On Fairness and Grace

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By the persistence of the rapping on our brass door knocker, I figured it had to be a kid. I figured right. It was Marvin, a ninth grader from down the street, looking for work. He wondered if he could mow the vacant lot next to my house We agreed upon $15 and he was off to fetch his lawn mower. A few minutes later there was another knock at my door This time it was Bernard, an eighth grader who had mowed the lot the preceding week. He wondered why I had offered the job to someone else when in his mind we had an implicit agreement that the work would be his from then on. I explained to him that it was a first-come, first-hired arrangement and that Marvin had asked first this week He then informed me that Marvin had just decided not to do the job, which left it up for grabs again. Bernard wanted to seize the opportunity.

There was something suspect about Bernard's story. It was not like Marvin to walk away from a job without saying something, especially when it meant ready cash. But Bernard was insistent so I finally conceded that he could be next in line if Marvin actually did turn down the job.

Peggy and I had some errands to run so I wasn't around when the mowing began. Later that evening as we returned from shopping we commented on how nice the freshly mowed yard looked. We hadn't been home five minutes when Marvin, wearing a distressed look, came knocking at our front door again "Why did you give my job to Bemard?" he inquired.

Bernard had been slick, alright. He had maneuvered in ahead of Marvin and took the mowing job for himself Twisting my words, he had deceived Marvin into believing that I had reneged on my agreement. The deception irritated me and infuriated Marvin. Bemard had gotten over on both of us. And then it occurred to me - my deal was with Marvin and that had not changed. Marvin was still in the driver's seat. I reached into my pocket, pulled out $15, handed it to Marvin and told him to do what he thought was right.

When I came back into the house Peggy forewarned me that I had just set up a conflict that wasn't going to go away. I knew she was right though I didn't admit it. I hoped that the situation didn't escalate into a fight or something worse. When Marvin and Bemard showed up on my porch together the next day, I breathed a sigh of relief. Peggy offered the boys Cokes and we sat down to talk things out.

By this time I had pretty well sorted out my feelings and conceded in my spirit that it would be more redemptive for me to serve as a reconciler than a judge. So as the boys launched into a barrage of charges and counter-charges, truths and half-truths, each giving his own spin on what really happened, I mostly listened and asked clarifying questions. Only occasionally did I jump in to correct a "Bob told me.." quote that was short on accuracy. In time their heated exchanges began to cool and their decibel level subsided as they tired of covering the same ground for the umpteenth time. Eventually the atmosphere calmed enough to permit a rational discussion of various resolution options.

Bernard could apologize for his trickery and throw himself on Marvin's mercy. Not a chance, Bernard made that clear. So Marvin was left with several alternatives. He could extend pure grace to an unrepentant conniver and give Bernard the $15; he could opt for justice and keep the $15, allowing the interloper to suffer the consequences of his deceitful deed; or he could select some compromise point in-between. This, I thought, was a golden opportunity to illustrate the unique centerpiece of the Christian faith - the triumph of grace over justice.

But a concept taught is long way from a principle practiced. For Marvin to accept the loss that a gift of pure grace would cost him seemed like an outrageous choice. On the other hand, to make personal gain in the name of justice from another's labor, ill-gotten though it may be, would appeal quite obviously to his vengeful side. I confess that part of me wanted to see justice done here, though I tried earnestly to avoid influencing the outcome.

At last Marvin came to a decision He reached down into his sock, pulled out the $15 and counted out half of it for Bernard. Both boys seemed to accept the compromise, though neither with jubilation. It was a fair decision that both could live with. As they started to walk away together, I told them I was proud of the mature way they had handled this difficult situation.

Negotiation, compromise, fair play. These are fine values that I am pleased to see growing in our community. But grace, now that is a value of a different world. "Grace is not about fairness," Philip Yancey makes clear in his penetrating book, What's So Amazing About Grace. "Justice has a good and righteous and rational kind of power. The power of grace is different: unworldly, transforming, supernational" Only rarely do we catch a glimpse of this magnificent, outrageous value. I couldn't help wondering what power might have been released, what waves of change set in motion, had Marvin chosen grace over fairness What melting in Bernard's defensive spirit? What tempering of Marvin's own spiritual mettle? What convicting, corrective tide might have broken over my ungrace-full soul?

Bob Lupton

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