Thursday, January 06, 2005

Cui Bono?

We stand inside an economy, an exchange system. I do something for you, in expectation that you will do something for me. In contract law, it is the "consideration" that makes the promise binding. Classically, contract law says that consideration can be as small and meaningless as a bean, and object of no particular value. But we consider all interactions ultimately as a series of exchanges, and always weigh the question this way: what's in it for me?

Grace, in Christian doctrine, stands outside of this cycle of exchange. It is, by definition, unearnable. (Whether it is also, by definition, essential to all is another question.) But this produces a problem for us: if it cannot be earned, why can't it be given to just anyone? And if it is freely given to everyone, what's the point of it? Is it still grace if everybody gets it, no matter what? But, if the recipient must do something in order to receive it (even acknowledging the gift itself), is it still free?

"Come," God says to Israel through Isaiah, "for water, all who are thirsty; though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price." (Isaiah 55:1-2) Put in the very terms of economy, God tells us to come and receive something that is wholly outside of our economy. But how do we do that? How do we receive grace without paying for it? How do we receive a blessing, without earning it? How do we buy, without money, and not for a price?

That's the conundrum of grace and works. Without works, what have we done? Without works, do we need to do anything? But with works, aren't we simply engaging in an economy, one where we barter for grace or salvation or our souls, with the Creator? And if it is an economic cycle, is there any grace involved, at all?

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