The Quantification of Grace

Don: If there were no grace, judgment would seem relatively simple: The good would go to heaven, and the bad would go to hell. But it then begs the question: How good, how bad? In fact, with grace, judgment is easier because there is no need to measure how good or bad. As taught by Jesus, grace is the judgment. We are judged by what we do with the grace we are given: Do we accept the gift? If so, do we share it with others?

We have decided through our study of the topic that:

1. Grace is extended to all living things, and
2. To be effective, it must be operationalized. We must take action to pass it on, if and when we can.

Most living things lack the capacity to pass on grace, to do the “works” that James calls for in the Bible. That includes not just most animals but also some humans who are so depleted that they just can’t do it. As well, we have a tendency to want to measure our own and other people’s works, which puts us back in the judgment business.

But grace is not intended to be measured. The Israelites measured the manna (metaphor for grace) given to the them by God in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt only to find that it made no difference—whether they took a lot or a little, they ended up with just enough for their individual needs:

This is what the Lord has commanded, ‘Gather of it every man as much as he should eat; you shall take an omer apiece according to the number of persons each of you has in his tent.’” The sons of Israel did so, and some gathered much and some little. When they measured it with an omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no lack; every man gathered as much as he should eat. (Exodus 16:17-18)

The principle that grace cannot be quantified is also demonstrated through the story of Good Samaritan. After taking the injured robbery victim to an inn, the Samaritan…

… took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ (Luke 10:35)

We tend to see ourselves as Good Samaritans, and wonder about how much to give, when in fact we are more often like the injured man, in need of grace ourselves. We must face the fact that sometimes we need grace and sometimes we don’t have much of it to give. But when we do have much to give, much is expected of us, as was shown in the Parable of the Talents.

In the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, the seed can be taken to mean grace and the Parable shows us what to expect from it:

Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:3-9)

Seed is “the word of the kingdom”:

When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is the one on whom seed was sown beside the road. The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.” (Matthew 13:19-23)

Jesus Himself is the personification of grace. His very mission was to dispense grace:

 Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. (Acts 10:38)

As the personification of grace, he is the Word. Jesus is the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  … And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:1, 14-18)

Seed, Word, and grace are similar in meaning and mystery:

And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)

The essential concept is that there is variable return on the disposition of grace. Its fruitfulness, its actionable portion, are highly variable and therefore somewhat unpredictable. Even seed sown on good soil returns a variable crop yield, where we would expect a predicable uniformity in the yield.

So grace cannot be quantified nor can its product be predicted. The expectation of grace is equally variable. All we can say for sure is that grace is everywhere, no matter the readiness and ability of people to receive and process it. Its profligate dispenser throws caution to the wind. We also know that grace is transformational:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;  So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy And be led forth with peace; The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, And all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, And instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, And it will be a memorial to the Lord, For an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:10-13)

(The “everlasting sign” links grace to the Rainbow Covenant we discussed last week.)

Donald: Maybe we want to be “good soil”… or maybe we don’t, because we don’t want the responsibility of doing something with the seeds (grace) we receive. The healthcare system is one way in which we hand off the responsibly to someone else (doctors), whose performance we then feel entitled to judge. Perhaps the same applies to a church—we hand off to the church the responsibility for good spiritual outcomes: “You claim to be religious, you profess your creed. If you have poor outcomes, we’ll judge you accordingly.” And we measure it. As a professional in a faith-based educational system, I know that some people have expectations of me and my colleagues and judge us accordingly. But a state school professes no religious creed and is not therefore judged in the same way.

David: Civilized modern society distributes grace to people in need through taxes to support healthcare and education and welfare and so on. Europe follows this communal model; the US follows it reluctantly and miserly and is constantly trying to set the clock back to the days of rugged individualism. Islam is somewhere in-between:

As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, zakat [alms-giving] is a religious obligation for all Muslims who meet the necessary criteria of wealth. It is a mandatory charitable contribution, the right of the poor to find relief from the rich, and is considered to be a tax, or obligatory alms. (Wikipedia)

Some claim that those who support a tax-based welfare system are shirking, handing off, their individual personal responsibility for alms-giving, for passing on grace. Yet the socialist method of distributing grace is more efficient and produces better outcomes than the libertarian method—contrast poverty, healthcare access, infant mortality, etc., between EU countries and the US. This is unavoidably political, but it does boil down to the passing on of grace—to being kind, having mercy, and so on. How many of us are really Good Samaritans? Do we readily stop our own journey in life to personally get involved in the welfare of others? In some countries and cultures and political platforms there are more such rugged individual Good Samaritans than in others, but these countries/cultures/parties also tend to have more people in need, as international comparative statistics show. Free markets and unregulated governments simply have no business with unproductive people who can’t afford to consume.

Don: Do you see the community dispensation of grace as being the superior model? Or do you see it as being essential, based on the brokenness of the model that Jesus seems to put forward?

David: Without doubt, from the perspective of the poor, the sick, and all in need of grace, the community dispensation of grace is the superior model. But from the perspective of the giver of grace, it might be argued that there is something to be said for accepting personal responsibility for helping the poor and the sick personally, directly. But be careful: Jesus told us clearly not to make a big deal of our alms-giving:

“So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2-4)

In light of this teaching, I have to believe that Jesus would support a social welfare system without question. The kingdom of heaven on Earth is a place where everyone just does the right thing, without thinking about it.

Kiran: People in Norway have a high tax rate, partly to support old-age homes for the population. But some Norwegian SDA members tell me that Norwegians are so busy working to pay the taxes that they have no time to visit their parents in the old-age homes, so the church arranges visits to the homes. Perhaps grace is more relational than transactional?

Donald: An elder care facility with caring caregivers is wonderful, but they are not all like that. The qualifications demanded to be a caregiver in such institutions are no higher than Taco Bell demands of its workers. Compassion is not one of the job qualifications. People work at an elder-care home or Taco Bell simply because they need some income.

Josh: Grace is separate from economic and political systems. It’s about people. In any system, socialist or otherwise, if the right people see a need for grace, they will give it, no matter what. It is an individual matter more than a systems matter. Some people are more selfish and less likely to give grace than others. I don’t think it’s tied to a system.

Jay: It’s easier to quantify grace if we can break it down by task, if we have a checklist: “Feed the hungry: Check. Visit the sick: Check. Visit inmates in gaol: Check. Visit parents abandoned in elder-care facilities by their children: Check. Take care of a broken Jew on the road to Jerusalem;…” But the manna and seed metaphors tell us it is futile to try to measure and quantify grace. When we make a checklist of grace, we remove or ignore the relationship component of grace—the relationships between us and our fellow human, and between us and God.

Robin: How do we know if we are showing too much grace? Is it even possible to do so? Where is the line between grace and enabling?

Donald: If all is good, there is no need for grace. But at some point, all of us are going to need it. People don’t want to go to the church, or the hospital, unless they have to.

Josh: It’s easy—it makes us comfortable—to substitute money for grace. I think there has to be some discomfort involved in the giving of grace. I knew a woman who was always needy and asking for things, and I tended to respond. She made me uncomfortable with the thought that perhaps I was giving her too much.

Donald: After giving money, we tend to feel that we have discharged our duty.

David: We keep using the words “we” and “my”. What do I—what do we—matter, compared to the person needing our grace? To me, discomfort should not enter into it. We need to get away from looking at the issue from the perspective of me and my needs and comfort/discomfort, and look at it from the perspective of the needs of the person hurt or hungry or in prison. It’s not about my piety. It’s about his or her pain.

Jay: There may be times when “tough love” is called for, but in Scripture I don’t see anyone admonished for being too kind, gracious, loving, or forgiving (except God, who was admonished for it by Jonah!) No doubt there are people who take advantage of the graciousness of others. It is actually quite prevalent, which leads us to the practice of “tough love.” But the Sower of the Seed did no such thing. He did not care what his seed yielded, if anything, yet he was insistent on sowing it anyway.

David: And it did not stop God from providing as much manna as was needed during the exodus. Some of the Israelites squandered, hoarded, wasted it. They made it toxic and unusable. But that did not stop God. God is profligate.

Don: “Careless” is a word that springs to mind. To us, God seems almost irresponsible in his sowing of the seed and his distribution of the manna.

David: If we want to be like Jesus, then we have to act likewise! But it’s hard.

Robin: The Bible counsels:

Go to the ant, O sluggard, Observe her ways and be wise, Which, having no chief, Officer or ruler, Prepares her food in the summer And gathers her provision in the harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)

To do work is honorable; to be lazy is not. I heard a story about an elderly spinster who lived on social security, yet wrote to her parish magazine wondering if she was giving enough. No doubt God would have seen that her heart was in the right place, but should she give so much that she would end up in need herself?

Kiran: God provides the talents, but if I don’t have the toolbox, God won’t hold me responsible for what I do with them. A lot of times, people don’t need money; they may simply be scared and confused and just need comforting and companionship.

Michael: How do we feel when we pass on grace? Since we are giving away grace that we ourselves were given, I don’t see why there should be any discomfort involved in giving it. Questions of how much to give, etc., don’t matter, it seems to me. Our giving of grace to others is preceded by God’s giving grace to us. My question is: can we hoard the grace we receive, in order to pass on at some future time? Can we re-start the cycle of grace any time we like?

Robin: When we reach the point where the grace needed exceeds our own supply, perhaps it’s our responsibility then to help the person in need find another supplier—an individual, or an organization such as the church.

Donald: Our most valuable resource is time, not money.

Chris: We talk about our giving grace, but as Michael implied, we do not give it—we are simply a conduit, a wire, through which God’s grace passes to others. We each might be wires of a different gauge, able to transmit only up to the carrying capacity of our gauge. But our gauge doesn’t matter: All that matters is that some grace gets through. We are only part of the whole operation of grace. We don’t need to worry about how much grace we are dispensing—we don’t need to quantify it.

Donald: Are members of the church wire of a bigger gauge than others? We seem to think we are. Is it a cop-out to think our gauge is small, so we don’t need to do much?

Jay: This is a quantity question, and God doesn’t care at all about the quantity we pass on, whether it be a ton or a gram. It seems to me liberating, in terms of judgment and salvation, to think that God does not distinguish between a ton and a gram.

Don: But doesn’t your liberation come at the cost of someone else’s de-liberation? Have you done enough to help him or her? Could you, should you have done more? Did you give to your limit? These are quantity questions we can’t seem to stop ourselves from asking in our fallen human condition.

David: We can’t let it go because we are consumed with the issue of judgment. A line in an historical movie about Chief Sitting Bull had him telling a white woman: “The white man measures people’s worth by how much they own. We measure people’s worth by how much they give away.” To measure worth is to judge.

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