December 31, 2018
The Epiphany C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 2:1-12 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 60:1-6 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 72:1-4, 10-14 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 3:1-12 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 18
Author: Scott Hoezee
Strange, isn’t it? For ever-so-long now the Church has often been seen by those outside of the Church—and not infrequently by even a good many folks inside the Church—as being a kind of exclusive club. Too often it all comes down to who’s in, who’s out. In history popes and other religious leaders have used their power to keep out or throw out those they didn’t care for politically or personally. Excommunications, shunnings, pogroms, crusades, and scarlet letters have all been headline-making ways in which the church made it clear who was who in the spiritual pecking order.
Again and again the Church has tried to distinguish itself from the world and if in some ways that’s a good and natural thing to do, it is in other ways a dreadful and terrible thing to do. Because so very often what that has meant in history is that the Church becomes—to those on the inside at least—a fairly homogeneous group of folks whose number one task becomes the maintenance of that homogeneity. Sometimes it’s not even intentional. But when for as long as you or your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents could remember the people at church all looked like you, thought like you, voted like you, and made roughly the same amount of money as you, after a while the mere thought of someone radically different being a part of the congregation scarcely ever even occurs to anybody.
But once that unspoken expectation calcifies for a generation or three or a hundred, eventually it morphs into a kind of unspoken goal of keeping out those who would upset the tidy world inside the church. The strange, the different, the odd, the exotic types of folks become not so much unwelcome in the church as they become just not within the scope of consideration. Soon it becomes a simple statement of fact that they just wouldn’t fit in. Why, such different folks—the swarthy, the poorly clad, the tatooed, the foreign born—probably would not even want to be in our congregation because, after all, what would be the point? With whom could they ever have a meaningful conversation at a church potluck? And anyway surely our pipe organ music, our hymnals, our liturgy would not be their cup of tea. Surely it would be better if they formed congregations of their own, with their own kind and such.
And although I write from the pipe organ/hymnal side of the church tradition, it may be just as true that those who worship in very different ways might feel the same way in reverse: why would high-end Anglican and Reformed types want to hang out with singing-and-swaying Baptists or be a part of worship services that contain elements of this or that tradition that is so very different from all things European.
I about fell over some years ago when I heard pastor Nadia Bolz Weber—herself a tattooed, leather-clad, non-traditional type whose congregation attracted lots of others who look like Nadia—say that when more buttoned-down types in sport coats and dresses began visiting their church on account of having heard great things about Nadia’s preaching, the motorcycle, leather-clad congregants were not sure they wanted “those” types hanging out in THEIR congregation! (How’s that for shoe on the other foot!)
Whatever happens and however it happens, we become myopic in our view of what the Church is or what it should be, could be, might someday be.
Matthew will have none of it. He knew that over time Israel, the Hebrew people, the Jews had become this way. Even as Jonah had no desire to see greasy Ninevites become part of God’s covenant people in any way, shape, or form, so God’s people centuries later were still focused on keeping things neat and tidy and uniform within the people of God. Spiritual pedigree, family lines, and maintaining a certain narrow point-of-view on all things legalistic and ritualistic had become far more important than seeking to expand the horizons of God’s people to see a much more diverse and colorful picture of just who would count as children of the heavenly Father.
And so Matthew opens his Gospel with what to modern eyes looks like a dry-as-dust family tree of Jesus, only to reveal to those with eyes to see a series of things in that family history that were anything but dry and anything but expected or pleasant. Four foreign-born women (three with dubious sexual pasts) are named or hinted at in the genealogy as Matthew’s none-too-subtle way of reminding his mostly Jewish readers that the family that produced the Messiah had itself been far more diverse than most people wanted to admit, had had plenty of skeletons in the family closet, and had, therefore, hinted all along that God was up to something much bigger than just saving a whole bunch of people who looked and acted and thought exactly alike.
