Last week, I was on the receiving end of an act of unprovoked kindness. It was done by a friend, and it affected my whole family. Although I am in the very fortunate position of having people do nice and thoughtful things for me often, this one caught me off guard by the sheer non-necessity of it: it was generosity and thoughtfulness far out of proportion to what the situation or our relationship called for.
It made me uncomfortable. That isn’t to say that I and my family didn’t receive this with gladness and gratitude. We did. Our friend had arranged for an incredible take-out Thai food feast to be delivered to our door on a tired Friday night, and that food could not have tasted better or been enjoyed more. The discomfort I was feeling was further out to the edges of my thoughts and activities—the last thought before falling asleep at night, hovering just around my prayer time, a shadow beside me when out running.
At the core of this lingering discomfort is a response that is pure, trustworthy. Human beings have the innate capacity to respond to the kindnesses we receive, and I needed to determine the appropriate response in this situation. I said thank you. I wrote a note of gratitude. And I wondered, not necessarily how I could do something in kind for this friend, but rather how I could look for my own opportunities to surprise someone else with an unwarranted offering. Our own experiences of goodness can awaken in us our ability to be grateful and generous people.
And then there is the version of this response that gets warped by what the church has always referred to as human sin. I don’t deserve this. And, intimately related to that, what debt do I owe? Acts of cruelty and harm can degrade human life and can leave individuals with a crippled sense of self-worth. How interesting and foolish and sad that an act of kindness can also touch off that guilty and doubting side of us. We don’t want to be beholden. And we count ourselves fundamentally unworthy. It is the basic state of affairs for the modern individual: to pride ourselves on being self-made… and to deep down consider ourselves fundamentally inadequate.
Desmond Tutu, in his book In God’s Hands, reflects on how typical it can be to have difficulty in receiving what might be offered to us:
If we have been brought up in an environment that values achievement at any cost, over and above the worth of simply being human, we find it extremely difficult to be comfortable with the ethos of grace—of sheer gift. …I accept that it must be enormously difficult to be open to receiving when one seems to lack for nothing, and that is perhaps why so many who come from affluent societies do not easily understand the wonder of grace, freely bestowed by a deeply generous God.
Our Lenten Scripture readings have led us into the heart of what Gift is and what it means. We have wrestled with the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father’s arms inexplicably open to the child who so completely disrespected and exploited him. We have wondered at Mary of Bethany’s foolish wastefulness, funnelling every spare resource she could glean into the silliness and fleetingness of a perfumed ointment for feet that will be dirty and sweaty and dry again tomorrow.
And now we are heading toward the cross.
Even the ones who would sentence Jesus would name him as innocent. Even the criminal hanging on the cross beside him could see that he had done no wrong. And he is whipped and stripped and hung up for all the world to see his shameful and painful gasping and dying. Because of the way the Gospel narratives are structured, and because we have the perspective of two thousand years of Christian history, there is a sense of inevitability about Jesus’ death. This is what he was born to do.
And yet, his death is also totally unnecessary. There were numerous escape hatches along the way—he didn’t have to go to Jerusalem, he didn’t have to challenge the authorities so publicly when he got there, he could have escaped on that Thursday night when he saw his friend Judas slipping off into the night, he could have begged Pilate or Herod for mercy. He ignored each of these ‘outs.’ He is the recipient of unprovoked violence, he becomes a lightning rod for the fear and violence and anger and hatred of the world in which he lives. But he is also an agent. He makes his choices. And in that respect, he is more than just innocent.
He is an agent of unprovoked kindness. He makes visible the suffering of the world’s poor and maligned, claiming an inherent value to human lives that have long and forever been judged as worthless. In response to one request for mercy from the barbaric criminal beside him on the cross, he opens up the gates of paradise. He anoints an unrepentant world with forgiveness in his dying breath. And his raised life is not given over to righting the wrongs that have been done to him, bringing the evil and hatred that has been inflicted on him home to roost in punishing those who have their just desserts coming to them. Rather it is wasted at barbeques and supper tables, in cryptic questions of love and a gentle invitation to touch and to believe.
The risen Lord doesn’t immediately inspire joy in his followers. The last chapters of Matthew, Luke and John describe Jesus’ Resurrection as, in part, a time of healing for his disciples. There are a series of meals and searching conversations which create space for Jesus to quell the fear and discomfort of his friends, friends who know they have let their teacher down tremendously, who expect to be called out for what they have done… what they have failed to do. We can imagine eyes furtively looking away, not meeting Jesus’ own gaze, on that first Sunday night appearance in the locked upper room. I am going to be made to pay for what I’ve done. They have to learn how to be humble enough to receive the forgiveness and love on offer, how to then be confident enough to allow their lives to be shaped by what they have received into people who can become offerings for others.
Gifts can be more complicated when they involve people who don’t happen to be Messiah and Lord. We do oftentimes give something expecting to receive praise or favour in return. We can hurt one another in ways that require that amends be made. Sometimes it is necessary for there to be a clear sign of changing ways before forgiveness can be granted.
And, as Desmond Tutu notes in an earlier point in his book, we are created in the image of God, created to be God’s viceroys, God’s stand-ins. Every now and then, we will be bowed down by an encounter with God’s unprovoked kindness, offered to us through another flesh-and-blood human being. We will be asked to dwell in the non-necessity of another person’s generosity toward us.
Just as the church has and continues to be formed by our encounters with the unwarranted, unmerited blessing of the risen Christ, may these moments of kindness we receive from another shake us and shape us as agents of God’s unnecessary love.