On NPR’s Marketplace recently their reporters dealt with stories of economic transactions and how different types have profound effects on people’s lives. The first story was romantic. A young man sits one seat away from a young woman at an NBA game in Milwaukee. His friend is sitting between them and, while his friend chats with the young woman, he hardly says a word to her. His only memory of her was she was wearing an Indiana University sweatshirt. Then weeks later, the young man is at the Detroit airport waiting for a flight. He sees the young woman in the same IU sweatshirt. That causes him to recognize her. They talk recounting how they met at the game. When the plane boards, they wish each other a nice flight thinking that’s it. But they end up sitting next to one another on that flight. They talk for the whole flight, exchange phone numbers, and long story short: They’re now married with a child. “It was meant to be,” the young woman said. They’re transactions involving game tickets, flights, and especially buying that IU sweatshirt, led to their life together.
The second story was about a family’s long desired vacation to Hawaii. They research and plan for months. They book a condo, flights, and a rental car for the week. Right before they leave, they learn that the husband’s mother is dying. She has just weeks to live. They readily cancel their long anticipated vacation to be with her. They’ll lose most of their non-refundable flight costs. They can cancel the rental car with no penalty. The condo agreement, however, clearly states that a late cancellation would require them to forfeit the week’s rent. The wife emails the condo owner explaining why they must cancel. The owner writes back saying he’ll return all their money. He tells her his wife was diagnosed with ALS last year. He knows they’re grieving. He’s been moved by the compassion others have shared with his family. The wife whose mother-in-law was dying said she was overwhelmed by a total stranger’s kindness. It transformed her life. She would now treat others similarly in the future. If that family had never transacted for the condo, then they never would’ve had this profound experience.
The Marketplace story saw these two stories to be about “transactional grace,” which is really oxymoronic. The first “transaction” wasn’t about grace. It might’ve been about coincidence, or even providence, or as is said in The Princess Bride, “true love,” but no one sacrificed anything except the money to buy game and flight tickets and that sweatshirt. While it’s a beautiful story, there was no personal “cost” to the two people involved. They simply took advantage of the opportunity the transactions provided.
The second transaction is about grace. For grace always requires an intentional sacrifice. The condo owner knowingly sacrificed his entitled rental fee even though he could’ve kept it. If there is no intentional sacrifice or cost, then there is no grace. We should understand grace that way, because it will help us fathom just how amazing it is, both with the graces we offer and receive in our lives and with God’s Grace freely given us in Jesus Christ. And once such “costly grace” (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase) sinks home, we’ll want to practice such grace with others, not as a quid pro quo transaction, but as the way God has called you and me to live in this world.