In case someone missed that in that family tree, Matthew concludes what we now call his opening chapter by introducing us to “Immanuel,” to “God with us” only to then immediately open his second chapter with a primer on just who the “us” was with whom this God-in-flesh would be. If “Immanuel” means “God with us,” then just who constitutes the “us” part? Matthew gives the opening salvo of an answer by introducing us to a group (no one knows how many) of astrologers from Baghdad whose pseudo-science and quasi-religion was as overtly condemned by Scripture as the foreign nature of these Magi was detested by any person with a holy bone in his body.
The Magi were not only spiritually lost and religiously detestable, they were stupid. They bumbled into the court of the most paranoid man who had ever occupied a throne of power only to inquire after a newborn king in the neighborhood. Many Jewish babies would die before the larger story of all this was finished, and it was singularly the clueless nature of these pagans that was to blame for it all.
Yet there they are at the head of the Gospel according to Matthew. There they are as an apparently welcome presence at the bedside of the Son of God, of Immanuel. There they are getting as included in the “us” of “God with us” as were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba in Jesus’ family tree. We’re not told what ever happened to the Magi. This is no conversion story so far as we can tell. For all we know they went back to Persia and did their funky astrology for the rest of their mortal days.
But there’s no missing Matthew’s message and it won’t be the last time he works this theme. He’ll keep working it right up until the very end when the resurrected Immanuel will again assure his followers that he will be “with them” forever even though that would mean that he’d stay “with them” while they spread out into the whole world to baptize and make disciples of ALL nations—Persian folks, Egyptian folks, Roman folks, Greek folks, African folks, and all kind of folks the disciples didn’t even know existed in other parts of a world they still didn’t even know was round: they were all included in the scope of Immanuel’s final “Great Commission” to them.
Expect the unexpected, Jesus was saying and Matthew was teaching. Look for wild diversity, not buttoned-down uniformity, in the Church that would soon be built. Expect surprises. See the unpredictable as they only inevitability worth talking about. Expect barriers and dividing walls to be breached and eradicated, expect former foes to become sisters and brothers, those you once shunned to become cherished friends.
We assign this text to Epiphany and it falls on an actual Sunday only once every half-dozen or so years. And if an “epiphany” is a kind of revelation, then it’s the kind of surprise revelation that should come far more than once a year on January 6 and far, far, far more often in the church than every six years.
The more routine and uniform the membership of our churches becomes, the more we need this text to shake us up.
The gifts presented to Jesus were not exactly your typical baby shower presents. Some have claimed that the incense and myrrh were actually items that pointed forward to Jesus’ death and burial. It would be the equivalent of bringing embalming fluids and a casket to a child’s post-baptism celebration!
Others, however, see the gifts as royal offerings indicating that in their own way, the Magi recognized in this infant no less than a king.
So which is it: do the gifts indicate that Jesus will die some day and need embalming or that he is the king? Maybe we need not choose. Because as the rest of the gospel will tell us, Jesus becomes the cosmic King of kings and Lord of lords precisely BECAUSE he sacrificed himself. Because he was born to die he is now the One to whom all creation owes allegiance and honor. The world resists that, which is why no sooner do the Magi present Jesus with these gifts and we find Jesus and his family on the run from Herod, who will murder other children in an attempt to kill Jesus. The commingling of death and Jesus’ royal status really is on display in Matthew 2, especially if we read on into the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents.
From Debra Blue’s book Sensual Orthodoxy, p. 17 (Cathedral Hill Press, 2004): “I’ve been thinking maybe someone should start a small group of guerilla activists whose task it would be to plant shocking figures in manger scenes. They could work both inside private homes as well as in the most visible places. Suburban housewives will shriek to find Batman figures on the roof of the manger on their mantle. Churches will be horrified to find Barbies and plastic dinosaurs on their altars. But people will pay attention. They will look twice. They may even stop their car. They have even get out when they see a garden troll or a pink flamingo or a big plastic Homer Simpson leaning over the baby Jesus on the Cathedral lawn. I actually wonder if I’m not the first to come up with that idea. It might have been some guerilla group that first placed the wise men in the manger scenes.”
