[Warning: serious spoilers below. You’ve been warned.]
“Everything costs something, right?”
Season 5, episode 4 of The Walking Dead takes a departure to catch us up on a character we haven’t seen in quite a while. Last we saw Beth, she was carted off by mysterious forces in a vehicle sporting a white cross. In last night’s episode, “Slabtown,” Beth wakes up in an unexpected place: a hospital, which we later learn is Grady Memorial in Atlanta. In a throwback to the pilot episode, she awakens in a strange location unsure what has happened. The woman in charge of the hospital, Dawn, sets the tone immediately. Because we used our resources to save you, she says to Beth, “You owe us.”
Beth soon learns that the abandoned hospital is run by survivors who have been rescued (kidnapped? kidrescued?) and then repay their debt by working various tasks inside the hospital. Outside is nothing but
zombies walkers/biters/rotters, so even those at the top of the hierarchy are basically trapped. But in this inhumane place, the male guards abuse the female workers, and those who want to leave are threatened. Anyone who questions the system is reminded what it took to rescue them. “Everything costs something, right?” as one character says. Beth even refuses food at first because she realizes it will only run up her tab faster.
“Slabtown,” aside from being the kind of interesting, creepy, and suspenseful episode viewers have come to expect from The Walking Dead, also offers the perfect picture of life without grace. Everything costs. Nothing is simply given.
Thanks be to God that the Divine Economy works differently. With God, nothing is earned, all is given. As Ephesians 2:8-9 (NRSV) says,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
As Tim Keller points out in The Prodigal God (and the parable of the sower further suggests), our God is not stingy in doling out grace. When we meet God, His first word is not “you owe me” but, like the loving father in the story of the prodigal son, “all that I have is already yours.”
My church recently started a weekly meal for the community; anyone who wants to come in for a meal gets fed, at no cost. When people ask us if they can pay, we tell them no, that there are other ways they can show gratitude if they wish but the meal is free.
We call this ministry Table of Grace, because the food, like God’s grace, is free of charge. “Slabtown” gives us an excellent view of a world (or at least a half-operative apocalyptic hospital) that has forgotten grace. Too often Christians, though, act exactly this way. We only recruit new church members with “resources.” We plant churches in wealthy neighborhoods and only befriend those who can enhance our status and help us reach our goals. We ask our community to pay our bills (with incessant fundraisers) but never give anything back to our neighbors. The temptation of mammon remains, and always will.
But followers of Jesus are at our best when we remember that God is not miserly with His grace. Though we capitalist North Americans so often hate to receive for nothing, though it is antithetical to the world we live in, that is the Kingdom economy that we meet in the Bible. Unlike the apocalypse-stricken Grady Memorial in Atlanta, the truth of the cosmos is an economy of grace.
That which matters most is free; God writes no bills, and we could not buy His love with any amount of money. Thanks be to God.