Salvation By God’s Grace

30th Sunday Ordinary Time
Cycle B
28th October 2018
Mark 10: 46-52
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

The author of the letter to the Hebrews is comparing Jesus’ work of reconciling mankind with God to the action of the high priest offering ceremonial sacrifices to God to express the community’s devotion to God, to atone for their sinfulness, to restore as far as possible the damaged relationship between God and man. We may often choose other goals and purposes in our lives apart from God ; what the Bible calls idolatry. But even when we feel that we want to establish contact with God and to live in accordance with God’s values, we’re powerless to achieve this purely by means of our own abilities and efforts.

We so often fail in our efforts by falling back into selfish habits. And so part of the picture which the author of the letter is trying to put across is that to release us from the prison of our fallen nature, to bring us back into harmony with God, in other words to bring about our salvation, something needs to be done for us. It requires some action on God’s part, a work of grace. We are reminded that we are not capable of bringing about our own salvation.

The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, is an example of someone who can’t, by his own efforts, bring about the healing and restoration of his lost sight. But just as important, he is an example of someone who candidly admits his own inability to heal himself. He is free from any illusions of self-sufficiency. “Son of David, have pity on me”. He freely admits his indigence and his dependence on outside help.

This attitude of Bartimaeus – admitting his own powerlessness to heal himself and throwing himself at Jesus’ feet – makes him a sort of prototype of Christian sanctity or holiness.
When we look at the lives of the saints, or anyone who is obviously very holy or spiritually advanced our tendency possibly is to see individuals with enormous strength of will-power, huge single-mindedness in their dedication to God; heroic perseverance in spite of all kinds of difficulties.

They seem to be people with superhuman qualities of patience, compassion, love for others, men and women who have absolutely no thought for their own interests. In other words, we tend to attribute their holiness to their own strength of character and we conclude that they’re people who are completely different from ourselves! But when we read what these genuinely holy people say about themselves, it usually turns out that they insist vehemently on their own weakness and sinfulness.

They’re quick to deny that they have done anything except respond to God’s grace, and they express a strong sense of having been redeemed by God’s actions, not their own. They take no credit themselves for anything they achieve. They put everything down to God’s influence and direction.

If we turn to the first reading this Sunday we find the prophet Jeremiah suggesting that this is the basic quality that’s needed at the heart of the community of believers in God. And at the core of this renewed community, again, are people like Bartimaeus, who admit their dependence on outside help, their inability to save and comfort themselves.

The truth is, God can’t do much with individuals who have a high opinion of themselves, or with people who pride themselves on having made it in life – perhaps acquiring great wealth, power and status, – by being tough and determined at the expense of others. So taken together the readings this Sunday point to an important element of Christian faith; an important reality in the life of faith of each believer; something which marks us off from unbelievers or atheist humanists: we don’t and can’t save ourselves.

Only God brings about our healing, the removal of our spiritual blindness, our salvation.
Obviously there’s always a balance to be struck between the idea of depending on God’s grace and responding to God by our own free-will and by freely chosen decisions. In our spiritual life it’s always possible to exaggerate in one or other direction, either overstressing God’s influence and giving no role to our own will-power and intelligence, or else exaggerating human capacities for moral goodness and virtually denying that God’s grace has any role to play.

Keeping a proper balance is something we have to do almost daily as we try to fathom the mystery of God and enter into his life more closely. But certainly the emphasis in today’s readings seems to be on warning us against our fallen tendency towards pride and self-sufficiency, and on acknowledging that the starting-point in our relationship with God is to surrender any such notions and instead admit our blindness and our weakness – to recognise that salvation is a gift from God, not something we create or bring about for ourselves.

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