Author: Stan Mast
On this Epiphany Sunday, most preachers will choose the Gospel reading for their preaching text. Matthew 2 shows us the very first Epiphany of Christ to the world. Born in a barn in a far-off corner of the world, Jesus is worshipped and treasured by his parents and those shepherds and, if some carols are to be believed, the animals. It’s a little family event, an event that will ultimately be important to the Jewish nation. But that glad event was unknown to the wider world. Now here comes the world in the form of three magi from the East to worship the one born King of the Jews. It’s a harbinger of all the Epiphanies to come. So most of you will choose to preach about the wise men.
I want to make a case for focusing on Isaiah 60, because in an uncanny way it anticipates that Matthew 2 event and shows us the deeper and wider meaning of that little family event and of “the one who is born King of the Jews.” Isaiah 60 shows us why Matthew 2 calls for world-wide celebration and deep reflection. The King of the Jews is the Light of the World, “the Lord rising upon us.”
For me, verse 2 is the key to preaching on this text in a way that will grab people. “See,” it says, and people can see. Many can’t believe the good news that the light has come, that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. But anyone with eyes, even the blind, can see that “darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples….” Seeing the darkness is the key to believing in the Light.
This theme of darkness is found not only in verse 2 of Isaiah 60; it is the focus of the entire previous chapter. Isaiah 59 is full of sin and confession and judgment, as summarized in verse 9. “So, justice is far from us and righteous does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness but we walk in deep shadows.” We can talk about this dark time of year, the bleak midwinter where the days are short and sunless (at least where I live), and the nights are long and bitter. But Isaiah 59 and 60 are talking about a darkness deeper than night. This is a moral and spiritual darkness caused by the fact that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear (59:2).”
It won’t take much for you to convince your people that we live in a similar darkness. Examples abound in politics, in societal trends, in world-wide tensions, in personal experience. And that darkness is what makes Isaiah 60 such a glorious text. Verse 2 summarizes it powerfully: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” There’s the Gospel in three words, “but the Lord.” It’s a Gospel that needs preaching in this dark world.
But to preach it, you’ll have to wrestle with the multi-valency of this text. I mean, to whom is it addressed? It is tempting to simply apply it to the modern-day church, but that ignores the original context. So, was God speaking to Israel, right after the Exile, when they had come home only to find home in shambles? Or is this addressed specifically to Jerusalem, as verse 14 seems to suggest? If so, it doesn’t seem as though this prophesy has ever come true, given the on-going struggles of Israel and the conflict over Jerusalem.
Or can we legitimately apply this text to the birth of Jesus? That seems fitting, given the way this text is used in, say, Ephesians 5:14, and given the direct parallels between verse 6 and the journey of the Magi. And is it appropriate to see this as a prophesy about the church’s mission to the world in obedience to the Great Commission? In response to our light shining in the darkness, the world has come streaming to the Light of the World.
I think the answer to all those questions is, “Yes.” It’s about Israel and it’s about us. It’s about Jerusalem and it’s about Jesus. It’s about then and it’s about now, and later. It’s a text as pregnant with meaning as Mary was. Its good news is time-bound and timeless and timely. For every time and every place and every person, the good news is that “the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” And that brings light into our thick darkness.
Out of the darkness two things emerge, according to this word from God. First, the sons and daughters of Jerusalem will come back home. Some of God’s people came home from Exile, but many others remained scattered over the Empire and the earth. Here God promises that when the Light of God’s glory shines into the darkness, “your sons [will] come from afar, and your daughters [will be] carried on the arm.” All God’s people will come back to God, drawn by the light. That’s good news for exiled Jews and for Gentiles who have exiled children.
