Bargaining and Meritocracies Have No Place in the Kingdom of God

“Save me, St. Anne,” Martin Luther supposedly said, cowering in a lightening storm, “and I shall become a monk!”

Spoiler alert: he didn’t die. And, I guess it follows that, because he didn’t die, he had to become a monk.

I’d bet that we’ve all found ourselves at the Divine craps table before, making a wager in exchange for an ideal outcome or a blessing. That kind of bargaining is pretty normal for humans, actually. In moments of despair we’ll cling to whatever hook calls itself “hope” at the time.

Luther, though, backed himself into a tough corner there. I wonder what he would have done had he just pushed through the fear and panic without making the wager. Perhaps he would have become a monk all the same. It certainly was on his heart (much to the dismay of his father).

Sometimes we back ourselves into tough corners, too, setting the parameters for Divine agreements that we have no business setting.

I know more than a few people who asked for a miracle and, when it didn’t happen, took it as proof that there was no God. Conversely, sometimes miraculous things do happen (life in general, and biology in particular, is tricky that way…it usually follows norms but, every once in a while aberrations happen and the lotto numbers appear), and people have taken it to mean a Divine blessing has fallen their way.

The problem with both of the above scenarios is that none of that is objectively provable, Beloved. In other words: you make the meaning in both situations. The center for meaning there is not some “Divine plan,” but that “choose your own adventure” you’ve assented to in your own heart.

Humans make meaning. We have to. It helps us love and move and breathe with purpose in this world.

In other situations we do less bargaining and more earning. Through oblations, good deeds, generous donations, self-sacrifice, we secretly or not-so-secretly think we’re earning chips on the Divine poker table, increasing our chances for a nice pay-out.

We’re taught in life that we live in a meritocracy: work hard, reap the benefits.

Except, that’s largely a lie.

The world is not one where the hard-working are rewarded (cough: looking at you minimum wage) and the slackers go without. It’s one where opportunity shines brightly for some, and less brightly for others, due to a complex mix of historical racism, geography, health-factors, gender discrimination, sexual privilege, socio-economic influences, and just sheer luck (or lack of it). And, truthfully, I’m probably missing some factors there…

The tricky thing, of course, is that this “meritocracy lie” is less of an outright fib, and more of a “half-truth” parading around as the whole enchilada. Hard work does, sometimes, get you somewhere for some people. But I know folks who do all the right things and get the short end of the stick anyway. It seems their chip stack at the Divine poker table never grows, no matter how they play their hand…

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from John’s rendering of the life of Jesus is one that, I think, encourages us to disabuse ourselves of either of the above ways of operating.

People read John 3:13-22 as Jesus writing some greedy wrongs of the Temple in those ancient days, and surely some of that might be true. This act will be, in John’s Gospel, the reason for Jesus’ arrest.

But the larger lesson here, and the one I think is more helpful in shaping our spiritual sensibilities, is the idea that Jesus is actively dispelling the notion that we can bargain for God’s blessing, or that we can buy or earn our way to the miracle-circle of life.

The hope that God provides is not one that ensures a certain outcome, but rather one that says, “No matter the outcome, I am with you.”

I think that, especially in these days of illness and vaccine, storms and cold and “why the hell are we still here a year later?!” where certainly honest prayers for help and concern have been thrown into the universe, perhaps the best thing that the church can do right now, even with all her flaws, is to reorient our people toward the deep truth that bargaining and meritocracies have no place in the Kingdom of God.

It’s natural for humans to do that kind of thing, of course, which is one of the reasons we know it can’t be God’s standard operating procedure.

Instead, God invites us to move away from the craps table and cashes in all her chips on our behalf instead, standing beside us in the lobby of life as a friend, not a dealer, having decided that the “house always wins” mentality the world uses is not only not a good way to live, but certainly isn’t the abundant life the Divine intends for us.

If you’re still not convinced, flip ahead in the story just a bit to where Jesus is praying in the garden in the wee hours before they’ll string him up. There he doesn’t bargain with God, but rather just says what he truly desires, “Don’t let this happen…” he says.

No conditions. No wagering. No, “see how good I’ve been?!”

He just says, “I don’t want this.”

But then he says (in not so many words), in a wisdom that is so instructive for me…for all of us, “But if it happens, walk with me.”

Put down your chips, Beloved. They’re not worth anything lasting, anyway. God’s not dealing out blessing and curses, aces or fives.

God’s alongside us. We don’t need to bargain. We don’t need to earn it. Hear it and live.

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