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Gracelessness and legalism (Mark 5:31)

I heard Edwin McManus speak at the National Pastors Convention (2008). He was talking about the lack of grace in society. In what first appeared to be a side comment, in describing a situation of gracelessness, he commented: “Outside of the church, I haven’t seen this kind of gracelessness in years.” Of course, what at first felt like a side comment was really the main point.

Today in my reading I came across the story of Jarius and the woman who was healed of her bleeding. Jesus can feel that healing power had gone out of him and asked who touched him. His graceless disciples respond, “‘You see the people crowding against you,’ his disciples answered, ‘and yet you can ask, ”Who touched my clothes?”’”

Let’s put this comment in perspective. They were the students; he was the rabbi. They had already witnessed countless healings and exorcisms. He had healed leprosy, the paralyzed man let down through the ceiling by his four friends, restored a withered hand, exercised sovereign control over the wind and the sea, and just recently exorcized a legion of demons from a man whom no one could control. Pretty impressive you would think.

And yet how did they respond to his question. With gracelessness. Almost with disgust. In essence they said, “That was a really stupid question, Jesus. We’re in a crowd. Daa. Of course people are going to be touching you.”

Is it not interesting that in the face of Jesus’ glory and power, that those who have the best chance to learn and grow can treat their rabbi with such disgust, without grace. Most of us who are parents have experienced this with our children. Because they don’t really understand a question, they respond without grace. “That’s a dumb question, dad.” But I have never exorcized a demon, healed broken bodies, or demonstrated control over the natural and supernatural world. One would think the disciples would show him a little more respect.

I don’t think that the disciples are necessarily dumb or slow. I think they were products of their age, an age of gracelessness, and this gracelessness was fed by a culture of legalism. Everything we know about rabbinic Judaism tells us that it was not the heart that mattered — things like poverty of spirit, mourning over sin, meekness, hungering for God’s righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart. Rather, it was actions, things people would do for the praise of other people, and of course they have already received all the reward they will ever get.

Legalism is a spiritual sickness that wants us to think that if we do certain things, then we have done all that God requires; and the rest of our lives can be lived in total isolation from the things of God. And if we do them, then we assume an attitude of arrogance, and a superiority over those who don’t do them, even if that person can tell the wind and water to be still.

If we have experienced grace, then we must necessity extend that same grace to others. And so, for example, if we do not forgive sins done against us, then our Father will not forgive our sins (Matt 6:14-15). Mercy is shown to those who show mercy (Matt 5:7). At some point, if we are not able or willing to extend grace to others, we must ask ourselves if we have truly experienced grace ourselves. There will certainly be times of such intense pain that we may not be able to extend grace to others in the moment; Jesus understands this. But what are the contours of our lives? Are we so convinced of our superiority that we would treat our Lord with disdain, or does the recognition of our own spiritual emptiness led us to humility, and to treat one another with grace?

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