One of my earliest memories was something that happened when I was almost four years old, and it involves ice cream. Now before you conjure up an idyllic scene of childhood nostalgia, I should warn you that this isn’t, for the most part, a particularly sweet memory.
My family was on vacation, and we’d stopped for ice cream, a rare treat for us since at that point in my life, Mom had me pretty much convinced that fruit constituted dessert.
I remember standing on the porch outside the ice cream shop, licking my vanilla soft serve and lost in my own dream world. Meanwhile I must have been backing up, oblivious to the older gentleman behind me with a sundae in his hand, because before I knew it, I heard the sickening sound of ice cream hitting pavement. Then the man was yelling angry words, alternately at me and then at my parents. He had lost his ice cream, and he was demanding justice.
I’ve often had trouble reconciling the Old Testament’s portrayal of God’s justice with the picture of grace painted in the New Testament. The book of Deuteronomy captures the idea of divine retribution in this often quoted verse: “You must show no pity for the guilty! Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21).
It makes sense that when a wrong has been done, payment is required. Things need to be made right again. But how does that jive with Jesus’ words in the New Testament that God is a God of love, that we should turn the other cheek?
But if God is immutable, constant, unchanging, then clearly his character didn’t shift somewhere between Malachi and Matthew. Maybe what’s at issue here is my understanding of grace.
Grace, upon closer examination, isn’t so much about letting other people off the hook (or getting off the hook ourselves). It doesn’t mean justice is negated. It means that the payment for a wrong is made by someone other than the one who owes the debt.
At three and a half, I never would have been able to pay for the grumpy old man’s ice cream, even if I’d had access to all the pennies in my piggy bank. Fortunately, my dad took the man by the elbow, led him back into the shop, and bought him a replacement sundae.
In doing so, Dad managed to fulfill both the law of justice and the demand of grace. The obligation for the ice cream was paid in full: an eye for an eye, or as they case may be, an ice cream for an ice cream. And I received the grace of having a debt covered on my behalf, by my father.
That’s just what our heavenly Father has done for us through Christ: his eye for our eye, his tooth for our tooth, his hand for our hand, his foot for our foot.
Paid in full. For all eternity.
I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.