Two weeks ago I read a sermon by J. Jeffrey Smead on grace…God’s grace. In there, he quoted a story that was told a long time ago and it pretty much made me understand what grace is all about….
There was a man, Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City, which was during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of World War II, was called by many New Yorkers ‘The Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New Your City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court in an area that served the poorest ward in the city. LaGuardia had dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.
Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread.
She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. ‘It is a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.’ The shopkeeper told the mayor. ‘She’s got to be punished to teach others around here a lesson.’ LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, ‘I have got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions; ten dollars or ten days in jail.’
But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his hat saying, ‘Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.’
The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner. While some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents gave the mayor a standing ovation.
That right there is what Grace is….it’s not earned, we don’t deserve it and it does not have much to do with fairness…What would have been fair would be to punish the old lady for theft, as the law stated. Now, that would be ‘fair’. When we talk about grace, it is about something different from fairness. It is about mercy.