Young Man, Old Man, Revisited

This was getting to be a habit, and a good one at that, he thought. So much of his life seemed to be spent with his peers, single people his age, all career-oriented young adults who were too old for college and too young for the married world that was waiting for them to find someone, settle down, and start living. The old man was beyond all these considerations; he had already outlived two wives and one of his own children. The young man saw him as a huge, gnarled tree, weather-beaten and left to stand among the acres of newly planted saplings who were his usual friends and associates.

  "So what's the subject today?" asked the waitress. She was becoming a part of the habit too.

   "Oh, I don't know," said the young man. "How about ... uh ... law and grace? We haven't covered that yet. That should be good for a few hours."

  "Sounds boring to me," she said dryly. "I liked last week's a lot better. It had some spice! 'Law and grace' ... sounds like a Russian novel."

  "No, that's War and Peace, " said the old man.

Page 64

   "All the same to me. You youngsters having the usual today?"

   "The usual for me," said the old man, winking playfully.

   "Me too."

   "You boys don't bore each other to death, now," she said, leaving them with two fresh cups of hot coffee.

   "So, what were you thinking?" asked the old man.

   "Well," he said, dumping two plastic thimbles of creamer into his coffee and stirring slowly, "I've always been a pretty disciplined person and I get frustrated not being able to accomplish everything I feel I should. I know there's a balance between law and grace, but I don't seem to be able to find it very often. I mean, I'm the type of guy who will pick up other people's gum wrappers! Crazy, huh? I know about God's grace, but I'm afraid that I might take advantage of it."

  The old man took a sip of coffee and maneuvered the cup on a crash course back to its saucer. "Well, first," he began, "there's nothing wrong with the Law, nothing wrong with discipline, nothing wrong with picking up gum wrappers. It all depends on where you're coming from. Some people accomplish lots of things and remain at peace inside. Others accomplish the same amount — maybe even more — but are burning up inside, constantly haunted by guilt and wondering if they're doing enough.

  "It's primarily a question of identity. If your identity and worth are wrapped up in doing, then you will never do enough — there are a lot of gum wrappers out there — and you will be full of either pride or guilt in relationship to what you do. If your identity and worth are tied to who you are, then you have a different perspective entirely.

   "For the real Christian, being is paramount. The issue has already been settled. Value and worth have come as free gifts from God. We cannot lift a finger to earn the most important thing. But for the legalist, doing is everything. He must ever try to prove that God has changed his life. One person picks up the gum wrapper out of gratitude; the other person picks it up for points."

  "That makes sense," the young man interjected. "It's definitely an existential world, isn't it? 'You are what you do.' "

  "Exactly," said the old man. "Ever notice how we always ask What do you do? when we meet strangers, never Who are you?"

Page 65

  The young man nodded approval over the brim of his cup. The old man continued. "If you're brave enough, the next time someone asks what you do, why don't you try answering, 'I live out the knowledge that God loves me and gave himself for me,' just to see what happens?"

   "Now that would definitely stop a party!"

   "Party?" The waitress appeared with two hot bowls of soup and slid them in front of the men. "I'm always up for a party. This isn't as boring as I thought." She whisked herself away, for the coffee shop was full

   The young man put a square pat of butter on top of his chowder and watched as it slowly melted away. "But what happens to the standard?"

   "Nothing," replied the old man. "It remains what it has always been. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not destroy it. In fact, it's the legalist who destroys the Law."

  "Wait a minute ... wait a minute. The legalist destroys the Law? How can that be? Law is his middle name!"

   "The legalist always reduces the requirements of the Law. He has no choice but to shrink it to something that he can maintain so that when he compares himself to another, he will always win. He counts on God to grade on the curve."

   The old man let that one sink in for a moment and went on,

   "Remember how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees? He reinterpreted the Law to them. He made it harder, putting the Law back up where it belonged. He redefined murder as hate and adultery as lust, and suddenly the old buzzards were back on the hook."

   "Look out, now. Who's calling who an old buzzard?"

   "Well, you're right. I wouldn't understand this so well if I hadn't been a Pharisee — an old buzzard, if you like — for a long time. The Law is supposed to condemn us. Nobody can follow it. Paul said it's the schoolmaster to lead us to Christ and I, for one, spent a good many years skipping out of that class!

   "Think of it this way." And the old man started rearranging the utensils on the table. "Your soup is the City of Grace. But the only road to that city goes by my coffee here, which is the City of Condemnation—"

   "Yeah, tastes like it this morning."

   "—and through my soup over here, which is the City of Humility.

Page 66

The legalist is simply not willing to pass through my coffee and my soup to get to your chowder over there with the butter melting on the top — I still don't understand why you do that!"

   The old man continued. "In the final analysis, there are only two types of people in the world, and believe me, they're not Christians and non-Christians. It's a different division, one that Jesus himself made. One stands on the corner in public and prays with his arms outstretched to God" — and the old man's arms went up as did his voice, much to his companion's chagrin — "Lord, I thank you that I am not like this man,' and points to the other who is in the alleyway, on his knees in the mud, crying, 'Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!" That's it! Those are two types of people. The Law has been reduced to a standard of comparison by the first man, but it has broken the back of the second. It is the one on his knees who will know the love of God."

   "Does that mean you spend your whole life on your knees?"

   The old man's face brightened. "Not a bad idea at all, I'd say."

   "But . . . but certainly you're not saying you walk around feeling like a wretch! You just talked about a person's identity coming through God's grace."

  "Yes, I did. But grace doesn't erase the Law either. You live in the tension between the two. The Law stands. You can't follow it — but you had better try!"

   The old man stared across at the puzzled look on his young friend's face. He knew he had played his words perfectly and was ready to move in for the kill. With reminiscent flare, he removed his glasses and leaned into the table — an automatic gesture from his years of teaching that said, If you get anything, get this! The young man held on to the edge of the table for support.

   "The Law is the schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, son, but you have to remember, CLASS IS ALWAYS IN SESSION!"

   The old man pulled his soup bowl back up to his stained tie and plunged the spoon in. The young man watched him eat for a moment and then went back to his chowder, making swirls out of the melted butter. They went on to talk of other things that day, but he had already heard the most important words, and he never forgot them.

Page 67

   But there was another thing he never forgot about that day. As they were leaving the coffee shop, the old man had pointed to a small gum wrapper on the floor and young man had stooped to pick it up with a big grin on his face. Looking up, he had caught a knowing glance in the old man's eyes.

   It was that glance that he remembered for a long time, for it was the last time he ever saw the old man's face.

Chapter 16  ||  Table of Contents