At nine Jimmy was your typical young boy in many ways, except for the fact that his family lived below the poverty line. His mother gave him the last five dollars to go to the store to get dinner for the whole family. Being a family of five, they had been through all of their food and needed something else. Five dollars would cover the cost of peanut butter and bread, and if he was lucky and things were on sale hotdogs for the whole family. When he got to the mart, he found that the bread alone would be $3 and whether hotdogs or peanut butter were the choice, at best he could not get out for under the $5 bill he had. So he walked quickly by the peanut butter, which was conveniently next to the bread, put the jar in his pocket and paid for the bread. He stole, and according to the law, this is a punishable offense, but this act allowed his family to eat something that night, otherwise, they would starve.
A scenario like that would have been foreign to me growing up. While our family was not the wealthiest, we never were without. When I first heard that scenario in ethics class in high school I actually thought that the child should be punished because he clearly did something wrong. I entered the debate citing everything I knew about law and a legalistic understanding of community. I won the debate, and was quite proud of myself.
Early in college, I was posed in an ethics discussion again with the same scenario. I was ready to jump in with my winning debate when a friend of mine jumped into the conversation before me. He spoke of having the exact same dilemma. He said that in his case he only had a few coins, but his family had not eaten for a week. He struggled all day knowing he had to do something and he made his way off. He hid the bread and the peanut butter and bought a pack of gum. On his way out the cashier said, “Enjoy your sandwiches.” He said he cried the whole way home, but he ate that night.
He was thankful that the cashier had compassion for him and chose to look the other way. But he said that he was desperate and had he not done that; who knows what would have happened to his family, especially his younger siblings. Thankfully things changed for his family, but he asked the class “who does the law really protect and why?” That sparked fierce debates and changed me to ask what would I do if stuck in that situation? His story changed me, and I began to think about my arguments that were so good and realized that the only way they held up were to ascribe to law over compassion.
It is interesting to think of that “ethics debate” and the scripture that we encounter this week. In the church, many traditions try really hard to express who is in and who is out. This is true even in the early church. Paul recognizes this and says essentially to the people that by being so focused on the law they cannot be faithful to God.
Paul points out that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” It makes no difference what you have or what you go into faith with as long as you go in; that is what counts. I have been thinking of the story over the past few days in terms of the church. If the convenience store were the church, the peanut butter and bread were the message of Christ. Compassionately, we would wholeheartedly say come and take what you need, but do we really mean that? Do we freely give God’s love with no expectation in return? Do we teach that all who call on the name of the lord are saved? Or do we create laws or put up roadblocks so only a certain type of person can truly receive the sustenance we offer? Think about that as we explore Romans 10:5–15 this week.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen