God’s incredible abundance underlies all of revelation. And the God that Jesus reveals to us is generous beyond what we can imagine. My aim in this Catholic Update is to talk about the shocking abundance of God and about our own response to that incredible goodness.
Jesus’ revelation of God’s abundance
Even before we get to Jesus, we already see in the Jewish Scriptures what the Prophet Isaiah revealed about God. We might say today that Mother Teresa was holy or Pope John Paul II was holy or my mother was holy. That’s not what Isaiah meant. When Isaiah uttered the words: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (6:5), he meant that God was far beyond what we usually consider as holy. Isaiah meant that God is completely other. God is beyond comprehension, beyond imagination. Holiness for Isaiah means shocking otherness—and also shocking in terms of God’s goodness.
The gods of the ancient Near East were selfish gods, petty gods. They were a lot like some of our politicians— having affairs with people and so on. These gods would surely exact something from you. If you were going to get something from them, you had to pay blood for it. Then along comes the revelation of Yahweh, the Jewish God, the father of Jesus. And he simply says, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.... Come... without money, without price” (Is 55:1). Salvation is as free as the air we breathe.
That was the God revealed in the Jewish Scriptures. Now Jesus comes along and deepens the revelation. I want to focus on the Gospels and zero in on five or six major ways in which Jesus reveals the shocking lavishness and abundance of God.
The parables of Jesus
The sower (Lk 8:5-15) Jesus’ parable of the sower is a good example of this: The sower went out to sow seeds. And he threw seeds into the weeds, into the ditch, into the rocky ground, into the thorns and finally into good ground.
Any farmer listening to that says this guy isn’t very clever. My dad was a farmer. He sowed seeds only in the best-prepared soil. He didn’t throw seeds into the ditches and into the rocks and into the trees. He didn’t have enough seeds for that. We had our limits and had to be careful where we sowed the seeds.
And the same thing was true, not just with seeds, but with our kindness, our generosity and our love. Naturally we start getting very discriminating if we don’t think we have an abundance of seeds at hand. And so we spread seeds only in the good soil. But in Jesus’ parable, the sower is completely indiscriminate. The seed goes everywhere. Why? Because the source, namely God, is limitless.
The generous landowner (Mt 20:1-16) Jesus also talks about a generous landowner, who went out one morning to hire workers for his vineyard and says, “You want to work in my vineyard?” And they say, “Yes.” The landowner replies: “Go in and I will give you a good wage.” And then throughout the day, four or five different times he asks people: “Do you want to work in the vineyard? Go into the vineyard and I will pay you a just day’s wage.” And the last workers worked for only one hour. They didn’t have to bear the heat of the day. And yet they got the full day’s wage.
The people who had worked the full day come to the landowner and say, “It’s not fair. We worked the full day, and these last people just worked one hour and they got the same wage. And the generous landowner says, “Didn’t I give you a good wage? Are you envious and angry because
I’m generous?” There’s quite a hook there, namely, that addressed to all who are reading this Catholic Update.
We are the good people bearing the heat of the day. And Jesus is saying be careful. We are being abundantly rewarded, but everything can be ruined. This is the catch. We can have everything and yet enjoy nothing because we are watching with envy what everybody else is getting!
Jesus is making a clear distinction between two ways of being rich: You can be generous rich, and that’s good. Or you can be miserly rich and that is not good. So you can be rich, but then you better also be generous—and overabundant and careless in your lavishness. We see this in the shocking revelation of Jesus’ unlimited mercy.
The prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) Probably the clearest example of God’s overly abundant love and mercy is found in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. Actually, this story should not be called the parable of the prodigal son, but rather the parable of the prodigal father! This father embraces both sons—not because they both convert. Rather, he embraces them because of the size of his incredibly generous heart.
As to the younger son, he doesn’t come home because he’s converted. He comes home because he’s hungry. But it doesn’t matter. The father embraces him. Here’s a God of shocking generosity who can embrace the weakness of the younger brother, the anger of the older brother and everything in between.