I mention Gentiles, because that’s the second group that will come streaming to the Light. “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…. All assemble and come to you… the wealth on the seas will be brought to you and the riches of the nations will come…. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” What a marvelous promise for a people whose disastrous fall from grace might have made them forget that God had always intended them to be a light for the nations. And what a marvelous challenge to a church that has gotten mired in self-serving ministry and has forgotten that God always intended us to be outwardly focused. God means to save the world through us.
Well, that’s not exactly right. God saves the world through Jesus. There is hope for a dark world because the Light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon the world. He is the one who will bring the wandering captives home and the benighted Gentiles to the true God.
But no one will know about and believe in him, unless we reflect the Light into the world. Thus, this wonderful Good News begins with a clarion call to do two things:” rise, shine.” Rise from your prostrate position in the dust of sin, rise from your beaten down condition, rise from the mass of humanity that walks slump-shouldered through the valley of the shadow of death. And shine like a candle set on a bushel, like a city built on a hill. Shine with the radiance of redemption, with the brightness of the risen Christ on your face. When the church reflects the glory of God’s grace, we will attract the nations to Christ. When we are an Epiphany of God’s coming into the darkness, people from all over the world will see the Epiphany that began with three magi from the East.
Indeed, that has already happened, for the last 2000 years. Three magi have grown into over 2 billion people from every nation, race, tribe and tongue who bow before the one who was born “King of the Jews.” Isaiah 60:4 calls us to celebrate that fact on this Epiphany Sunday. “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you…” In an increasingly dark world, where the light of Christ often seems to be growing dimmer, it is important to celebrate the partial fulfillment of this Word of the Lord.
And it is important to come to Christ again and again, so that we may reflect his glory. A careful study of this text will reveal the recurrence of the verb, “come.” The light has come and as a result, “nations will come to your light, your sons and daughters will come from afar, the riches of the nations will come, Sheba will come…. “ But for that to happen, believers must come to the Light daily, or we won’t be able to be an Epiphany of his glory. Here’s a powerful way to end your sermon. The light has come, but we must come to the Light, so that the nations will see his light in us and be attracted to the Light of the world.
Several friends in a ministers’ book group recommended detective novels by Michael Connelly, so I read one on vacation. Set in Los Angeles, it involved a couple of gruesome murders that seemed to be inspired by a famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting is a lurid, violent, demonic depiction of humans being tortured in hell. The hero of the novel is Harry Bosch, whose real first name is, not accidentally, Hieronymus. Again and again he observes how dark the “city of lights” is. The title of the novel is A Darkness More Than Night. As I read Isaiah 60:2, I thought of the dark plot of that novel as a picture of the thick darkness that covers the earth.
On that same vacation, I sat many a morning watching the sun rise over the Santa Rita mountains in southern Arizona. At 5 it was pitch dark; I couldn’t see even the outline of the mountains. At 6 the sky was beginning to lighten and I could make out the contours of the jagged peaks. At 7, the sun suddenly broke over the notch in the mountains and the room where I sat was flooded with brilliant sunshine. It made me think of the way Isaiah 60 describes the coming of the Lord: “your light has come, the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” God came into the world like a sunburst. No wonder a strange star led the Magi to him.
Psalm 72:1-4, 10-14
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is easy to see why this poem was chosen for the Day of Epiphany: it’s all about foreign kings and dignitaries bowing before the King of Israel. Think Magi and all that. The Bible I used for Psalm 72 says up top that this poem is “Of Solomon,” even though at the end of the psalm we are told this is the last psalm “of David” in the Hebrew Psalter’s collection. Whatever. One ought not make too much of those superscriptions and such in any event. It seems as unlikely that David wrote every psalm attributed to him as Solomon spoke every proverb ascribed to him in Proverbs. Still, it’s a royal psalm and if it were written by someone who had been King of Israel, you could almost read it as wishful thinking, as a wonderful daydream or fantasy. “I sure would love it if all the kings and rulers of other countries came and bowed down to ME!” Well, who wouldn’t?
