A sermon on the economy of grace. Luke 7 verse 1 and 7-14 (Stratford on Avon MC August 28th 2016)
This teaching about the marriage feast or the banquet seems to fall quite neatly into two parts.
In the first part Jesus seems to give some rather shrewd advice. I’ve often heard it quoted and I’ve often seen the worldly wise, those who are, shall we say, as wise as serpents but not as innocent as doves acting upon it. Step back! Don’t take the best place; take the lowest place and then you may have the satisfaction of hearing the magic words. Friend go up higher! OK I admit it. I’ve done that. But let’s be honest this has nothing to do with real humility-it’s a way of cloaking one’s pride behind a humble disguise.
Jesus is quoting Proverbs 25. To me it sounds like a passage from Dale Carnegie’s famous book “How to make friends and influence people”. It seems to be a long way from the spirit of Jesus as I understand him.
Perhaps the two parts of the gospel passage would make more sense if we inserted into the passage a phrase of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. “You have heard that it was said” In particular you have heard that it was said in the book of Proverbs but I say to you-that is to say to us.
And what Jesus says to us in the second part of this passage is radical. When you give a dinner or a banquet don’t invite your family, your friends or your rich neighbours because they will invite you back. Instead invite the poor, the cripples, the lame and the blind.
Pause for a moment and dwell with me on the subversive character of this teaching.
When Christmas approaches or a personal celebration certain questions cross our minds. Who should I invite, who ought I to invite to whom do I owe an obligation so that consequently I must invite them. I was invited to their bash, apologies for this modern word, so I must invite them to my bash and so on.
In this way a network of debts, obligations and entitlements are developed. My debts to them and their obligations to me. These things hold societies together and sociologists, anthropologist and economists exercise their gifts of scholarship by analysing how they work.
These things may not be cash but they are certainly money. Mutual love and obligation debts and entitlements in other words money.
This is the way of the world but the way of Jesus is different. As he says don’t love money love God.
As a substitute for an economy based on money, kinship and market forces Jesus offers a radical alternative –an economy based on grace.
At this point may I entertain you with a digression? I have reached a certain age and when we reach that age we find we have time available for voluntary activities in aid of good causes. So I give four hours a week to a charity in Worcester-an act of grace if you like.
Now a new charity has emerged called Timebank or swapshop and its been suggested to me that I can bank my hours with them and then draw down voluntary help that is useful to me-like cutting the grass or cleaning the gutters. In other words my act of grace can be exchanged and consequently given monetary value. How do I feel about this? It seems a practical idea and I suppose it builds up what is called social capital but as a Christian committed to an economy of grace I’m not so sure. I’d be interested to know your views.
In discussions of this sort you don’t have to wait long before someone says: be practical; be realistic.
The views of a particular economist are then likely to be quoted. This gentleman is well known to you all. Indeed so well-known is he that many of you, if not most of you carry his portrait on your person in your wallets and purses: close to your hearts alongside the pictures of your nearest and dearest.
And this is one of his most famous quotes:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
There is much truth in that. But have you never met a benevolent butcher or baker. I have. Why in one of my churches in South Wales there was a baker who donated hundreds of pies to our autumn effort every year. Had he followed the precepts of Adam Smith he would have charged for everyone. But he didn’t and that was because he followed God’s reality not the reality of the cash economy. At least on that particular weekend he followed God’s economy of grace.
No doubt we must always seek to be realistic but whose reality are we talking about: God’s reality or the reality of certain rapacious capitalists who in charity I will forebear to name.
But just a moment! Why should we take this radical message seriously? Be in no doubt it is radical and Jesus is serious!
It’s not simply that offering acts of kindness to the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind is a nice thing to do. It goes deeper than that.
At the hearts of the faith is a simple yet radical idea. That God made the world, set it in order and made it good. His making of the world was an act of love. Love is the ultimate meaning of the universe; not prices and profits, not self-interest or market forces not hate and violence but love. To exercise disinterested kindness it to go with the grain of the universe as God has made it. This is the way the world is and this is the way we are-any other way is a deformation of our God given nature.
Love will be rewarded not in the way of this world but in the way of God’s new creation shown to us in Jesus and his Kingdom. This is not just pie in the sky for Jesus insists that the kingdom is here, there and everywhere; in the midst of us. We see the signs of this in the happiness we can instigate in ourselves and others.
Just now we are being repeatedly warned about subversive preachers with a Middle Eastern background, often sporting beards and with a radical message. Such men are dangerous especially to the world of the establishment. They have followers who like to sing revolutionary songs. Do you know this one? I often hear it sung on a Sunday evening:
He hath put down the mighty from their seat; and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
I don’t think those lines are often sung in the hospitality tent do you?
There is ultimately only one way to deal with radical preachers of hate and that’s to counter them with a radical preaching of love. And that sisters and brothers is what our faith is all about.
You and I sisters and brothers were made in the image of God. And the best image of God that we have is the person of Jesus. So our calling as His followers is to conform to His person and His teaching. To live under grace and to share that grace with others.
That’s a wonderful calling and a wonderful gift.