The Riskiest Strategy for Living

Playing it safe may be exactly the wrong way to live.

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A woodcut illustration of the parable of the talents, 1712.

When I’m listening to a familiar passage of Scripture read out in church, I find it easy to gloss over details that I’ve heard many times before. Then one day one of those details jumps out at me and grabs my attention like a serpent who leaps out of nowhere and bites its victim.

That happened recently when the gospel reading in church was Matthew 25:14-30. This is the familiar parable of the talents. Jesus tells it as part of his instruction on how his disciples are to live as they await the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

The parable tells of a rich man deciding to go on a long journey. Before he leaves, he summons three slaves and entrusts each of them with differing amounts of money to manage while he is gone. One receives 10 talents, one five talents, and the last one one talent.

The rich man must have been the equivalent of a billionaire today. In the ancient world, one talent represented 6,000 denarii. One denarius was typically a day’s wage. So one talent would equal a day laborer’s earnings for 16 years.  The slave receiving five talents was receiving 80 years’ worth of normal wages. That would represent several million dollars today.

The rich man must have had great confidence in these three slaves to entrust such enormous sums to them. He gives them no instructions on what they are to do with the money.

Two of them invest the money in trading ventures, with spectacular results.  When the master returns and demands an accounting of the money, the slave with five talents reports that he has earned five more. The one receiving two talents reports earning another two. In both cases that represents a 100% return. Spectacular investing by any standard!

The last slave, however, buries his talent. When his master returns, he digs it up and returns it. He must have thought he had done well. He was returning the money safe and sound, without loss.

The first two slaves receive lavish commendations from their master. But the third slave receives a ferocious denunciation. The slave is deprived of his money and cast out into the outer darkness. His strategy of keeping the money safe backfires badly.

A fatal misperception

What grabbed my attention when I heard this parable read in church was the motivation this poor slave gives for his action. He tells his master he knew that he was a demanding master. So he says he was afraid. That’s why he hid the money rather than using it.

“I was afraid.” That’s what drove the slave. He was so afraid of losing what he had that he would not take any risk to do anything with it. He would play it safe. So he hid his talent. But in the end this proves the riskiest strategy of all that he could have adopted.

What feeds his fear? It is a flawed understanding of his master’s character. He knows his master is exacting. From that awareness he draws the mistaken conclusion that his master hates losers. He will punish losers regardless of whether their loss came from well-intentioned efforts or from laziness and squander. He will make no distinctions. In drawing that conclusion about his master, the slave makes a fatal misperception of his master.

I have often wondered as I’ve read this parable what would in fact have been the master’s reaction if the slave had made a whole-hearted effort to invest his one talent and then through mistakes or through bad luck had lost the whole amount. The parable suggests that the master would not have cast the slave into outer darkness.

My speculation is that the master’s reaction might have resembled that of a business executive I once heard of who summoned a young employee to his office to account for an astounding loss the young man had sustained through a business transaction that went wrong.

The young man entered with fear and trepidation. He was prepared to submit his resignation. He was convinced that that was what the executive would demand. He so expressed himself to his boss. The executive, however, responded, “Why would we want to fire you? We have just spent thousands of dollars on your education. You’ve learned a hard lesson, so get back to work.”

Surprising guidance from Jesus

Jesus tells his parable to guide his disciples on how they are to live in the time of delay before the arrival of the Kingdom is its fullness. Jesus seems to be saying that we should not be afraid to take chances in investing our talents.

The traditional interpretation of those talents in the parable is that they stand for our abilities and skills that are given us by God. In fact, the modern English word for talent comes from this parable. We are to invest those skills and abilities in service to others,* taking appropriate risks as situations call for them.

But I recently heard an alternate interpretation of those talents. The talents represent the gift that is Jesus Christ himself. We are then called upon to bring Christ to a hurting world in creative ways, ways that may involve great risk of failure.

However, we understand the symbolism of the talents, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we not live and invest ourselves in life in constant fear of divine reprimand and punishment. It is not our mistakes that anger God. It is our efforts to play it safe at life, to live life complacently.**

I do not hear this parable as a call to live life imprudently. That would go against the whole wisdom tradition of the Bible. But as disciples of Christ, we are not to live life timidly. Imitate Christ. Live and serve our God boldly.

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* I say “in service to others” because of the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) that follows immediately in context. There the issue at stake in the trial before Son of Man is whether individuals (or nations) have acted compassionately towards those in need.

** Interestingly, when Revelation 21:8 lists those who will be excluded from the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, the cowardly lead the parade of those marching into the lake of fire.

 

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A Christmas Option for the Arm-Chair Bible Reader

My study guide on Galatians is all about making the apostle Paul accessible to the lay reader.

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You are a reader of my blog. That tells me you have an interest in the Bible. And you may have friends who share that interest.

Maybe yours is a strong interest; maybe just curiosity. But if you would like to explore one book of the Bible in depth, may I suggest you consider my new book as a Christmas gift option.

