What would you do if you didn’t have to earn a living?
I’m interested in your answer whether you’re retired or doing un-paid work around the house or currently working a 9 to 5. What if you didn’t have to earn your way in this world? What if all those years of working for a living – past, present, or future – didn’t have to be spent that way? Then, what would you do with all the resulting free time?
For example… It’s deer season, and you’ve got venison on your mind. You go out early one morning to hunt. Before long, you hear a little movement, and you shoot at some food…
(Oil, that is – black gold. Texas tea.)
So you find yourself rich like the Clampetts. For the rest of your life an oil well will be paying your way for you. What do you do now, that you don’t have to earn a living? Do you move to Beverly?
(Hills, that is. Swimming pools. Movie stars.)
Do you spend your days living out wacky hijinks, hob-nobbing with the super rich?
Or – different scenario – let’s say your daddy was the super rich one. You grew up never having to work a day in your life. How would you spend those days in which you didn’t have to put in eight or more productive hours? Would you lay by the pool, sipping drinks with umbrellas? Be served by butlers in fine suits? In other words: live a life of lazy luxury?
I’m interested in these hypotheticals, because I have a theory: In an all-expenses-included life, how you spend your time might be determined by the source of your funding. So let’s imagine the wealth arriving by a different means in a third scenario…
Your beloved uncle has passed away. Uncle Scrooge didn’t have any kids of his own, and he left his entire fortune to you. Every day of your paid-in-full life now comes with a reminder of your uncle, the one who made this money in the first place. You might think about how he’d want you to spend that money and the free time that it gives you. Maybe you’d use your time not just to lounge poolside, but also to tutor and mentor Scrooge’s three great-nephews.
These are all just daydreams – most of us will never hit oil, aren’t born stinking rich, and won’t inherit a fortune of that size. But if we did – if we were liberated from the need to earn our way in this world – then how we spent the remaining hours of our lives might be altered by where that bank roll came from.
With that in mind, let’s go back to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
The church in Ephesus was one that Paul knew well. He didn’t start it, but he did spend three years there. The letter that’s recorded in our New Testament is the only letter of Paul’s that isn’t written to a church in order to address a problem; compare it with 1 Corinthians or Romans. That doesn’t mean this is a congregation without challenges, though. Paul’s account in Acts 20:31 makes it sound like they had challenges a plenty at one time.
But now, the church in Ephesus seems to be in a period of relative peace, and at times of peace a church can hear different kinds of messages. So Paul writes them this general letter about something foundational: how to be church together by being built on the grace of Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds the Ephesians of how they used to live, of how their lives used to be so opposite of what God wanted that they were like dead people walking. And then, even while they were still living those bad priorities, Jesus happened. Jesus died and their old lives died with him. Jesus raised again and they were raised up a new people.
“By grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul says (2:8). And it wasn’t anything any of them did – it was God who did it. Neither was it because they did something good to deserve it – God just up and did it, because of God’s love for them.
They didn’t hit oil. They weren’t born into a wealthy family. They didn’t inherit a fortune at an elderly relative’s natural death. Something more costly happened to pay for their lives.
This is more like what happened to them, and to us:
You were born poor. All your life, you struggled not just to get what you wanted, but to get what you needed. You barely made it through high school because after class you worked a job until you fell into your bed exhausted at a late hour. There was no time for studying, no time for extracurriculars. Life after graduation was no easier and no better for you than it had been for your parents. You worked two jobs but the hourly money you made was never enough. You were hungry. You were tired all the time. One day led into another.
Then you got a phone call.
You thought it was a hoax at first, and you ignored it. The third time the phone rang you listened. Someone was giving you money – a large sum of money. There was a bank account waiting for you with enough to live on for the rest of your life. You would never have to work again. The details of how it got there were overshadowed by the realization that it was actually there.
As soon as you claimed that bank account, your life changed forever.
Every mealtime came with an actual meal. Clothes with holes were replaced by a whole wardrobe. You slept eight hours at night in a safe home. You woke up rested every day.
For the first time in your life, you didn’t spend every possible hour logged into a minimum wage job somewhere. You were free to pursue free time. You experimented with hobbies, vacations, naps, long walks, reading… movies… television…
In your boredom, you reflected on your new life situation. You wondered what you should do with all this time you now had. You wondered why someone had given you this money in the first place.
So you called the number back and asked: Where did this gift come from again?
The donor was no distant relative. It was someone who had noticed your struggle felt for you. Someone who wanted you to experience a different life, a free life. So the donor – who had a comfortable middle-class job – had taken on a second job. The donor worked long hours in stressful occupations to make this great sum of money. Eventually this began to effect the donor’s health. The donor was warned: you can’t keep this up; stop, or this will be the end of you. The donor did not stop. When the donor finally died, the will stated explicitly that this money would come to you.
As you heard all this, it came back to you. You had been told that, at the beginning, but you had been worn down and suspicious and distracted. Now that you were living your new, all-expenses-paid life, you heard the story with fresh ears. You saw your situation with fresh eyes.
All of this has come at great cost.
What would you do if you didn’t have to earn a living?
If that freedom came at great cost, would it change how you lived your free life?
We have been given the gift of grace. Like the Ephesians, we have a “before” – a time when we were trying to be good enough to earn our lives and failing miserably, or NOT trying to do anything good at all and succeeding horrifically.
Then one day – maybe this very day – we discover that we don’t have to be good enough. We don’t earn our place in God’s house. We don’t earn the right to this wildly free life. It’s been given to us.
But: it’s been given at great cost.
We didn’t hit oil. We weren’t just born into God’s family naturally. God didn’t die a natural death at a happy, old age and leave us this inheritance. Any of those things would be what Karl Barth would call “cheap grace,” salvation that came easily.
No, this is costly grace. Jesus died for us on a cross. It was painful and heartbreaking. It was so bad that most of his disciples couldn’t muster up the courage to stand by him. In that moment, God gave everything someone could give so that we could be free.
If God did this for us, then how could we possibly spend our lives in lazy luxury?
This is Paul’s reminder to the Ephesians in their state of relative health and harmony. You didn’t earn this, he says. It was paid for by an act of sacrificial love.
And we, too – we don’t earn our salvation. It’s been given to us at great cost.
So go, and do our Donor justice. Love others sacrificially. Forgive others radically. Care for others before they care for you. And above all, love our Donor, our God in heaven who has saved us by grace and created us for good works.