The compassion of God
“Be perfect just as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 6:48). Now it can be a little disconcerting to hear this passage because we often adhere to the belief that none of us can be perfect. But for Jesus, a Hebrew, perfection meant something different. For him perfection means compassion. In fact, Luke says that we should be compassionate just as the Father is compassionate (see Lk 6:36). But then he adds a shocking element.
God’s way of being compassionate is to let the sun shine on the bad as well as on the good. That’s a shocking statement. The sun shines indiscriminately on weeds and on vegetables alike. That’s the way God loves according to Jesus. God loves bad people and God loves good people. God loves Mary, the mother of Jesus, and God loves Lucifer in hell. God loves the saints in heaven and God loves all sinners. And he loves them all the same. The point is that those responding respond differently! Mary, for example, responds positively to God’s generous love, while Lucifer responds negatively. God loves us when we’re good and God loves us when we’re bad.
God loves everybody on the planet! God loves pro-life people and God loves pro-choice people. It’s pretty shocking when we first hear that. The truth is that God has incredible love for all of us. It’s an overabundant and overflowing kind of love. This kind of love is echoed in the following Gospel story.
The anointing of Jesus’ feet by a sinful woman (Lk 8:36-50) The details of this event may vary. Yet we find the basic story in all four Gospels. The comments I make here are drawn especially from Luke’s version of the story. Although the story deals with a sinful woman, it’s a story that echoes the lavish and overabundant kind of love that flows from the heart of God. God’s shocking kind of love has been mentioned many times already in this Update.
In this story Jesus goes to the house of a rich person and reclines at table. He is there for a lavish banquet. He’s not dining at a Dairy Queen. A woman comes in who is a known prostitute in the city. And she has in her hand an alabaster jar, the most expensive container you can buy—the Waterford crystal of that era. And it’s full of spikenard ointment—the most expensive perfume you can buy. And she breaks the jar so it can be used only once. And using it only once, she is wasting it.
She pours the entire jar of perfume on Jesus’ feet and the aroma fills the entire house. Then she begins to cry and wash his feet with her tears and to dry his feet with her hair. You can’t write imagery that’s more lavish and jolting and shocking than that.
Then the people are reacting accordingly. They’re ill at ease. “This shouldn’t be happening,” they say. “This is too lavish. She’s a prostitute. She shouldn’t be touching him. That jar could have been saved. The perfume should not have been wasted.” And Jesus says, “Leave her alone. She’s anointed me for my impending death. The poor you always have with you. You won’t always have me.”
It’s interesting. They’re uncomfortable, but Jesus isn’t uncomfortable at all. Jesus is saying that the ointment needs to be used. We can’t let our false guilt or neuroses deprive us of extravagant gestures of affection and lavishness. This was one of the times that Jesus shocks and scandalizes people by his capacity to enjoy—and to enjoy without guilt. They’re saying this shouldn’t be happening. And Jesus says yes it should, and I’m enjoying it. Jesus is revealing to us a God who shocks us with lavishness, forgiveness, creativity—and abundant love.
We are reminded of the lavishness and prodigality we see in nature, as created by God. For example, the sun that shines in the sky is prodigal. In fact, it’s very, very prodigal. It’s giving itself away in
generosity. Scientists tell us that every second inside of the sun the equivalent of four million elephants (that’s a lot of weight!) are being transformed into light. Each second the sun is giving away millions and millions of kilowatts of energy which it will never get back. The sun is burning out. In fact, our whole earth survives from the generosity of the sun.
The sun is a great mother. It’s giving itself away in utter lavishness every second. And when the sun stops doing that, this planet will become inert. And we see the same thing in the prodigality of nature—in the fertility of every plant and every animal. Just consider the fertility—the billions
of seeds of dandelions alone, not to mention all other living creatures.
The multiplication of loaves (Jn 6:1-59) At this juncture, we do well to reflect on this great sign, particularly as it is described in the Gospel of John. One day Jesus went up the mountain and sat down with a large crowd of 5,000 men, not counting women and children. They had been listening to Jesus for a long time. And the disciples came to Jesus and said, “The people are hungry. What should we do? Should we go into the villages and towns around here and buy some food for them?”
