Obama Greets the Pope with Scripture: How Did He Do?

The Pope visited America this week. When he welcomed the pontiff at the White House, President Obama said something that caught my ear. 

"You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity—because we are all made in the image of God."

Obama got it almost right. If he had left out the phrase "our measure as individuals," it would have been a beautiful, biblical challenge to us all. What do I mean?

"Our measure as a society is [determined] by how well we hew to Scripture's call..." Yes, the people of God are called to serve the poor, right injustice, and promote the dignity of all. The prophets rail against Israel when they neglected this basic law of God. Indeed that nation's judgment came in part because of their refusal to obey God in the way they treated the marginalized (Isaiah 58:6-8; Micah 6:8; Matthew 25:40). This is most definitely a behavior by which a people are measured. As a group, all Christians  are called to this primary mission. We must continue to work at embodying the kingdom of God right here, right now.

BUT ... mission is different from "our measure as individuals." Far too often, we lose the distinction between the two. What we believe about this concept affects our perspective on the dignity of life, at both the beginning and the end. If life does not have inherent value, but only such value as that person's ability to work or do or add to another's betterment, then the unborn, infirm, elderly, mentally ill, and disabled all lose their value as citizens of earth. It comes down to DO=BE. What I do determines my measure as a person.

But Jesus and the cross say differently. He sacrificed his life on behalf of each human, offering forgiveness, salvation, restoration, and relationship to all who would accept his free gift. Ephesians 1:4-5: "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will..."

Notice the timing: "before the creation of the world." No way for us to do anything, to earn his favor, to deserve his love. As if love can truly be earned... "But because of his great love for us,God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5)

Grace. Unmerited favor. When we base our identity on the grace of Jesus, knowing that the God who created us deemed us worthy of his own sacrifice, our behavior will follow out of a love, a gratitude, a full sense of our value. We are valuable to God because we exist. He proved that on the cross. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph 2:8-9).

Now what? With that foundation, we can go forth to do the work He has called us to do—to right wrongs, to pursue peace, to love the unlovely. "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."