November 18, 2009

What’s Wrong With Free?

2009 1532 page25 capHE LINE SNAKED FROM THE TICKET WINDOW, THROUGH THE HALL, AND OUT the door into the street underpass. “Why today?” I groaned as I joined the crowd. I was running late for work.
As the line inched forward at Moscow’s Voikovskaya metro station, I wondered how long it would take to reach the ticket window. I wished I had bought a multipass ticket a day earlier, when the line had been nonexistent. I saw two young men scalping single-ride tickets at highly inflated prices. I thought how wonderful it would be if someone were to walk up to me and give me a ticket for free.
Then my thoughts drifted from my own predicament to the people waiting around me. I wondered whether they felt similarly inconvenienced.
When I reached the cashier 20 minutes later, I asked for a multipass ticket for myself and 10 single-ride passes. The cashier pressed the tickets under the window without a word. I grabbed them and went to the end of the line.
“Would you like a ticket?” I asked the young woman standing there. “Here, it’s free.”
The woman stared at me without emotion, her hands at her sides. I continued to hold out the ticket. “Please, take it,” I said.
Finally she shook her head. “No!”
2009 1532 page25Startled, I moved up in the line to the next person, another young woman, her face buried in a book. “Take a ticket,” I said. “It’s free.”
The woman shifted uncomfortably and refused to look up from her book.
I skipped the next two people, who gazed at me with semihostile expressions. Then my eyes fell on an elderly woman, small and hunched over, clutching a worn blue fabric bag in one hand. “Take a ticket. It’s free,” I said. As I extended the ticket, her gnarled hand automatically accepted it. But the woman stayed in line.
The next few people all refused tickets, either shaking their heads or refusing to look at me.
The two young scalpers moved toward me. “What’s he doing?” one asked in bewilderment.
“He’s giving away tickets,” the other replied. “For free!”
Then a man rushed up to me, several banknotes clutched in his hand. “Are you selling tickets?” he asked. “How much?”
“They’re free,” I said. “Here, take one.”
The man stopped, stunned. “What?” he said.
Surprise and confusion crossed his face. But the urgency of the moment quickly won out. The man wordlessly snatched the ticket, then raced through the turnstile and down the stairs to the subway train.
I glanced back at the line. It seemed even longer than when I had joined it. But I needed to go to work.
Tucking the eight remaining tickets into my pocket, I sadly walked through the turnstile and down the stairs to the subway. Why would anyone turn down a free ticket? I wondered. Perhaps they suspected the tickets were fake. Or maybe they thought the tickets came with strings. From the expressions on some faces, some probably thought I was mad.
Then I paused. I had used all those excuses—and others—to reject the free ticket out of this world offered by Jesus. As Paul wrote: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
I have greeted the gift of eternal life with suspicion, considering it too good to be true. I have tried to perform good deeds to claim the gift. I have, at times, looked with derision at Christians who shared the good news about the gift.
How tragic it must be for Jesus when I claim to accept His gracious gift of eternal life without faith, like the old pensioner who remained in line or the man who rushed to the train.
Salvation is not complicated. It is as simple as accepting a free subway ticket. 
Andrew McChesney is a journalist in Russia.