But within the poem itself we see that it is not finally the splendor of the human king that would make this all happen (if it ever happened at all). This would be the result of God’s endowing that king with justice and righteousness—a rectitude that can only come from above, one would assume. It would be the king’s transparency to Yahweh, to the God of all righteousness and justice, that would make the king great. What’s more, a natural extension of that would be the king’s paying extra special attention to the poor, to the marginalized, to the “anawim,” that traditional triplet all throughout the Old Testament of the widow, the orphan, and the alien within your gates. The king would be worthy of honor—and worthy of the respect of also foreign dignitaries—not for how well he propped up his own power, not for the splendor of his royal palace, not for how well the economy was working for the top 1% of the populace but for how well God’s Law was being followed, chiefly in regard to the lowest of the low, the invisible people, the folks who seem to be the apple of the divine eye.
It goes without saying that the King in question never arrived for Israel until one night in Bethlehem when an infant got laid in a goat’s feed trough. Even David and Solomon in all their splendor did not approach heroic levels of justice and righteousness in Israel. David got sufficiently self-infatuated that he figured he could literally get away with murder one day if that’s what it took to get the right woman into his bed. Solomon became so enamored of his own riches that it was this—and not Israel’s laudable programs to help out the poor—that he showcased to the folks from Sheba and elsewhere who actually did visit him while he occupied Israel’s throne.
And THOSE two were the top of the historic heap. Things went downhill like a runaway freight train after the kingdom split into two following Solomon’s death. With exceedingly rare exceptions in both Judah and Israel, most kings were not only not caring for the poor, they actually trampled on them along with pretty much the entirety of the rest of God’s Law. Had you asked any one of the Minor Prophets if they’d lately seen a king in the mode of Psalm 72, you might have induced a rollicking fit of uncontrollable laughter—followed by bitter tears of lament—from such prophets. Psalm 72 ultimately described almost none of Israel’s/Judah’s subsequent rulers.
Only the ultimate King of kings would do that in some fashion for Israel and now for the New Israel that just is the Church of Jesus Christ. And perhaps that is the point for us as Christians today were we to read or preach on Psalm 72 for Epiphany or at any time. This is not just some historical curio, some window into the ancient past. For the Church today—its pastors, leaders, and really its every member—embodying something of this kind of focus on righteousness and justice in the divine model of Yahweh is what we are supposed to be all about.
The Jesus whose epiphany into this world we celebrate on January 6 came here to usher in God’s kingdom of shalom, of justice, of righteousness. It is a kingdom where everything is upside down, as Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Of course, blessing the meek, celebrating the peacemakers, extolling the weepers, touting the low in spirit: that all just looks upside down by this fallen world’s standards. Truth is, that kingdom and those kingdom citizens whom Jesus described and blessed are the ones flying right-side-up to begin with, at least if we want to take our cues from God’s original design and intent for this creation.
Of late there seems to be a divide that grows ever wider in the larger church. Those who like to talk about justice and reaching out to the poor and the vulnerable and the strangers at the border are regarded as doctrinally suspect by those who think the institutional church should not mix it up in the socio-political sphere. Weirdly enough, it sometimes seems like the more conservative and traditional a given Christian or whole congregation is, the less it seems interested in conversations about social justice, public righteousness, and the care of the poorest of the poor among us. But Psalm 72 on this Epiphany Day and Sunday reminds us that actually, that kind of concern has always been at the core of things for Israel, for its King, and now for its ultimate King in Christ Jesus the Lord.
True, doing things for the poor and seeking out a wider justice in the world is not the whole of the Gospel the Church is called upon to proclaim. And it’s also true the Church of Christ ought to stand against many different forms of immorality in the world and in any given society. The Gospel is more than just a focus on such things. But it is not less.
