School is just getting underway for our youngsters, and I know that always raises some anxiety as they return to the classroom. I remember one of the higher anxiety times in my student days when I walked into my first seventh grade math class and found a bright yellow paperback textbook on my desk with a title something like, “Math for a New World.” “We’re going to be doing something experimental,” my teacher said. “It’s called ‘new math.’ We’re going to explore the world of numbers in a different way.” Sounded ominous to me.
Over the coming weeks and months I discovered my instincts were right. You see, in the new math, just adding, subtracting, and multiplying weren’t enough. The focus was now on new approaches to numbers. There was something called base theory, for example. In base 10, which we use all the time, 2 + 2 = 4. But in base 3, 2 + 2 = 11. Now I won’t tell you why, and you don’t need to know. But let me tell you, it was confusing. Change the context, and numbers mean entirely new things.
Sometimes Christian faith itself starts sounding like a strange new math. I began to realize this some time ago when I read an essay by Philip Yancey entitled “The Atrocious Mathematics of the Gospel” in which he showed just how peculiar Jesus’ math really was. Jesus told the parable of a farmer who hired workers for his vineyard—some at sunrise, some at morning coffee break, some at noon, some mid-afternoon, and some an hour before quitting. Everyone was happy to be hired—until, that is, they got their paychecks, when the exhausted workers who had labored for twelve hours in the hot sun were paid the same as the sweatless ones who had just begun an hour ago. It sounded completely unfair. What kind of accounting was this? Those numbers don’t add up. Some other context was at work that was overriding everyday thinking. 2 + 2 = 11.
One day a woman named Mary visited Jesus, took a pint of exotic perfume worth a year’s wages, and poured it on his feet. How wasteful can you get—and with hundreds of hungry mouths around them begging for food? What framework was she thinking in?
Then there was the poor widow Jesus pointed to in the temple. She dropped her only two coins in the temple collection bucket, and Jesus then said that counts far more than all the spare cash the wealthy ones were throwing in. What kind of math is this?
Last week we heard two stories about a shepherd who leaves behind his flock of 99 sheep to look for one that is lost, and a woman who has lost a coin that is worth next to nothing and won’t stop till she finds it, and when she does she throws a party. What foolish wastes of time and energy. It’s all terrible math, unless, that is, there is another base in which it all makes sense.
And then in our gospel today Jesus tells maybe the oddest story of all. A rich man had a manager who was stealing from him, so he called in the crook and demanded to see the accounts. The manager then rushed out to find the boss’s debtors and struck some deals that were terrific for them, in order to make sure they would be his friends after he was fired. And then guess what. The boss called the crooked manager into his office and said something like, ‘Congratulations. What a brilliant job, you old crook. I wish all my employees were as creative and ingenious as you.’
Now what do you make of that? Why would a nice fellow like Jesus tell such an outrageous story? Is he recommending dishonesty? It’s obvious that later interpreters couldn’t figure it out either because at the end of the story they patched on a series of little moral teachings to try to make a nice lesson out of it. The only problem is that none of those little lessons have much of anything to do with what’s really happening in the story.
Jesus seems to be having fun shocking his listeners. We teach our children to be thrifty, hardworking, and honest. We know honesty is the best policy, and we expect Jesus to be a good moral teacher. But here he is seeming to recommend the behavior of this scoundrel.
So what’s going on here? I wonder if Jesus is suggesting that you and I are more like that devious manager than we think. What if we’ve quietly been working on our own schemes to look after ourselves, worried at the end of the day more about how our lives aren’t making it than anything else. Maybe we mean to do good but rarely get around to it, and instead shade a little truth here and try to impress a little there. Maybe Jesus wants us to acknowledge we’re not pulling off perfect lives and that we’ve made some messes. And what will matter is not how good we are but how merciful God is and how savvy and resourceful we can be in picking up the pieces and starting again.
It’s a strange math coming through the pages of the gospels. Left to our own devices we would never come up with these weird stories. We are encountering a deeper, stranger framework. In God’s world biggest isn’t best. Most isn’t most important. Little things multiply in significance. God doesn’t seem interested in who deserves what but is determined to give indiscriminately to everyone and cares a lot more about the size of someone’s heart than the size of her résumé or bank account.
We might as well call it what it is: outrageous. Outrageous grace, you could say. It’s what sets Christianity apart from other religions—the wild claim that at the heart of the universe is this relentless love, generosity, and compassion that will not stop no matter what. That’s God’s new math. That’s the real context of our lives.
Several years ago I encountered a remarkable spiritual memoir called Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul. The author is Tony Hendra, an Englishman who made a name for himself in this country as the editor of the humor magazine National Lampoon. He tells the story of a forty-year friendship with Father Joe, an English monk living in a monastery off the southern coast of England.
