Toward a somersaulting spirit

September 15, 2008

I got a delightful report from a colleague's gregarious seven-year-old
the other evening about summer church school. When the little girl
asked what my favorite Bible story is, I hemmed and hawed. She quickly
confessed that hers was Ruth and then dashed outside to demonstrate the
back walkover. In the meantime, my colleague confided, "I admit there
are some parts of Jesus' teachings that don't seem fair. I understand
that they tell about God's grace and forgiveness and all, but frankly,
I don't like them."

This parable in
Matthew is one of them: field hands who work different hours are paid
the same thing. The Prodigal Son parable is another: the irresponsible
son gets a big party with fanfare while the conscientious and
hard-working son is left asking, "What am I, chopped liver?" It's
unsettling for those of us who have tried to do the right thing, to be
self-sufficient and make contributions to our families and communities.
We understand the bit about the generosity of God's grace and
forgiveness. We don't pretend to be flawless or exceptional. But what
about accountability and justice? Don't these stories send a message
that you can do whatever you please, do as little as you like (or
nothing at all), and God will still reward you in the end?

Jesus is saying: go outside and do back walkovers. Throw yourself into
what you love or simply what you do. Let God sort out the rest. It's
not your problem, and that's a gift unto itself. And if you should
happen to find yourself on the wanting end of what's deserved, God's
loving hand extended is gift indeed.

But even more radical than
this message of God's generosity, perhaps, is a quiet, secondary
message of these parables, as understated as their responsible
characters. Namely, we who are trying and doing and being as well as we
can, already have it all at our fingertips. All the time. Our rightful
wages (in the language of today's parable) are an absolute certainty.
Our inheritance (in the language of the Prodigal Son) is ever before
us, for the asking and for the taking, any time, anyhow. Is it possible
that by looking at what others get, we are blind to what we have? In
critically contemplating God's grace for others, we stub our toes on
the grace that is ever before us. What exuberant lives are ours! Right
now and evermore. Cartwheels and somersaults, the cup runneth over.