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July 21, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr.

“How are the mighty fallen!”  The contemporary saga of Penn State’s Joe Paterno reminds us of the elusiveness of hero’s in our time.  Even the super heroes of comic book fame are presented to us as flawed in character.  It makes one yearn for Roy Rogers.  He was always my hero as a kid.  As an adult I am somewhat more sophisticated in my judgment, but at least in Roy Rogers there was a model, even if a bit unrealistic.

The quotation above comes from II Samuel 1:19 and is a part of the lament of David over the death of Saul and Jonathan.  The phrase is repeated three times within the lament.  Readers who are acquainted with the biblical narrative will remember that Saul was no friend to David, although his son Jonathan was.  Somehow David was able to remember Saul as the “glory of Israel (vs. 19).”  He saw the good in Saul, not only in his death, but during his life.  When Saul was hunting David to slay him, David had opportunity to kill his advisory several times.  Each time he refrained from doing so in respect for the King’s office and divine calling.

One of the unique qualities of the Bible is that it requires a moral standard higher than any other religious or ethical system in history.  Deuteronomy 18:13 states, “You must be blameless before the LORD your God.”  Matthew records Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount as saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).”

At the same time none of the so called biblical heroes are perfect.  They all have serious flaws.  From the Patriarchs through the Judges and the good kings of Israel we meet men and women who love God, but who are to various degrees morally tarnished.  One would think the writers of Scripture could be a bit more consistent.  They should give us some absolute heroes.  What they give us, of course, is the truth.

Humanity has trouble with the concept of “grace,” God’s unmerited favor, grounded in his perfect love and forgiveness.  Right now Joe Paterno has fallen from awesome to awful.  His statue will likely be removed from the front of the Penn State’s stadium.  He was 86 years old when he died on January 22.  He will not have to endure this demotion.

Our moral systems gravitate to seeing humanity as either good or bad.  The mechanisms we use to rationalize these systems are ingenious and ingenuous at the same time.  What we have trouble with is “grace.”  We do not seem to be able to accept that God can accept us as morally defective simply because he loves us without requiring any payment or restitution, which we have no ability to offer.

I will always remember a visit I made to a home in my first church assignment in New Jersey.  I had explained the Gospel to the head of the household.  After a pause I heard the words, “I always pay for what I get.  I can’t accept anything for free.”  Of course the alternatives are arrogance or aggressiveness.  Our heroes will always be flawed.  We can neither require perfection nor excuse sin.  The answer is grace.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at