The Lectionary would have us not read the final couple verses of Psalm 72 but we need to pay attention to those lines. Because in the end we are told that the whole earth needs to be filled with the glory of the one true King. Surely that includes all the people we encounter and all the situations of injustice and corruption and wanton need the Church encounters also today.
“Poverty” by Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 69-70.
“In a sense we are all hungry and in need, but most of us don’t recognize it. With plenty to eat in the deepfreeze, with a roof over our heads and a car in the garage, we assume that the empty feeling inside must just be a case of the blues that can be cured by a weekend in the country or an extra martini at lunch or the purchase of a color TV. The poor, on the other hand, are under no such delusion. When Jesus says ‘Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,’ the poor stand a better chance than most of knowing what he’s talking about and knowing that he’s talking to them. In desperation they may even be willing to consider the possibility of accepting his offer. This is perhaps why Jesus on several occasions called the poor peculiarly blessed.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Most of Jesus’ followers can name their favorite attributes of God. Loving. Gracious. Holy. Almighty. Faithful. The list could go on and on. However, it would be interesting to try to calculate just how many people favor the characteristic of God that is “generosity.”
In the light of the Scriptures’ emphasis on it, I sometimes wonder why I personally don’t more often think of and treasure God’s extraordinary generosity. It may be because God has been so generous with me that I can’t keep track of all of it. My own failure to treasure God’s generosity may also arise from my natural assumption that I’ve somehow earned everything I have – or received it from other people.
On this first Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2019, we note that Paul invites us to consider, among other things, God’s startling generosity. Among the many themes that those who proclaim Ephesians 3 might explore is its repetition of the word “give” as well as synonyms for it. The God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ has, the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday points out, revealed himself to be a very generous God.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 3 will want to take a quick peak at Ephesians 2’s ending. Paul, after all, begins verse 1 by noting that “For this reason …” He seems to be referring to his claim in Ephesians 2:22 that God is building God’s people into a home in which God can graciously live among God’s people.
In the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday Paul then goes on to proclaim how God is graciously linking Jews and gentiles together to make up this home for himself.
The apostle almost immediately speaks of “the administration of God’s grace that was given to” him (2). He’s talking about how God has given him a kind of stewardship of God’s amazing and generous grace. Paul admits that God has made him such a steward of that grace so that the apostle can reveal to the gentiles what they’d previously not known: God’s grace given to the whole creation through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
While he doesn’t use the word “give” or an obvious synonym for it in verses 4 and 5, Paul also at least alludes to God’s generosity when he speaks there about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” He announces, in other words, that what God allowed to remain hidden from Paul’s ancestors God has now generously given to the apostle and other followers of Jesus: the message that gentiles are together with Jews heirs of God’s generous promises in Jesus Christ.
Paul goes on to note in verse 7 that God has “given” him the gift of God’s grace that is sharing that great news with the whole world. This grace, he adds in verse 8, has been “given” him.” So the apostle admits that he hasn’t somehow been able to figure out this great mystery on his own. God has, instead, been generous not only with him in giving him the hope of the gospel, but also with the Jews and gentiles to whom he proclaims it.
Of course, students of the Scriptures will note, with Sarah Heinrich, that many of Ephesians 3’s verbs that refer to God’s great generosity are passive. The apostle repeatedly refers, after all, to what was given. Yet Paul’s message is unmistakable: God is the One who has graciously given what Paul has received … and much, much more.
Yet those who proclaim Ephesians 3:1-12 may also want to explore the other things Paul describes in it that God has graciously given. God hasn’t just generously shared with God’s adopted sons and daughters the understanding of the mystery of Christ. Paul at least implies that God has also generously given us the high privilege of joining the apostle in making know God’s wisdom “to the rulers and authorities” (10).
