In one scene in the Richard Bach novel Illusions: Adventures of the Reluctant Messiah, the main character cracks open The Messiah’s Handbook, a book that opens to whatever the reader most needs to know, and reads, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they are yours.” How many times do we fail to do something we want to do simply because we perceive our limitations and can’t see otherwise? For many of us, the idea of living radically in Christ, living Christ’s radical generosity, may seem impossible. We may be frightened, think that we will look irresponsible or ridiculous, or that people will think we are just plain crazy. But, we can do it. Indeed, it’s the most important thing we can ever do. And Jesus, through John’s gospel, tells us how.
In John 15:1-6, the gospel writer tells us that Christ is the vine and we are the branches. Neither is whole without the other. The branches and vine “live on in each other,” a radical generosity of self-giving, finding wholeness through integration within a life-giving community that is our perfect model of Christ’s radical generosity.
The key to the parable is to recognize that the branches do not live for their own sake. Without thought, the branches live out their purpose, giving their very essence to produce the fruit, which then feeds others and propagates the vine. By giving wholly of itself, the branch lives on in the vine, a radical generosity that assures the branch’s, and the vine’s, life. We have to live this radical generosity in imitation of the branches, giving from our essence, bearing the fruit of God’s love, giving that fruit up unthinkingly to be consumed by others for the purpose of spreading the seeds of God’s love.
It may seem easy for the branch — the branch can’t deny its nature and choose not to bear fruit. The branch does not wonder or worry if the vine will sustain it. It simply lives as part of the vine. We don’t look at the branch and say, “Wow! That branch is crazy! How can it possibly live that way, believing day after day that the vine will keep it alive?” But that is what we say everyday about ourselves. We, of course, have free will, and we “argue for our limitations” rather than living our purpose. We can choose not to bear fruit. Or we can choose not to share and spread the fruit we’ve borne, as God intends us to do.
But, if we make this choice, we deny His nature within us, deny the essence of our lives, deny life itself. If the fruit and seeds are not shared and spread, the vine, indeed the entire vineyard, will eventually die. The branch lives only by self-giving, offering its essence to others. We likewise can only live by simply and selflessly giving of our essence to others, knowing without second thought, by instinct almost, that God will sustain us.
Similarly, we know that separated from the vine, the branch has no power to do anything and it dies. When we separate ourselves from Christ by failing to radically live his love and generosity, we too will die. As Jesus tells us through John’s gospel, only by living out radical faith in Christ and imitating his radical generosity can we really live. Otherwise, we are separated from Him, and we have no power to do anything. We will not bear fruit, and we will not live. We lose our very essence when we strive to keep it.
This is radical generosity — giving out our very essence to stay one in Christ. And radical faith is knowing that Christ will sustain our life and love us when we give our very essence away. It takes childlike confidence and warrior-like courage, but it is what we were made to do.
Radical generosity, then, requires that we give unreservedly, with the same “naturalness” as the branch does. The branch does not fear. Neither must we. After all, our vine is our ever-loving God, who made us solely that He might love us. Bear your fruit of love, spread it widely, live in radical generosity!
Ok…easy to say…but how do we do this? How do we begin to “operationalize” the concept? Here is one way to think about it and put it into practice.
As St. John Chrysostom taught, to live in Christ, we must give “not from our superfluities, but from our necessities.” Radical generosity, then, means giving from our need. It means giving unreservedly the things that are hard for us to give. The first thing that springs to many minds may be giving quantities of money or things to good causes, and that can be a very good place to begin. Most of us need to find, as Clarence Jordan, the spiritual founder of Habitat for Humanity said, “a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting [ourselves] of [our] overabundance.”
One first step in radical generosity, then, is to take the time to look at your material resources, prayerfully examine the things you are spending your money on, with an eye toward identifying and cutting out the things that do not lead you to Christ. Then use those freed up resources to develop and commit to a generous giving plan.
Giving from our need, though, giving the things that are hardest for us to give, may mean many other very important things as well. For some, giving these “non-material” things may be much harder than giving from our material wealth. Giving from our need may mean giving our time, our trust, our cheerfulness, our prayers, our need to control, our love. We must each figure that out for ourselves — find what scares us, what worries us the most to do without? Once again, prayerfully think about it, discover it…and give it away.
Try this. Purposefully give something to someone every day for a week — a compliment, a gift, a hug, a kind word, your undivided attention, a charitable donation, an act of kindness, a smile, a meal, your seat, the chance to choose. At the end of each day, try to remember everything you gave, and what stopped you from giving — from giving more or from giving something else. Honestly and prayerfully examine if in your giving you gave from your necessity. The next week challenge yourself to give more, particularly from those things you were reluctant to give, the things you found yourself afraid of losing. Practice will lead to habit, to a naturalness of radical generosity that you never thought possible.
The absolute glory of radical generosity is that it never ends. When you give from your own need, there is always more to give away.