The book opens as the fourteen-year-old boy Hendra is caught just on the edge of an affair with a married woman ten years older. Her husband, a devout Catholic, discovers this, and rather than acting in rage or violence, takes the boy off to a monastery to meet his spiritual director, Father Joe. The boy is terrified, and as soon as he gets in the room with the monk he drops to the floor to kneel for confession.
“No no no no,” this large, ungainly man in a dark robe says. “Sit down next to me,” Father Joe says very gently. Then with his eyes closed, and using what seems to be his favorite word for people, he says, “Now, dear, tell me everything.”
That was the last thing the terrified boy expected. Where was the shame and guilt the church was so good at? And when young Hendra had told the story of his involvement with the woman, whose name was Lily, Father Joe’s first words were simply, “Poor Lily”—words of compassion for a lonely, lost young woman. “Some unknown fuel drove [Father Joe’s] engine,” Hendra writes. “Gentleness bubbled out from the funny figure in the scruffy black robes like clear water from solid rock. It was flowing into me through him.…I felt on the brink of learning an entirely new set of possible responses to the world.” 2 + 2 + 11.
And so the boy begins a journey of discovering a God he had never known—a God of patience and encouragement. Sometime later Hendra comes to Father Joe in the midst of another crisis. “He didn’t attempt to calm me,” Hendra says. “He didn’t try to explain why I was feeling these things.… He didn’t try to manhandle me for my own good with tough love.… He took my condition head on, as seriously as I took it.” After the boy poured everything out, Father Joe said, “There is no such thing as an unforgivable sin, Tony dear. God forgives anything and everything.”
Hendra flirts for awhile with becoming a monk, but then his life turns in a totally different direction—out into the tough, cynical world of New York magazines, Hollywood films, and hard-edged, irreverent humor. His life becomes a mess. He’s a bad husband and a selfish, inattentive parent. He gives in to alcohol and drugs. But through it all he keeps coming back to Father Joe, who never gives up trying gently to steer him toward the light.
Father Joe is showing Hendra God’s new math—a God who has no interest in keeping the books on us, but who only cares about getting us to know we are loved. Does God care whether we clean up our act and live good lives of service? Yes, of course. Does God get frustrated, even angry, at the choices we make and the things we do to each other and ourselves? Yes, surely. But God will stop at nothing to find us and bring us home.
I can’t think of anything the world needs more than the new math of God’s outrageous grace, a new set of responses to the world. I suspect there is part of each of us that has been on the make like that conniving manager, promoting our own interests, trying to look impressive with our moral portfolios, all the while needing more acceptance and forgiveness than we deserve. If we could only lay hold of the outrageous grace that God is showering on each of us, maybe we could learn to be more people of grace to each other.
And often it seems as if we Americans have trouble with this whole notion of grace because deep down we don’t believe it. Theologian Miroslav Volf says that what we really believe is that “Everything has to be earned ultimately, paid for.” We seem to believe that God is a negotiator, he says. You receive God’s grace as a reward for being good. And American culture doesn’t “get” grace at all. You know the old lines. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything is for sale. You are what you accomplish.
One place we’re seeing this gracelessness as a nation has been in the attitudes of some Americans toward immigrants in our country. We are seeing firestorms over undocumented immigrants, even though parts of the American economy depend on them. And there are concerns about protecting native-born workers from unfair competition from these workers, who are willing to work for much less.
But where is the spirit of God’s grace, generosity, and even justice in the proposed law in Arizona ordering police to arrest without warrant people who “appear to be undocumented?” Where is the compassion for the children of undocumented immigrants who are being cut out of health care and schooling? Of course there are hard questions to be wrestled with. But we need God’s new math, a framework of generosity and respect in our nation’s spirit.
We could begin by remembering how Jesus loved the outsiders, the losers, the poor, and the lost, and how he kept saying theirs is the kingdom of God. We could remember the time when Jesus celebrated a savvy, ingenious, scrappy manager doing what he thought he needed to do to so that he and his family could survive. And we could even remember that when Jesus died for us it was because his new math had put him outside the law.
I frankly don’t know where our world will be if we remain stuck in the tit for tat, look out for yourself, eye for an eye, fend for yourself old math we’re so used to. This morning Jesus is showing us an outrageous grace, a new math, a God we can hardly imagine. I think Father Joe is speaking to us this morning when he says, “You are loved, dear, with a limitless…fathomless…all-embracing love.” That’s the most important news we’ll ever hear. Or to put it another way, 2 + 2 = 11.