Compassion more important than law

God walked this globe full of grace

By Curtis K. Shelburne

Some things never change. Most things, in fact. “In times like these,” said one wise man, “it helps to remember that there have always been times like these.” Yes, and people, too.

While no one is absolutely one or the other, people here will always be by default basically cold people or warm people, institution people or “people” people, and, at heart, grace people or “law” people.

In a recent Bible study at church, we found ourselves discussing Jesus’ “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:9-14). The “respectable” toxically religious man stands praying “about himself,” thanking God that he is “not like other men,” sinners who fall far short of God’s mark. The despised tax collector won’t even lift his eyes to heaven but prays, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus indicates that the latter pray-er is the one God approves.

This was fresh on my mind as I was reading another of Ellis Peters’ delightful Cadfael Chronicles.

Brother Cadfael is an old soldier/seafarer turned Benedictine monk in 12th-century England who often finds himself acting as a sort of ancient detective/CSI operative solving mysteries in the village of Shrewsbury and surrounding Shropshire. (Hmm. My Grandmother Key’s maiden name was Shropshire.)

In one Cadfael story a new parish priest has just been welcomed, but the welcome turns out to be premature. The fellow turns out to be a “law” person of the most conscientious, unbending, meticulously scrupulous—and odious—sort.

I disagree with the theology in the examples that follow, but that’s not the point.

A sickly child is new-born and will soon die. The priest is quickly sent for lest the child die unbaptized, but the priest is saying his prayers and won’t be disturbed in such holy business. The child dies, and the priest refuses to bury him in consecrated ground. He believes he had no choice. (“Law” people never do.) Sad, but . . .

A weak and pitiable woman makes another in a sad line of mistaken alliances, bears a child, and asks for absolution. The priest refuses, won’t admit her to mass. She despairs and ends her life. What else could he have done? No choice, he thinks. She had choices and made the wrong ones. A shame, but . . .

This priest stands not with his parishioners as a fellow struggler making his way through life and seeking to honor God even in the midst of human weakness. He is sure he is “not like other men,” completely dependent upon God’s grace. Sure that he needs little mercy, he has little to dispense. Too much grace and God’s holiness and justice will surely suffer, after all.

Some things never change. We meet this fellow and his kinsmen every day, maybe even under our own hats. Those who choose to live by “law” will die by it, religiously cruel. We would do well to ponder Jesus’ words: God desires “mercy and not sacrifice.” “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”

When God walked this earth, he walked with us, full of grace.