Jesus said, “No. Feed them yourselves.” There is a huge irony that John wants us to pick up here and it’s the key to the whole story. It’s this: The disciples want to go and buy some food. But they are with the “bread of life.” Jesus had just declared: “I am the bread of life. If somebody comes to me, that person is never going to be hungry again.” Now his very disciples and apostles want to go away from him and start buying food. Today’s kids would say, “Hello! You are with the bread of life. It doesn’t make any sense for you to go away to buy anything!”
Then Jesus asked, “What have you got?” They said, “We have five loaves and two fish.” Now we should not think of these as elaborate French loaves. It was probably one person’s lunch—five little buns and two tiny sardines. They said, “But we can’t set that out for this huge crowd of people!” Jesus said, “Set it out.” They set it out, and everybody eats as much as they want and there is still a great abundance left over—12 baskets full.
One thing that is very clear from the text is: The math doesn’t work! That is the whole purpose and point of the text: The math does not work. You don’t set out five loaves and two fish before thousands of people. It’s ridiculous except—if you are with the bread of life, then it is not ridiculous at all. It’s all there. We simply have to trust in the overabundant and lavish love of God. As Christians we are called to great trust in God. God is abundant. Jesus is the bread of life. He can feed the world. We don’t have to go anywhere to buy food. We are with the bread of life.
A day later Jesus is across the water, and all the people rush around to that side of the lake. They want to be fed again. We notice that Jesus does not want to feed them again. In fact, he’s a little angry with them. He said he was distressed because they didn’t “get it” about the loaves. They just thought this was about physical feeding. They didn’t get it about the multiplication of the loaves.
What didn’t they get? The very thing the apostles didn’t get to begin with. When you are with the bread of life, you don’t have to go out and look for food. You already have it in abundance. It’s enough. It never runs out. We remember the story about Elijah the prophet (see 1 Kgs 17:7-16). Elijah comes to the widow and her son, but the jar of flour is empty. They have just enough food for one meal. But Elijah says don’t worry about it. The jar never runs empty and there is always enough bread even though the math doesn’t work.
The measure of love
My own mother understood these stories. She got it about the loaves. She raised a large family.
We were always poor, but my mother was always giving our food and clothes away. And she was bringing in every stray child and neighbor into our rural house, no matter how crowded it was. There was always room for one more place, another person, another child, another whatever. And it never ran out!
Her math never worked but she had lots of trust. We were with God! When you are with the bread of life, you can just roll all the dice. You never have to say, “We have to go to town and buy some food.” She got it about the loaves. We always had enough!
As Jesus reminded his followers, “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (Mt 7:2). In other words, the same amount of generosity you give to others will be given back to you. Canadian theo-logian Mary Jo Leddy expands on the same idea by saying that the air you breathe out is the air you’re going to re-inhale. And this isn’t true only ecologically. It’s much truer morally. If I breathe out generosity, I’m going to re-inhale generosity. If I breathe out miserliness, I’m going to re-inhale miserliness.
The air we breathe out is the air we are going to re-inhale. If we breathe out God’s abundance, we are going to re-inhale the same kind of abundance. My mother taught me that. There will always be enough. You’re with the bread of life. You can set one loaf in front of a thousand people and it’s going to feed them all. As Jesus assured us, “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”
The challenge of generosity
Philanthropists are rich people who give money to charities and causes. I’m president of a school at present and many of my efforts, sadly, have to go into fund-raising. So I must go about finding people who are philanthropic.
Now we might think of a philanthropist as a rich person saying, “I have a lot of money and I need
to give it away.” We have some wonderful examples today—often rich people, wonderful people, who have decided perhaps: We’re going to give it all away.
Philanthropy, however, has to be, first of all, something of the heart. Philanthropy is our generous response to the generous love of God shown first to us. We each are challenged, in our hearts, to be philanthropic. When it comes to philanthropy of the heart, at its best, we give it away not so much because other people need it, but because we need to give it away.
The path to healing, in fact, is through largeness of heart. When a person has a really big heart—a Mother Teresa, for example—the fire in one’s life is so big, the generosity is so wonderful, that there simply isn’t room anymore for such things as resentments and pettiness. When we discover that we can pass on to others the overflowing abundance of love that God has given to us, we have found the secret of happiness!