On top of that, Paul adds in verse 12, God has generously given God’s beloved children the “freedom and confidence” to “approach God.” God’s people with whom God has been so very generous don’t have to be afraid to draw near to God in faith and prayer. God has generously made us God’s own adopted children and, thus, Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters.
While the message of God’s extreme generosity with God’s people is always an appropriate one, it may seldom be more appropriate than on the first Sunday of the new year. Ephesians 3’s message of God’s giving and giving and then even more giving sets, after all, an appropriate tone for God’s beloved children throughout the entire coming year.
It, after all, reminds Jesus’ followers that we aren’t self-made men and women. While many of us are talented and gifted people who seem to have made great lives for ourselves, Ephesians 3 at least implies that anything we have been, are and ever will be is the result of God’s extreme generosity with us. From the nights of sleep that strengthen us, to the food that nourishes us, to the friends and family members that love us, to the work that stimulates us, every good thing we have and enjoy is a gift of our generous God.
That, in turn, allows us to remember that while we’re naturally stingy if not selfish people, God has created and is recreating us to be more and more like himself. More and more, in other words, among other things, generous. So as the Spirit helps us to grow in 2019 in our generosity, especially with our neighbors who are materially needy and in other ways marginalized, we grow in Christlikeness.
A scene in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath reveals the human ability to be both generous and stingy at nearly the same time. That paradox reveals the fundamental difference between people and God’s generosity.
In it Al is standing hulking over a griddle in a Midwest diner, and Mae is working its counter where two truckers sit for pie and coffee when a migrant dad and two barefoot boys walk in.
The dad approaches Mae. “Could you see your way to sell us a loaf of bread, ma’am?”
Mae balks. “This ain’t a grocery store. We got bread to make san’widges.” “I know ma’am,” says the man. “But we’re hungry” and “there ain’t nothing for quite a piece they say.” Mae is still balking. “If I sell you bread we’re going to run out. Why’nt you buy a san’widge. We got nice san’widges. Hamburgs.”
“We can’t afford san’widges,” says the man. “We got to make a dime do all of us.” Mae resists. “You can’t get no loaf of bread for a dime,” she says. “We only got fifteen-cent loafs.” From behind her Al growls, “God Almighty, Mae, give ’em bread.” She protests: “We’ll run out ‘fore the bread truck comes.” “Run out then, goddamn it,” says Al, and looks sullenly down at the potato salad he’s mixing.
Mae opens a drawer, pulls out a loaf of bread, and says, “This here is a fifteen-cent loaf.” The man “answered with inflexible humility, ‘Won’t you — can’t you see your way to cut off ten cents worth’?” Al said snarlingly, “Goddamn it, Mae, give ’em the loaf.”
The man reaches into his pocket for a dime and a penny comes out with it. He then notices the two boys in front of the candy case. They stare into the case “not with craving, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.”
The dad is about to drop the penny back into the pouch when he sees his boys. He turns to Mae. “How much is them sticks of peppermint candy?” he asks. “Is them penny candy, ma’am?” The boys had stopped breathing as Mae answers. “No,” she says. “Them’s not penny candy. Them’s two for a penny.” The dad says OK, and he and the boys walk out of the diner and to their 1926 Nash, the boys holding their candy down rigidly at their sides, not even daring to look at them.
In the diner, Bill, one of the truckers wheels around toward Mae. “Them wasn’t two-for-a-cent candy,” he says. “What’s that to you,” says Mae. The truckers each place a coin on the counter and turn to leave. Mae calls at them, “Hey! Wait a minute! You got change comin’.” “You go to hell,” says Bill, and slams the screen door.
Mae goes to where the truckers had been sitting. She had expected their usual tip. But each man had left her a half-dollar. “Truck drivers,” says Mae reverently, as she fingers the coins. “Truck drivers,” and right “after them shitheels” took all my bread.
As this scene of lovely and unexpected generosity closes, however, Al’s busying himself with rigging slot machine number three so it won’t pay off to the next customer who comes through the door.