Radical hospitality

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a pair of parables describing the Kingdom of heaven. One is about a man who plants a mustard seed that grows into a large plant in which birds can perch. The other is about a woman who mixes yeast into a batch of flour until it’s all worked through the dough. Bible studies and sermons on this text usually focus on how God’s Kingdom is expanding even if it doesn’t seem to start out looking like much. And this is true. God routinely turns our expectations upside down. We think God is interested only in big and strong things when often it seems like he prefers to show his power through what appears small and weak. These parables assure us of how, often in surprising ways, the Kingdom is coming and growing whether it seems like it or not.

I recently watched the simulcast of a workshop hosted by Love INC and led by Ray Vander Laan titled “We Are the Church: Putting God on Display in a Broken Culture.” He showed that there’s even more going on in these parables.

Watch the woman for a moment. She is mixing yeast into 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of flour. Just how many loaves of bread is she baking?! My wife and son often bake bread and they use about 2½ pounds of flour to make 3 loaves of bread. They would end up with 72 loaves if they used 60 pounds of flour! The woman in Jesus’ parable must be working on a feast! So maybe this detail about the extravagant amount of dough is also meant to associate the Kingdom with words like abundance and feasting.

It was the NIV translation that told me the woman used 60 pounds of flour. The translators chose to convert the original expression into figures people can understand today. What was the original expression? The NRSV and other translations say the woman mixed the yeast into “three measures” of flour. Most readers in the western world are probably thankful for translations or footnotes that convert unfamiliar quantities into units with which we’re familiar. However, Jesus’ original Jewish listeners were probably less busy calculating the amount of dough than they were with realizing Jesus was hinting at an Old Testament story that uses the exact same expression.

In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah have unexpected guests who turn out to be angels – even God himself. Abraham & Sarah hurry to welcome their guests, part of which includes Sarah getting “three seahs of the finest flour” to bake some bread. I’m not sure why here the NIV translation does not convert three seahs into units more familiar to modern readers as it does in Matthew 13. The NRSV and other translations avoid specific units and get closer to the original expression: Sarah got “three measures” of flour.

So when Jesus speaks about a woman working with three measures of flour, his original Jewish listeners are not doing math in their head. They’re hearing Jesus inviting them to think about Sarah and Abraham and the extravagant feast they prepared for strangers. And I suspect this was not an uncommon thing for Abraham and Sarah to do. A little later in Genesis, Abraham’s neighbors refer to him as “a mighty prince among us” and they seek to deal generously with him. They would not have spoken and acted like this if Abraham and his family were unkind and miserly.

I therefore propose together with Ray Vander Laan that baked into Jesus’ parable of the woman with the fantastic amount of dough is the theme of hospitality. The woman is mixing dough just like Sarah mixed dough millennia ago, preparing a feast for people she didn’t even know. So, yes, Jesus affirms the Kingdom of heaven is growing, often in surprising ways. But he’s also pointing out that this growing Kingdom he has begun ushering in is a Kingdom characterized by the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, a hospitality that puts aside what we were doing to offer the best help we can give when it’s needed.

It turns out that the theme of hospitality is also ingrained into the preceding parable. The man plants a mustard seed that eventually grows into a plant that, in a sense, offers hospitality for the birds, giving them a place to perch in its branches. God desires for his entire creation to be blessed by hospitality.

A sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church – in you and me – is that he is nurturing within us the gift of hospitality, whether it’s with friends or strangers. And, in another hint Jesus provides, all God’s people are called to grow in offering hospitality. In one parable Jesus refers to a man, in the other a woman. Both are used equally to illustrate this Kingdom principle. The Spirit equips men and women of all ages to practice radical hospitality. And as we do so, we might be surprised to discover how the Kingdom is indeed coming and growing even among ordinary people like you and me as God works through us.

(Here are more posts on the theme of hospitality if you’re interested.)

The counter-intuitive part of the worship service

You wouldn’t be the first person to suggest to me that we drop the part of the worship service where we gather the offering. After all, it can take up to five minutes – if the deacons or ushers simply had baskets by the door into which people could drop their money as they exit, we could add something more meaningful to the worship service. (Or just be out the door sooner.) It doesn’t seem like the most effective use of time, does it?

I, however, believe that gathering the offerings every Sunday is a very effective use of time. It is effective in reminding me that everything I have comes from God. The old hymn still rings true:

“We give Thee but Thine own,
whate’re the gift may be;
all that we have is Thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from Thee.”

I need this constant reminder in a world that wants me to believe it’s my talent, effort, connections, or just dumb luck that brings me what I have instead of seeing God’s providing hand in it all. The reality is that I’m giving to God something that’s already His.

I also need the offering to help me practice acting the way God does towards me – generously. Reflecting the One we follow, Christians are called not to first of all be go-getters but go-givers (as Lee. C Camp reminds me in Mere Discipleship), and Sunday’s offering is one consistent place I can practice that. It reminds and equips me to continue behaving that way as I walk away from the worship service and into the week even if the culture surrounding me makes me feel it’s counter-intuitive or even foolish to let go of that money.

I’d also argue that the offering is one of the more “practical” moments in the service where I put faith into action. The Worship Sourcebook describes it well: Giving to the offering “helps us connect our adoration for God with our life of discipleship” (p. 241). It prompts me to discern what other gifts God is inviting me generously return to Him and share with others – gifts of time, possessions, energy, and love. What’s more, the offering is a token or symbol for how I want to offer to God all of me.

Offering graphic found via Google

God may very well use a 5-minute offering to help me remember this everyday stuff and put it into action.

Generous God

A few days after I wrote that the phrase “stingy Christian” should be an oxymoron, retired pastor and daily devotional writer Dale Vander Veen wrote about generosity. He describes in more detail God’s generosity that we have the privilege to imitate. Dale kindly (and generously!) gave me permission to post his devotional here…


The traditional translation of
Psalm 23:6 is: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Eugene Peterson in The Message opts for: “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.” Wondering where he came up with “beauty” in place of “goodness,” I checked other Old Testament uses of tob, the Hebrew word David chose. I found quite a list of translations. Beauty, prosperity, happiness, gladness, satisfaction, celebration, joy, well-being, generosity.

Goodness could be translated “righteousness.” But generosity, like beauty, is also a part of goodness, and it goes beyond righteousness.
Righteousness asks, “What must I do?”
Generosity asks, “What can I do?”
Righteousness says, “I have done enough.”
Generosity says, “I want to do more.”
I am stunned. Every day of my life God is following me, asking himself, “What more can I do for Dale?”

God was generous in creation.
“The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good (tob – generous) for food” (
Genesis 2:9). “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good (tob – generous) for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’” (Genesis 2:18).

God was generous to his Old Testament people.
“They took possession of houses filled with all kinds of good things (tob – generous things)… They ate to the full and were well-nourished; they reveled in your great goodness (tob – generosity)” (
Nehemiah 9:25).

God was generous in his Son.
Lest I think that God’s generosity is limited to the physical realm, Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (
John 10:10). And Paul writes, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).

God is generous in my salvation.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins … that he lavished on us… Because of his great love for us, God … is rich in mercy” (
Ephesians 1:7, 8; 2:4, 5).

God is generous in my growth.
“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (generosity)” (
2 Peter 1:3).

Before Jesus’ death, a woman in an uncontrolled burst of generosity anointed Jesus, breaking an expensive alabaster jar and pouring a very expensive perfume on his head. When criticized by her observers, Jesus defended her generosity, saying, “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:3-9).

Goodness, generosity, beauty – all three describe the heartbeat of the God who chases after me every day of my life. Amazing!

Verse for the day:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:2)

Phrase for the day:
God has done many beautiful things for me.

Quote for the day:
Beautiful (generous) Savior! King of Creation!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love thee, truly I’d serve thee,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.
– from “Beautiful Savior” (Gesangbuch, Münster, 1677)

…With the prayer that today you will hear your Shepherd walking behind you, asking himself, “What more can I do for _____ [insert your name]?”

Dale has
written for Today in the past. Contact him
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Graphic found via Google.

Stingy Christian

Some oxymorons (actually, the plural is oxymora) are seriously funny: Jumbo shrimp. Honest liar. Scheduled spontaneity. Microsoft Works. Here’s one I’d like to add to the list: Stingy Christian. As far as I’m concerned, there ought to be no such thing.

I think Christians need to be the most generous people in the whole world! I am convinced of this once again in this season of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, we remember how God gave His one and only Son to die for our sins. Who can imagine a more generous act than this? What more is there to give? And then on Easter, we celebrate the resurrection and the reality that in Christ, we have eternal life. How can anything be longer than eternal? To say that God is generous in His grace to us in an understatement!


It’s a terrible irony, then, that Christians (myself included) can be so terribly stingy. And I’m not just talking about finances (though I like keeping a tight grip on my cash as much as the next guy). I’m talking about a generosity of spirit, of hope, of love. People filled with the Holy Spirit of Jesus should not be able to help but reflect the kind of generosity we see in our Lord. But how often don’t I fight that spirit of generosity and keep the joy and blessings I have in Christ to myself?

One of my regular prayers is for God to nurture generosity within me that shows through kind words and helpful actions, through my patience and joy, through how I use my time and steward my finances. Generosity is one of the best characteristics of God that the Holy Spirit empowers us to imitate! Anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly confused (…to end with another oxymoron!).

On the move: Stuff

We were reading to our children Ramona’s World, in which 9-year-old Ramona Quimby gets in trouble for using the word stuff too much.  Her mom, speaking in “that quiet voice that meant Ramona was about to get a little talking-to,” instructs her to find more precise words to use.

Precise or not, Monica and I sometimes feel inundated with stuff as we sort through our things and pack up our belongings in our preparations to move to Iowa.  Different piles around the basement are labelled moving boxes“Keep,” “Garage Sale,” and “Give Away.”  On top of that are the extra bags we’ve been hauling to the roadside on garbage day.  It blows me away how much we have accumulated over the years.  Where did all this stuff come from?!

Most of us living in North America have more earthly possessions than we know what to do with.  Our garages are so packed with them that there’s no room for the car.  Then we rent units to store what our garages cannot hold.  Maybe the thought of just giving some of our stuff away occasionally crosses our minds, but we cannot bring ourselves to part with it.

While I was at The King’s University College, I went on a short-term work project to Honduras.  We helped people in a remote village dig a trench for a pipe that would deliver clean drinking water from a spring in the hills.  There was no electricity and we slept in mud huts.  Our hosts had very little in terms of earthly possessions, yet they cheerfully shared with us.  In fact, they were happy to give up what little they had to help make us feel at home.

Our Honduran hosts had precious little, yet they willingly shared it all.  Here we have so much, yet we tend to hang on to it all so tightly.  It’s ironic: The more we have, the more we need to learn about generosity from those who have less!

(PS: Our garage sale is next Saturday!)

Do atheists care less?

Maclean’s asked this provocative question a couple weeks ago on its editorial page and I mentioned it recently in a message about generosity.  It turns out that a survey released by Statistics Canada reveals that, on average, churchgoers give more generously of their money and time to charities than people who are not part of a church family.  Maclean’s goes so far as to assert that

“without organized religion, the world would be a much poorer and less comfortable place for those less fortunate.”

It’s nice to see this mentioned in Maclean’s, though it’s a shame when such a statement surprises people.

Here’s another excerpt from the editorial:

“The average annual donation from a churchgoer is $1,038.  For the rest of the population, $295. 
With respect to volunteer effort, two-thirds of churchgoers give their time to non-profit causes while only 43% of non-attendees do likewise.  And churchgoers put in twice as many hours volunteering.”

The Maclean’s editorial ends with noting the Foundation Beyond Belief, a group

“which aims to ‘encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists…’  So far, its 477 members have raised $18,760.  Or about as much as 18 churchgoers in one year.”

We can debate whether this particular comparison to atheists is fair.  Nevertheless, Christians ought to be characterized as the most generous people on the planet.  Of all of humanity, we understand best the vastness of God’s generosity: There are no limits to His love and grace.  May our society see less and less of a limit to ours!

Rich beyond belief

“We Can All Be Rich,” proclaims the March 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest.  There’s a huge assumption in that statement, namely that everyone actually wants to be rich.  Of course, questioning that assumption in our all-too-often greedy Western culture is borderline insane.  The only thing you’ll see more of than get-rich-quick schemes are people trying to follow them.

Do you desire to be rich?  If yes, how rich?  Do you have a target, or will wealth perpetually be defined for you as “more than I have now” regardless of how fat your bank account becomes?  I suspect that the desire to be rich and the feeling of dissatisfaction are frequently wed together.

It turns out that the Reader’s Digest article about being rich is not so much about amassing financial wealth as it is about building one’s reputation.  Entrepreneur Austin Hill is convinced that “once you attain a certain level of wealth, more money will not make you happier.  This is where a person’s reputation comes in.  In this world of future abundance [as predicted by Mr. Hill], it will be social capital, not money, that will matter most.”

I wonder if Mr. Hill has it backwards.  Perhaps having a good reputation will bring you happiness even before you attain “a certain level of wealth” (which is not calculated in the article).  Maybe a well deserved reputation of generosity will be the secret to your contentment regardless of how much money you have – financial generosity, but also generosity of goodwill, of kindness, of spirit.  Once you’ve got that down, maybe you’ll find yourself rich beyond belief regardless (and maybe even worry-free) of what’s in your bank account.