animals were not my intended focus for class today, it struck me in preparing for it that what Scripture says about them and what the church typically says about them are somewhat at variance, to put it mildly. What harm, what damage, what disservice has been done to people who won’t trust a God they are told excludes animals from His kingdom!

David: It shows how critically important is the interpretation of Scripture. It is not difficult to interpret Scripture in such a way as to suit any bias—q.e.d. not just bias against animals but against billions of people excluded by the Abrahamic religions from God’s kingdom. (If only Scripture were re-written to conform with my biases, then the world would be OK! 😉 )

Donald: Some people just don’t like animals. What do those of us who do like them see in them? To me, one of the things that makes them attractive is their non-judgmental nature, even when we hurt them.

But back to grace: Noah’s story took up an unusually large number of chapters in the Bible. If our stories were written in it, how many chapters would we be given, and what would our story reveal? What lessons might it teach? It’s hard to read the lessons of a chapter while we are in the middle of writing it. For instance, suppose you have a dearly beloved elderly relative for whom you are giving all the care that you can, but whose growing dementia causes her to complain that “all that you can” is not good enough? Is she right? Whatever you do results in emotional and physical stress. At what point does your responsibility for passing on grace end? How can we skip to the end of a chapter that isn’t finished to find out what we are supposed to do, when we can’t seem to do enough for someone we love—someone who is not clear-minded?

Don: You are asking the important existential question: How does grace work in real life?

Robin: With loved ones who have dementia we have to convince ourselves that they don’t mean any mean things they say to us. They would not say such things if they were in their normal state. But it still stings to hear them say such things.

Donald: Is that what God thinks of us? That if we were in our right minds we would understand grace, but we are so far gone that He doesn’t expect much of us?

Anonymous: We can never wrap our minds around reality. It doesn’t make sense to me that God would judge us when we are just so ignorant. We have to have faith and we have to accept grace, otherwise we cannot pass!

Mikiko: I love and understand animals and their feelings. I can communicate with them, especially dogs, because dogs are so intelligent. God made them the way they are. They want to talk, but they have to find other ways to let us know their feelings, and they do. Noah and his family had to care for all the animals in the Ark. It was a huge job. They must have loved animals to do that. In caring for the animals, they were passing on God’s grace.

David: Donald’s question of how much “passing on” is enough is intriguing. If the Good Samaritan had been on a really urgent journey when stopped and did something to help the suffering victim, but not as much as he did in the parable, would God’s judgment of him be different? Would it still deserve to be a parable of Jesus? I think it would, because—like those who care for elderly relatives with dementia—they are demonstrating love. Period. I think that’s all God the Father and God the Son expect of us. God the Spirit—our conscience—might urge us to do more, and if we comply, then great; but if we don’t, we surely are not bad if we have shown genuine love. Could we not (do we not) accuse God all the time of not doing enough? Not curing our child of disease? Not taking us out of poverty? Are we God’s conscience? All we really ought to expect of God is that He loves us.

Jay: There is no doubt there is some innateness to grace and love, but it also seems clear that here is an actionable component in play in grace. When we see someone suffering and in need, our heart-strings are tugged. This inner light or conscience or whatever we want to call it is a stirring of grace. The question then is how to respond to that stirring. The Good Samaritan used all the tools in his toolbox; if it had been someone else, s/he might have had different tools in his or her toolbox. The Good Samaritan did not stay at the inn to nurse the victim back to health—was that not in his toolbox? The question is: What is in my toolbox, and do I use it when needed?

We can always doubt whether we have done enough. We may even doubt that we have done too much. Is feeling a tug on the heartstrings enough of a response? Whose job is it to evaluate what is enough? My own? My faith community’s? It’s clear we should pass on God’s grace; what’s unclear is how much effort I should put into it, and who decides how much is enough?

Don: A sufferer may well have a different view of the answer to that question than a grace-giver. In trying to establish an appropriate measure of grace are we not trying to legislate or regulate a free gift intended to liberate us?

Donald: It gets even more complicated when a grace-giver’s relatives weigh in with their own view—their own judgment—of what is appropriate, for the sufferer, for the grace-giver, and for themselves!

Jay: The default for fallen Mankind is to judge both ourselves and others. We can’t seem to shake it. The example you suggest indicates that. In judging, we measure, we quantify. Perhaps we should resist that natural inclination.

Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses analyze grace as compassion, empathy, loving kindness, mercy, and undeserved kindness.

David: Those seem to me the essential tools in a toolbox of grace. Robin’s dog had all of them! Now, we might imagine another dog trained to fetch a headache pill when it sensed Robin was falling ill again. Its “grace” would seem more practical and beneficial to Robin, therefore superior to the grace of the untrained, practically unhelpful, yet still graceful dog. But is it? Grace is not in a pill; a pill is not a component of grace, not a tool in the toolbox of grace. The true grace of the Good Samaritan was in his expression of love and concern for someone in need, not in bandages and innkeeper’s invoices. We all can offer compassion, empathy, loving kindness, mercy, and undeserved kindness from our toolbox. Whether or not we have $10 or $100 in there as well is irrelevant, it seems to me.

Michael: This sounds to me like “soft” grace. I still think we need “hard” grace. Both can be thought of as actionable, but there was something in the actions of the Good Samaritan that made it better than soft grace.

Robin: Easy versus difficult grace.

Donald: Does a toolbox of soft skills include a calculator? And who’s doing the math?

David: In regulating or legislating grace we are intellectualizing it. Yet surely grace is spiritual.

Anonymous: We want answers. We’re like the lawyer who asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) We’re often not even sure what grace is. Is it spending time with a friend who needs company?

Donald: We establish entities—whole industries, even—to dispense grace: Physicians, care-givers, case-workers, physical therapists, and so on. In so doing, are we handing our toolbox, and the responsibility for its use, over to others? What responsibility did a Samaritan have to open his toolbox to provide grace to a Jew?

Anonymous: Conscience rules. Do what it tells you.

Donald: We learn to suppress our conscience.

* * *

Leave a Reply