In the middle of my sabbatical, while reading through a wonderful, thick tome on the ministry of Jesus by N. T. Wright, I stumbled across two words that were used to describe a key characteristic that Jesus’ expected of his followers: “astonishing generosity.” I liked the phrase. I rolled it around in my brain. But I also found myself disturbed by it. It seemed almost impossible.
The quote itself was a reference to Matthew 5:38-42, when Jesus tells his followers “to turn the other cheek” when struck, “give their cloak” when asked for a coat, or to carry a load an “extra mile” when a person makes you haul something for one. He is saying in effect, that even when people use or take advantage of you, they in the words of Bishop Wright, “must be met with astonishing generosity.” (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 290)
I underlined the phrase and even typed it into my sabbatical journal. Through the next days, the word astonishing stayed with me. It’s not enough to be generous, Jesus was saying. But our generosity must astonish the people around us, leaving them dumbfounded for an explanation, flabbergasted for a rationale. It’s not enough to be good to the people who are good to us, if we are going to be his followers are generosity must flow to the very people who we DON’T want to be generous.
At the same time, I was intrigued and challenged by the phrase and began to noodle on it some more.
First of all, why? Why does Jesus ask this of his followers? There was a long-standing principle of tithing or giving or being charitable to those in need. Of course, the people of God should give, but why generously, and why should that generosity be “astonishing”?
Two hundred pages later I found my answer. In a section on how so many religious leaders of his day, thought that the only way the world would change would be through violent revolution, Wright tells us:
“Jesus summoned his hearers to the real revolution, which would come about through his people reflecting the generous love of God into the whole world.” (p. 507)
Ah, that’s it.
• This is not just a strategy for adding some kindness to the world. It’s a strategy for changing the world. (It's a revolution strategy!)
• It’s not just about making the world better, it’s about making the world new.
• Generosity is not just about making people think we are good nice and kind, it is about helping people see that God is good, compassionate and responsive to their cries.
It is a central activity of the followers of Christ to reveal God to the world.
Our generosity is to remind people of God’s generosity. Our generous forgiveness of those who fail us, giving to those in need, of openhandedness to those who were clinging so hard to the scraps of life, and welcome to those who are without a place in this world would be nothing more (and nothing less!) than a reflection of the “generous love of God into the whole world.”
And how abundantly, astoundingly, astonishingly generous God is!
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16
He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Romans 8:32
…God, who gives life to all things… 1 Timothy 6:13
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…James 1:17
God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. 2 Corinthians 9:8
If you want to follow along I’ll post links to the sermons here. Perhaps you could start letting it roll around in your heart and mind, too. And if you know of any stories of generosity in the name of God that took the breath away from the people, then please let me know.
What would it mean to be lavishly generous, astonishingly generous people?
What would have to happen in your life for those two words to describe you?