The Treasure of God’s Grace Is Ours for the Taking — and for the Giving
By Richard B. Steele, SPU Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Nowadays, we hear a lot about the “prosperity gospel” — that is, the interpretation of the Bible which holds that God wants to bless us with material treasures, and is only waiting for us to “claim” these blessings for our own.
I have grave concerns about this view, which fails to attend to the Bible’s sharp warnings about the perils of greed and affluence, and its stern judgments against those who, addicted to luxury and ease, neglect the poor and defenseless.
Yet there surely is a sense in which the Bible does promise us fabulous wealth.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul describes his ministry as the “stewardship of God’s grace,” and says that he has been called to proclaim to the Gentiles that in Jesus Christ they have become “fellow heirs and partakers” of God’s ancient promises to the people of Israel. Paul uses images of earthly wealth — stewardship, inheritance, shareholding — to illustrate the immense value of what God has done in Christ. He exclaims: “To me … this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. …” (Ephesians 3:8–9).
The Greek word Paul uses to describe the riches of Christ is anexichniaston. The Revised Standard Version and the New International Version of the Bible translate it as “unsearchable,” but it comes from the word ichnos, which literally means track or footprint. When you add the prefixes an (“un-”) and ex (“out”), you get something like “un-track-down-able” or “un-figure-out-able.” Think of a harried CPA, wearing a green visor and red suspenders, trying all by himself to audit the national debt, using only an abacus. That’s what it would be like for you or me to calculate the value of God’s grace, revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul calls it a mystery. It blows our minds.
The ancient prophets caught a glimpse of God’s purposes, and foretold a messiah who would fulfill them. These hopes have now been fulfilled, but in a way the prophets never expected. In Christ, the grace of God has been offered to all — free for the taking, free for the sharing.
This revelation transforms our way of seeing the world. It doesn’t diminish the value of this world. No, it endows this world with greater value to us than ever. But it transforms the way we understand why the world is valuable. It is valuable because God values it — and everything and everyone in it. And to reckon its value rightly, we must see it as the object of God’s inexhaustible love. Because God has credited the “unsearchable riches of Christ” to our account, we can never be poor. And therefore we shall always have enough to share with those who are in need.
has credited the ‘unsearchable riches
of Christ’ to our account, we can never be poor. And therefore we shall always have enough to share with those in need.”
It is precisely by realizing that whatever worldly goods we may have are gifts of God’s infinite grace, and that God intends for everyone to have a fair share, that we discover the true value of our worldly goods. They are valuable precisely because they are sharable — and only to the extent that we share them. They are valuable because they enable us to express our gratitude for them by giving them to those who haven’t got enough. Just as the Magi were wealthier after they had given their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child, so are we, after we have given a portion of our earthly riches to those in whom we meet Christ today: the poor, the sick, the hungry, the cold, the disabled, the outcast, and the rejected.
To help those in need is to know our own neediness. To be generous with what we have is to know that what we have is not really our own — and therefore to know its true value as a blessing from God.
To illustrate this point, let me tell you a story from the annals of a Free Methodist ministry called Sister Connection. This ministry operates in the small East African nation of Burundi, which is gradually emerging from several decades of ethnic violence, civil war, and genocide. Among those who suffer most dreadfully, even now, from the aftermath of the war are the widows of those who died in the fighting. In addition to bearing their personal grief, they suffer from social ostracism. Neighbors and relatives can take their homes and property with complete impunity before the law. Men use them as sexual toys. Other women despise and fear them, thinking they are out to steal their husbands.
Sister Connection tries to change all that, by linking Burundian widows with American women sponsors. The women exchange letters and pictures, and every four months the American woman sends a small love gift to support her Burundian sister. For $1 a day, the Burundian woman can buy food, clothing, shelter, basic medical services, school supplies, and household necessities for herself and her family. Her dignity, social status, and sense of worth are restored, and she is protected from robbery and sexual abuse.
But the love goes both ways. Recently, a Burundian woman opened a letter from her American sister, and, upon seeing the enclosed photograph of the American women holding her puppy, she rushed to the Sister Connection office in great alarm. To understand her dismay, you have to understand that in Burundi, dogs are not regarded as pets. They kill vermin, they protect property, but they stay outside. If a Burundian asked you about your family and you told him you had three kids and a dog, he’d think you were insulting your children. So, when this Burundian woman arrived at the Sister Connection office, she showed the picture to the staff and tearfully asked, “How can I help her? She just had a baby, and it’s horribly disfigured.”
One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this. At one level, it’s a case of cross-cultural miscommunication, which was easily corrected with a brief explanation. At another level, it shows the staggering disparities between these two societies, the one in which parents cannot afford to feed their children, and the other in which people treat their pets like children. But at the deepest level, it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful example of simple human friendship, where the heart of each woman went out to the other, so that both were enriched.
This is the kind of story we need to hear in times of economic downturn. It shows us how the experience of the unsearchable riches of Christ utterly redefines our understanding of wealth. No longer can we imagine that compassion and generosity are just for the rich to show to the poor when they have a surplus, for that would imply that when times are hard, everybody is justified in looking out for No. 1.
No, for that destitute Burundian widow was every bit as compassionate and generous as her prosperous American sister. Both knew that the goldmine of divine grace is inexhaustible, and those who know how to bank on it are always free to share their hearts and their worldly goods with others. May we remember that the infinite treasure of God’s grace is ours for the taking, and therefore our portion of the wealth of nations is ours for the giving — even in hard times. ”
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