Grace and Scarcity
There’s an innate problem with dieting: dieting is completely unnatural. Now, devotees of the paleo diet or other such “return to nature” diets will argue that these diets are extremely natural and reflect what we ate in our primitive and natural state. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the cuisine of a given diet; I’m talking about fighting the urge to eat everything in sight. That’s unnatural.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
January 30, 2022
See, there are things that we, as living organisms, need to survive. Among those are fats, salts, proteins, carbohydrates, and sugars. These are all good and beneficial things for us. And they’re also scarce in nature.
Sure, if you hunt a wild aurochs and carve it up into steaks, you’ve got a lot of protein, but pursuing an animal to exhaustion before killing and butchering it is a lot harder than going to the meat aisle at the Safeway.
And yes, you can get your fill of sugars by eating fruit, but you’d have to eat an awful lot of fruit before you came close to anything on the dessert menu at Friendly’s.
And sure, there are nuts and berries for carbohydrates and sugars, but you’d have to spend all day foraging to get the carbohydrates in a single box of Cheez-Its.
In nature, these things are scarce. And so we have bodies designed to eat as much of them as we can when we find them, because as far as our body is concerned, who knows when we’ll come across this kind of bounty again? It doesn’t matter that our minds are aware that there’s another box of Cheez-Its in the pantry; our bodies want to eat them all. And don’t get me started on cheesecake, which some have identified as the “perfect storm” of sugars, carbs, proteins, and salts. It’s literally everything our body craves in one magnificent slice.
But it’s more than just our bodies that are conditioned by millions of years to act out of a sense of scarcity: there’s a lot of our thinking that is shaped in the same way. Oh, not consciously, perhaps, but certainly intuitively. But there are certainly elements of modern living that are not scarce at all, but something inside us makes us act like they are. Money is one of those. We operate in a capitalist economic system that literally grows wealth out of nothing through what is essentially a trick of accounting. Yet, we continue to act as if spending money on some people means there’s less for the rest of us. It’s hard for people to get past the primitive idea that wealth is a big pile of gold somewhere, and there’s only so much of it to go around.
But it’s not just with food and economics that our bodies and thinking are rooted in scarcity; we often think that way when it comes to God.
II. THE TEXT
We see something of that in the text for tonight. After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus has returned to Nazareth and gone to pray at the synagogue on the sabbath. While there, he is given a scroll to read, and he reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Luke 4:18–19
After this, he says to those gathered there, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now, in every Jesus movie I’ve ever seen where this scene takes place, the congregation gets upset with him. Bit characters and extras usually have lines like, “That prophecy can only be fulfilled with the coming of the messiah! Is he claiming to be the messiah?” and other expressions of religious outrage. But that’s not what we find here in Luke. Instead, we are told, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
Now, skipping ahead, we know that this story ends with them trying to push him off a cliff and him escaping through their midst. So, how do we get from “All spoke well of him” to “they led him to the brow of the hill… so that they might hurl him off the cliff”?
Luke records that the congregation members wondered about Jesus’ eloquence—“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Jesus seems to have perceived something else in this question, some critique below the surface. For he responds by saying, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
If the subtext of their question “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” was “Who does this guy think he is? We know him,” then Jesus’ answer that a prophet is not accepted in the prophet’s hometown addresses that. But he continues, suggesting that he has perceived something else about their question.
Because the next thing he does is begin to describe the long history of miracles performed by the prophets to benefit other people than the prophet’s people.
He tells the story of Elijah bringing rain to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon, a Gentile city in Phoenicia, even though “there were many widows in Israel” during the drought. He reminds them that the prophet Elisha healed the skin disease of Naaman the Syrian even though “there were many lepers in Israel” during Elisha’s time.
These stories, which seem like harmless little stories from Sunday school, enrage the congregation. They drive him out and nearly succeed in hurling him from a cliff before he passes through them and goes on his way.
So, it seems that Jesus has rightly interpreted their question, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” to mean “He’s a local boy; shouldn’t he do something for us?”
III. SCARCITY WITH GRACE
See, so many of us view grace the same way that we view sugars or money: it’s a scarce resource, and if some people get some, then there will be less for the rest of us. We’re wrong enough when it comes to sugars and money; we’re really wrong when it comes to grace.
Grace is unmerited favor. It was the kind of largesse that a monarch would bestow on an undeserving peasant—some royal favor out of the goodness of the king’s heart.
The measure of the king is in the measure of the king’s grace. Therefore, if we are to apply the same metaphor to God, then God’s grace must be as boundless as God God’s own self.
Yet we have such trouble bringing ourselves to think this way. We become envious of other people’s blessings as if that means that God has run out of blessings, and we will not receive any. We become outraged at the thought that someone else from a different group, a different religion, a different nationality might have some share in God’s favor when we’ve been working so hard all this time. We might talk a lot about Grace, but when it comes right down to it, we imagine that we deserve it. We imagine that we have earned it. That the grace we have received is grace that we are entitled to.
Perhaps it is because we view grace as scarce that we wish to be assured that we have figured out how to obtain it. Perhaps it is because we have an innate distrust of things that are free. Perhaps there is just something deep in our animal nature that wants to eat up all of the supply because we fear we will never see it again.
And all of that reveals what we really think about God. It reveals that we aren’t thinking quite big enough. It reveals that for all of our hymns and all of our words and all of our prayers, in the back of our minds as a God who is as petty and selfish and stingy as we are. It makes us angry to think someone else might get our stuff.
But that’s the heart of the gospel – the surprising nature of God’s grace. God’s abundant generosity. It’s a story we’ve seen throughout the biblical narrative. God chooses Abraham for no good reason. God chooses Moses for no good reason. God chooses the Israelites for no good reason. These are all acts of Grace.
God chooses young boys to be prophets and women and second-born sons to inherit blessing. God chooses people over and over and over again, and it is surprising and grace-filled and always upsetting our expectations. And yet, every time we are confronted with this reality, we get angry as if this is the first time we’re hearing this. Often because we don’t remember that we, too, are beneficiaries of surprising grace.
It’s not easy to overcome millions of years of adaptation to an environment where things were just not plentiful. It’s not easy to imagine now the world we live in, how much food there is, and how bad we are at sharing it. How much wealth there is—and how bad we are at sharing it. Because somewhere in our mind, we’re hoarding these things because we think we’re going to run out.
So it is with grace. So it is with that congregation in Nazareth. So it is often with us. We are jealous of our grace and seek to hoard it. We seek to consume it ourselves because we fear there isn’t enough to go around. But God has reminded us time and time again of the abundance of God’s grace and mercy, the limitless of God’s love, and the sheer power that trusting in that grace can bring.
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.