A Commentary On..., Proper 8 (B) - 2000

July 2, 2000

A commentary on our Gospel lesson, the story of Jesus' raising of Jairus' daughter, suggests that "stories like this one seem to promise too much." (New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII, page 590.) One is tempted to ask, "How much is too much?" In John's Gospel, Jesus says, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10b NRSV.) This story in Mark's Gospel is an illustration of God's profligate giving. This is a story of God's abundant generosity. It might have been enough for Jairus and his wife if Jesus had ministered to them, had comforted them in their grief and made it possible for them to remember with gratitude the daughter whom they had lost. But that is not what Jesus did! Instead, Jesus restored their daughter to life and health. This story does not "promise too much;" it demonstrates the profligate largesse of God.

A traditional Passover song, "Dayenu," has been sung over a thousand years old. It begins, "How many levels of favors has the Omnipresent One bestowed upon us." The lyrics tell the Passover story:

If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them ...
Dayenu! (It would have sufficed us!)
If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols ...
Dayenu! (It would have sufficed us!)
If He had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born ...
Dayenu! (It would have sufficed us!)
If He had smitten their first-born, and had not given us their wealth ...
Dayenu! (It would have sufficed us!)
If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us ...
Dayenu! (It would have sufficed us!)
If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land ...
Dayenu! (It would have sufficed us!)

And the song goes on for several more verses. It would have been enough, but God never gives us simply enough. God does for us more "than we can desire or pray for."

We are called up on to live in the spirit of "Dayenu," to live a theology of abundance. Moses called upon the Hebrews, and through his words recorded in Deuteronomy, God calls upon us to "give liberally and be ungrudging when [we] do so." We are summoned to emulate God's spirit of generosity. Do we? Do we live as if we trusted in God's abundance?

Bible scholar and author Walter Brueggemann is one who says that we don't, although the Christian story is one of abundance. Rather, says Brueggemann, we live a "narrative of scarcity [which] posits that the past is barren of miracles and the only way to get anywhere is to invent yourself and scramble for whatever you can get. A past without gifts and a future without hope," he continues, "gives a present as an arena for anxiety--an anxiety endlessly stirred by those who generate the great theology of scarcity--a theology which says our neighbors are a threat; which creates more suicides, murders and prisons." (Kay Collier-Slone, "Stewardship conference challenged to move beyond scarcity to abundance," ENS Release 99-064.) The alternative is the narrative of abundance.

We heard some of that narratives in the lessons today. First, Moses' admonition to the People of God, "Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be." (Deut. 15:7-8) Moses calls upon us to believe, and live, in abundance.

It is easy to believe in scarcity. Our culture, as Brueggemann said, encourages us to think that way. The philosophy of consumerism encourages what Brueggemann calls a "love affair with commodity that is a spiritually demonic force." But every once in a while, even the consumerist system contains a glimpse of the true story. Not too long ago there was a Ruffles potato chip ad showing two Eskimoes sitting in the midst of a vast, uninhabited, frozen waste. One fellow was having a wonderful time eating the contents of his bag of Ruffles, while the other was looking longingly in his direction. In reply to his request for a chip, the first man declares to his lone companion, "But if I gave one to you, I would have to give one to everybody." Then we heard the Ruffles slogan: "So good you'd better get your own bag!" At the same time, there was a Nacho Cheese Doritos ad employing comedian Jay Leno as philosopher-spokesperson. After extolling the chips' great flavor and radical crunch, Leno gave us Doritos eaters free rein: "Crunch all you want ... we'll make more!" The Christian theology of abundance is more Nachos than Ruffles. Share all you have. God will provide! We live in abundance; we just need to open our eyes and realize it, open our hands and share it!

Here are a few statistics that underscore how abundant our blessings are. During the 1990s, Americans, including church members, annually spent an average of $164 on soft drinks, $657 on restaurant meals and over $1,000 on recreation activities per person. In 1995, Americans spent $2.5 billion on chewing gum, $4.9 billion on movies, $8 billion on adventure travel, $12 billion on candy, $20 billion on cosmetics, and $49 billion on soft drinks. Now that is abundance! At the same time in the 1990's, the average American church member spent less than $20 a year on global outreach--including activities to provide temporal and spiritual aid to the 35,000 children who die of starvation around the globe everyday. (Statistics from the Collier-Slone article.) So, I ask you again, "Do we live as if we trusted in God's abundance?"

In today's Epistle lesson Paul writes about the Christians in Macedonia: "During a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part." (2 Cor. 8:2) As Paul suggests, joy and generosity are linked. Our Psalm today makes the same point: "Happy are they who fear the Lord ... They have given freely to the poor." (Ps.112:1,9) The great German theologian Paul Tillich taught that joy is different from pleasure or superficial happiness: Tillich said that joy, which is deep and abiding, is the result of fulfillment of purpose. When we are loving, when we abide in the loving spirit of our Lord, then we realize the fulfillment of our true purpose. The result is joy. We find joy in fulfillment; we find fulfillment in God's abundance; and God's abundance is love.

When Jesus completed his act of abundant love in raising Jairus's daughter he turned to her family and said, "Give her something to eat." (Mark 5:43) This is also what Moses told the People of God to do for anyone in need, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land." (Deut. 15:11) This is what Paul called upon the Corinthians to do, following the example of their Macedonian brothers and sisters who "gave according to their means, and even beyond their means." (2 Cor. 8:3) This is what we are called upon to do.

It might have been enough for Jairus and his family to have been comforted, but it was not enough for Jesus. It is not enough for us to pray for the souls of the 35,000 children who starve to death every day; it is not enough for us to comfort their parents. "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?" asked James in his general epistle. (James 2:15-16) We know the answer; it isn't any good at all! We who live in abundance are called upon share it in the same way God shares it, with profligate generosity. Then and only then will we be privileged to "hold up [our] heads with honor" and say "Dayenu! It is enough!"

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema