By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR
Often the context of an experience informs our future reactions in the same scenario. For example, if my boss asks me to come into his office and close the door, I╒ll assume it╒s important. If my previous experiences in this scenario were negative, I may also assume that this meeting will be negative: I didn╒t do something correctly, or I need to focus differently on a task. In that case, I╒m surprised if something different happens╤like if the manager praises me.
As it is in life, so it is in the gospels. Jesus speaks to his followers in a way they╒re quite familiar with, so they have expectations of how things might work out.
But imagine╤as is often the case with Jesus╒ parables╤that their expectations aren╒t confirmed and Jesus proposes something completely different. In these instances, Jesus intends to teach a profound and essential lesson. Scripture scholars attuned to this dynamic in the Jesus╒ parables call this the ╥principle of reversal.╙ The teaching moment occurs when the expected result is turned upside down.
For example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we expect his father to chastise him, punish him for his unacceptable behavior, and refuse to accept him. But that╒s not what happens. When the man who owes a huge sum of money is dragged in chains to the king, we expect the king to punish him. But that╒s not what happens. And when the apostles inform Jesus that all they have for the large crowd is a few loaves of bread and a couple of pieces of fish, we expect Jesus to send everyone home. But, again, that╒s not what happens.
When our expectations are turned upside down, we experience the profound, sudden, and extravagant manifestation of God╒s grace. Nothing in our experience can prepare us for the awesome power of grace. It╒s pure gift╤unexpected, unwarranted, and nonetheless showered upon us, changing our perceptions and inviting us to imagine a context for living that is beyond our experience.
Extravagant manifestations of God╒s grace aren╒t limited to the parables. God╒s grace is active and alive in our world and in who we are as the people of God. God╒s grace intends to break in and disrupt the expected.
There is, however, a catch: If we don╒t cooperate with God╒s grace, it remains only invitation and never becomes reality.
What blocks God╒s life-giving grace? Sin comes first to mind for people with scrupulosity, but the more dangerous obstacle is the fear and anxiety that make us unwilling to risk everything to be lifted up and made whole╤or, as Scripture teaches, to experience the saving power of God.
Fear blocks the fullness of the extravagant manifestation of God╒s grace because fear mistrusts, misinterprets, and never freely engages extravagance. We can╒t control and discipline our thoughts and feelings, but the imagined ability to do so routinely causes havoc and mutes the manifestation of grace.
Imagine how different the story would be if fear had caused the Prodigal Son to stay with the swine and never take the journey home to his father. Imagine being in the crowd that followed Jesus. Now imagine that fear causes you to leave the event and go home alone instead of accepting the invitation to sit down and take your place before him.
In each example, the extravagant manifestation of God╒s grace occurs but is missed. Fear becomes the agent of control and discipline as it eliminates creativity, imagination, and the powerful manifestation of the unexpected.
When we talk about fear and anxiety, we are not talking about sin. Fear and anxiety are manifestations of a disorder that prevents us from fully engaging and living the way God wants us to. Nor are we talking about punishment. God does not single people out to deny them the fullness of life.
We are talking about a terrible scourge that makes certain responses to life difficult but not impossible. All that╒s required is the focused effort to at least try. Even if we don╒t succeed, in our effort we might experience the extravagant manifestation of God╒s grace.
If we make this effort, slowly but surely grace will heal what right now seems as though it will be with us forever╤and it all begins with imagining an outcome completely different than the one we expect.