Posted by: dacalu | 11 January 2013

Free Lunch

I’d like to talk today about a cliche, not because it’s a common saying, but because it represents so clearly the spirit of the age, one of the underlying beliefs of our times – and because it presents a real challenge for Christians.

“There is no free lunch.”

Just five words, but it sums up a very important concept.  “You don’t get something for nothing.”  From the game theory perspective, it goes something like this:  Life is a zero sum game.  Perhaps you don’t go that far.  Perhaps you think that more is produced than is invested, but still, a kernel has to come from somewhere.  Someone has to pay for it, don’t they?

The answer is no.  This has been demonstrated aptly in any number of contexts, the most notable being the Big Bang.  Incidentally, that will be a perfect example of what I’m about to say.  Often something comes from nothing solely as a result of your accounting.  The explosion at the start of the universe may be the result of physical forces acting beyond our range of knowledge.  Sometimes the gentleman two tables over pays for your meal or the lady behind you in line pays for your groceries.  It doesn’t appear on your ledger, but it does appear on someone’s.  Perhaps that’s the point.

But it isn’t.  No one ever says (sincerely), “I’m so sorry it worked out this way, but sadly that’s just how the universe works.  There’s no free lunch.”  What they mean is that if some addition is made to your ledger, some subtraction must be made there as well.

“Anyone who tells you different is selling something.”

Exactly.  They’re selling lunch.

The phrase, “no free lunch” doesn’t mean “don’t expect the universe to be kind.”  It means, “don’t expect me to be kind.”  Don’t tell me your needs unless you’re willing to pay me something for helping you with them.  You can call it entitlements or hand outs or mooching or leaching or whatever you like.  The point is, you’re not getting it unless you pay for it.  This philosophy is fundamental to modern concepts of the free market and libertarianism, perhaps in the most compassionate of ways (everything works more efficiently that way), though often as a mask for self-interest.  I don’t see any way to sugar coat it.  The point of the phrase (the sentiment and the philosophy) is that people don’t give altruistically, sacrificially, and without expectation and I the speaker am included.

Christians should see the world differently.  We believe that God gave the world as a free gift.  We (at least most of us) believe that Jesus died for the sake of atonement (bridging the gap between God and humanity) without price and without hope of reward.  Christians believe that grace is God’s freely given, undeserved, unrepayable gift.

Christians believe in a free lunch.  I’m wary of overgeneralizing, but I strongly suspect that much of the history of the church can be summed up with this one line:  Grace is free and we’ve been trying to figure out how to charge for it for 2000 years.  No wonder people are suspicious.  “You must believe this.  You must do that.  You must subscribe, join, tithe, obey, demonstrate…”

Here’s the rub.  As fine as that sentiment is, does it really work?  I know from psychology, teaching, and sad experience that people value things more when they pay for them.  I’m a priest; don’t I want people to value grace?  As a pastor, do I not want them to value love?  Am I not, like St. Paul, a coach for the spiritual athlete, urging them on to a better life?  Well yes.  Does that mean that I, like a coach, should ask, even demand performance.  Maybe.

Maybe?  That’s a bit squishy, isn’t it?

Yes.  I confess to a bit of ambivalence here.

First and foremost, let’s talk evangelism.  I have a friend who insists on selling the hard work of salvation to random people on campus.  I don’t buy this as all.  Evangelist as coach doesn’t work, because these people have not signed up for the program.  You wouldn’t accept a football coach or army drill sergeant approaching you on the street and making you do push-ups.  Why on Earth would you put up with a street preacher demanding that you change your life? (Some will object that this is not consistent with evangelism in the Bible.  Check out the note at the end.)

Second comes the question for pastors.  And here is where my ambivalence lies.  I can think of a hundred reasons why pastors would make grace costly.  The number one reason is psychological and sociological.  Pastors want people to invest in the church, in their relationship with one another and with God.  Why not make grace, membership, sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, marriage, forgiveness) dependent upon their contributions.  Why not make them incentives to investing?

[Don’t kid yourselves, pastors.  Every time you have required catechesis or membership for baptism; every time you make confirmation classes required for confirmation and Eucharist;  every time you have insisted people join and tithe before performing a wedding;  every time you have demanded penance before absolution, you’ve used a sacrament as an incentive for investing in the community of faith and practice.]

I’m not sure this is a bad thing.  I think many of the people who come to me looking for forgiveness want and need the ritual and cost, because we have so much trouble believing we are forgiven.  I think the the rite of confirmation is built around personal intellectual and actual commitment to the church.  Confirmation may not make any sense outside of this investment.

At the same time, I worry.  I worry because the methodology of investment, contract, and covenant speaks against the theology of grace.  You cannot charge admission to the kingdom of free gifts.  You can only welcome people in.  No matter how hard we try, we can never get people to invest in true, self-sacrificial love.  It isn’t an investment.

I don’t think there is any way to preach grace, now that I think about it.  You can only demonstrate.  So let me say this.

You have my interest, support, service, and advice.  Not because I should.  Not because God told me to.  Not because it’s right or beneficial, moral or proper.  Not for the sake of reward and not in the expectation of reciprocity.  You have them purely, simply, and fundamentally because that’s what I choose to do with my life.  I love, as often and as well as I know how.

That’s my religion.  If it isn’t “Christianity,” so be it.  Honestly, my only response to that would be that I have no need of “Christianity.”  I really, truly believe that this is God’s will and Jesus’ gift and the point of scripture, but if it were not, I confess freely that it would mean as much to me.  I have received so I give thanks and give.My God asks me to give without hope of reward or reciprocity, only for the sake of giving.  I tell his story because he gave in this way.

I hope for you this kind of self giving.  I think it will make you more joyful, more whole, and more a part of the world around you.  I cannot demand or even expect it, but I can offer it to you, free of charge.



The Bible and Evangelism

Why on Earth would you put up with a preacher demanding that you change your life?

Isn’t that what the prophets did?  No, not really.  In the Hebrew Scriptures they spend almost all their time preaching to the people of the covenant, people who’ve already signed on.  Mostly we hear of them talking to religious and civil officials who, like modern officials would have been reminded annually of their duties to God, would have said oaths.  {Off the top of my head, I can only think of Jonah preaching to Gentiles and he, like John, preached repentance.}

How about the New Testament?  Well, not so much there either.  Jesus and John preached repentance to the Hebrews, just like the prophets of old.  They urged a people already part of the covenant to enter deeper in.  Jesus practically ignores the Syrophoenician woman until she begs him to be let into the program.  That leaves us with Acts and the Epistles. In Acts, almost all the public preaching is, again, directed at Jews in Jerusalem and Jews and “God-fearers” in Synagogues elsewhere.  Philip is even accosted by a foreign eunuch who insists on being taught and baptized.  The only case where people are not buying in, is the Areopagus, where Paul is very respectful of gentile beliefs and urges the Athenians using their own beliefs as a foundation.

Paul rarely demands anything.  Read closely.  Paul rarely demands anything.  He’s almost always urging, exhorting, even cajoling – though even in his case, tradition holds that he is writing to people who have already written to him asking for help.  These are the words of a pastor, not an evangelist.  Above all, read Romans, where the idea of unearned grace is the central message.  No one is worthy.  No one is bound by the law, and yet righteousness is an option.



  1. […] of my belief, practice, and society. It is dear to me because it both preaches and practices “free lunch.” God loves us without condition, without requirement and without expectation. We call it grace. […]

  2. […] of my belief, practice, and society. It is dear to me because it both preaches and practices “free lunch.” God loves us without condition, without requirement and without expectation. We call it grace. […]

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