God’s Outlandish Generosity
Who’s your #1 villain? Who should be sent to the hottest and deepest hole in Hell?
Just place the answer on the back burner and listen to this.
The great book of Acts is like a giant theological and historical drone that offers us a big-picture view to the life of the early church. Every now and then, it zooms in to let us hear – and in our minds view – how the early church developed.
The church grew from a bunch of dispirited followers hidden in a small room in a city in the middle of nowhere to a powerful and world-upsetting church reaching out to the heart of the Roman Empire and beyond.
The first four chapters offers us the transformative first steps – from less than a dozen to thousands of followers.
As we progress in story, we learn how starting from Jerusalem the church grew towards the end of the known world of the day. As we continue reading, the familiar names of the apostles and our Lord’s early friends begin to disappear, and, in turn, new characters make their appearance.
But at the same time, from the happy days of friends that had everything in common – Should we call it “Jerusalem’s Margaritaville”? the church quickly grew. Starting from meetings in public places and into houses; from farms to villages to cities the church steadily grew.
And in turn, tension, dissension and even conflict grew. While early on the gospel developed among Palestinian Jewish believers, soon the church began to incorporate Greek and Roman Jews, from different traditions, languages, and even theological understanding.
Add to that the commotion caused by the first gentile converts. From the early almost homogeneous embryonic stage the church began to grow into the plenitude of a full grown, multifunctional, and mind-blowing complex body – and dissimilar as an eye is to a nail.
In was not much different to our American contemporary society. Such complexity goes beyond if one would have grits for breakfast or no. Or whether life without Tofu or tattoos could be worth living.
It is mindboggling to think that in America there is room for the Northeast Kingdom, the Bible Belt, the Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and the Yeshiva Schools in Brooklyn. To say nothing of San Antonio or St Louis, San Francisco or Saint Paul. Or Aylett, for that matter.
Very much like today, the apostles and their immediate successors lived immersed in constant cultural, religious, political, and social change. And like today, we read that there were many in those early days who looked down to those who, in their view, they had nothing in common with them.
It was during those first forty to sixty years that the gospels began to be written. Although Luke tells us firsthand that his intent was to set the record straight, the rich variety of the gospel tells us that all the authors wanted to have their say – and to reach a particular audience.
Like home-made apple pie, each group had “their perfect recipe” and nothing else could substitute their own “real apple pie” with some other “perfect recipe.”
Matthew’s pitch was directed to the immediate Jewish Christian communities living close to the Holy Land. The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that “Mark's explanations of Jewish customs and his translations of Aramaic expressions suggest that he was writing for Gentile converts, probably especially for those converts living in Rome.”
St Luke, on the other hand quite probably didn’t have a particular geographical listeners in mind, but rather it was addressed to a more sophisticated audience. And then John’s gospel who was addressed to all and everyone so those who read it “May believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him may have life in his name.”
After this long-winded introduction, let me go to today’s gospel. But, don’t forget about my opening question!
Father Jude Siciliano, OP, commenting on today’s parable writes that “It cannot but rub us the wrong way.” And he continues, “Somehow, we equate ourselves with people in the first situation who were hired first.
“We have worked hard, the way we have been taught by our hard working parents and grandparents. We live up to the training and sense of justice we were taught by our forebears and apply them to God. We have worked hard, have earned and have a right to God’s payment, we reason.” And that it is the point – we reason and we impose on God our own ideas of justice and yes, retribution!
Or taking a hint from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is more likely than not that many would have a great deal of sympathy for the Prodigal’s brother who – at least according to him – did everything right, all the time, come what may.
Time to hit the “Pause” button.
Now, if you feel uneasy about today’s parable, think how the early Jewish Christians may have felt after hearing such teaching. And had our brothers and sisters been Episcopalians, they would have heard another outrageous story – the story of Jonah.
Since day one, the Assyrians had been the thorn in the side for the Israelites. They battled and beat them. And then, to top it off, about seven hundred years before Christ they conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took ten tribes into captivity, and dispersed them in such a way that their identity was lost forever.
And now, to that city, Jonah was sent not to tell them that they were to be erased from the face of the Earth, but to proclaim that if they repented and turned to God, God would spare them. No wonder Jonah would have nothing to do with it. And even worse, as the lesson tells us, Jonah knew that Assyrians were going to repent, and God was going to forgive them.
“Peace and prosperity? No way! Fire and brimstone – with an extra side of calamity, please.”
Today’s parable – as well as the whole Scripture, if you will – is about God’s outlandish generosity. And let me tell you, the adjective “outlandish” has never been used with such precision as in describing God’s generosity.
For, in our world and in our view, our own ideals of justice and retribution there is no room for lavish generosity as an expression of supreme love. It appears that in our world the commandment to do unto others what we would love to be done unto us has been replaced with our own version. In the genial words of Jules Verne – now it is “Do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.”
Which brings me right back to today’s healing prayers.
Today we will confess that we are seeking physical and inner healing not only for those things that just happen because it is what it is, but for those illnesses that “stem from our own fault.” That is, the stuff we have brought upon ourselves – willingly.
Here is the good news for today. God’s generosity is our assurance that we will be heard and that in God’s unquenchable love we will not be paid as we justly deserve. In the words of Jesus, God is a loving Father that will give us not stones or scorpions, but the good gifts of mercy, grace, and a new beginning.
Are we all going to be healed in this world? Is God going to press a reset button and send us back in time so we can reverse some or all of the ill-advised decisions we made? Perhaps. We live in the natural realm, while God moves in mysterious ways.
May be not. However, the parable teaches us that even if we arrive in the last minute, we will all be received with generosity. For on the bus of God’s generosity and love there are no back seats.
Of course, as Fr. Siciliano suggests, the parable rubs people the wrong way. For it is expected that there should be back seats – at work, at college, or even in church. Self-righteousness and pride demand that there have to be back seats – for someone else, obviously.
Let me quote again Fr. Siciliano, “Our God takes outsiders and makes them insiders; our God doesn’t treat us according to our standards, but according to God’s. And the measuring rod God uses is spelled out in today’s parable – Generosity.
“Each of us needs forgiveness and it is generously given us; whether we thought we deserved it or not. Some of us need, at this point in our lives, courage, perseverance or relief. We feel in need, but may conclude we don’t deserve a lot from God. But, as we hear today, the One in charge wants to be generous, beyond what we think we should receive.
“We may not feel we have done enough for God to earn a favorable hearing; that we don’t deserve God’s attention. That’s what we might say, but God says, ‘Nonsense, come right in, you are welcome. I am feeling generous!’”
For God, my friends, never has “A bad-hair day.”
So, in the words of the Scripture, “Let us come to the Throne of grace with boldness and confidence, to receive grace and mercy in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16).
This is the Gospel – the Very Good News – of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.