In order, therefore, that God might be placated by man, God freely gave to man that which he was in duty bound to repay to God.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
I spent most of this afternoon reading excerpts from various works by Medieval theologians. It isn't always captivating stuff to read, but for some reason there tends to be at least one thing that really catches my attention. While I was reading a portion of On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith by Hugh of Saint Victor (sounds a bit obscure, no?), I was struck by a passage where he explains how and why salvation works the way it does. After describing our debt to God, Satan's dominion over us, and the way God's justice plays into all of that, he writes:
After I read that line, I just stopped and stared blankly at the page. Something about that whole transaction of giving and sacrifice and repayment seemed really odd to me. Why would God give us something that wasn't ours just so we could give it right back to God? It never actually belonged to us, so how could it repay our debt? Why did God go through all that trouble—essentially giving the payment, not actually to us, but right back to to where it came from—when it would have been easier just to forgive the debt?
As I sat there with the book in my lap, still staring at the page, I realized that that strange transaction reminded me of something. Remember when you were about six years old and Christmas came around? You were old enough to know that people exchanged gifts that time of year, but you weren't old enough to recieve any sort of allowance—so what did you do? Your parents gave you a couple of dollars and took you to the store so that you could by them gifts. In purely economical terms, you didn't actually give your parents anything. In fact, they really didn't even like the Santa eraser and Rudolph bouncy ball that you gave them.
But that wasn't the point. Something took place at a level that went deeper than the transaction itself. At the heart of it, it was about you. It was to show you something, to teach you something. Although the money and the eraser and bouncy ball were meaningful, they weren't what was really important....
I have to wonder if the same is true of the salvation narrative. Surely God could have saved us in some other way. Nothing forced God to become incarnate and die a terrible death for us. But that's what God chose—not because it makes the most sense economically—because God wanted to show us something. Perhaps the incarnation had more to do with teaching us about God's ultimate love and less to do with fulfilling cosmic justice.
I remember wondering about salvation when I was young. The transaction never seemed to line up right. No matter how I rearranged things in my head, the balance sheet never quite worked out right. Maybe the incarnation was about much more than cosmic accounting. Maybe God cared more about us than a balanced checkbook.