The book is titled: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It seeks to open up what has been one of the most influential theological writings ever written in the history of Christianity.

In addressing a crisis in a group of churches in what is today central Turkey, the apostle articulated a vision of the Christian life that has inspired theologians and ordinary Christians ever since. It helped spark the Reformation.  It even started a revolution in my own spiritual life years ago when I first read it.

Yet Paul’s thought can appear dense to people who do not understand the sometimes specialized vocabulary he uses. I try to translate that vocabulary for laypeople today. In this way I hope to make Paul’s thought accessible to people with no or a limited theological background. Periodically in the book I also take pauses to reflect on how I hear Paul’s thought addressing important theological issues today.

While not trying to dumb down Paul, I like to write in an informal, non-academic way that I think will communicate well to my readers. (It’s the same style I aim for in my blog.) From feedback I’ve received, it appears I succeed. One reader told me, “I expected your book to be a dry, scholarly tome. But it wasn’t. It’s really good.”

Copies may be ordered from Amazon or from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock. If you decide to buy and read it, I would love to hear your feedback afterwards.

 

 

The Ugly Duckling Commandment

One of the Ten Commandments breaks the mold of the other nine.

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A stained glass image of the Ten Commandments from a Jewish synagogue preserved in the Alsatian Museum of Strasbourg.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are like the Lord’s Prayer. We recite them so often that we become numb to the words. We mouth them thoughtlessly.

So it is helpful now and then to slow down our recitation and pay attention to the words. When we do, we find something unexpected in the Ten Commandments.

The first nine commandments prescribe actions that God’s people are to do or not to do. For example: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall not kill. You shall not steal.

Even the first commandment–You shall have no other gods before me–implies action. You shall not honor, reverence, or worship any other god before the Lord.

Then we come to the tenth commandment–You shall not covet.* The sentence structure mirrors that of the previous commandments. But the prohibition is not against an action, but an emotion.

The emotion of coveting usually leads to some kind of action, such as an act to deceive and seize another person’s property. The commandment, however, focuses on the motivating emotion that precedes the action, not the action itself.

In this respect, although the tenth commandment parallels the structure of the others, it is a commandment of a totally different kind. That’s why I call it the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.

Why the Difference?

That fact raises a question in my mind. Why is it included in the ten commandments? It makes sense to command actions. We take it for granted that we–to a large degree at least–can control our actions. Our laws presume that fact. Otherwise all our legislation makes no sense.

But can we presume that for our feelings? I have come to believe that we cannot. I don’t think we can compel people–or even ourselves–to feel in a certain way.

Our feelings come and go, without any input from our decision-making will. Sometimes we wonder where those feelings come from. We may not want to feel them. We do our best to suppress them. Yet feelings have an uncanny way of making themselves present in our psyche whether we want to feel them or not.

So it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action. Sure, coveting is a terribly destructive emotion. It has caused untold injustice and suffering in the world. We badly need to limit it. And, sure, God is God. His wisdom sometimes exceeds our comprehension.

But how can God command something that goes against the very dynamics of human nature? How can God command what we should feel? That’s the nagging question the tenth commandment raises for me.

The Driver of Human Behavior

Where that question leads me is the many places in the Bible where the heart is seen as the locus of our motivation. In the Biblical viewpoint, what ultimately drives our behavior is not rational reflections, but the motivating desires of our inner being.

Yes, rational considerations often drive our decisions and the actions that grow out of them. But if rational considerations come into conflict with our desires, desire is likely to win out. For in the Biblical viewpoint the core of the human problem is not our ignorance, but our disordered hearts. Time after time our desires drive us into destructive behavior in spite of our knowing that the course of action we choose to follow is wrong.

This fundamental insight first came to me with my study of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In chapter five of that letter, Paul talks about the battle that is going on constantly between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit.

The good qualities of character that we so admire–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–are not products of our will-power, but gifts given to us as we deeply root our lives in the Holy Spirit. They grow as the mature fruit out of a heart transformed by the Spirit.**

When we stop to think more reflectively about it, we realize that behind all the commandments of God concerning our behavior lies the more central issue of the desires of our heart. Our wrong actions grow out of our disordered motivations. And if we would change those actions, then we must ultimately deal with the disordered feelings that lie behind those motivations.

The Viewpoint of Jesus

I think that is the great insight of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He takes the commandments—like the commandment You shall not kill—and realizes that we have not solved the spiritual problem of our behavior until we deal with the feelings that lie behind it. So he directs our attention to the feeling of anger that drives murder.

Likewise when he comes to the proverbial commandment You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, he directs our attention to that deadly binary cast in our feelings that causes so much civic, ethnic, and international strife and violence. We must deal, Jesus says, with our emotional cast of mind that divides people into friends and enemies. We must grow beyond that dualism if we are to resemble God our Father.

All this then gives deeper meaning to Jesus’ remark to Nicodemus, You must be born anew (or from above). The experience of being born anew is not primarily some insurance policy against going to eternal damnation. It is an experience of being remade in our inner being, of having our hearts transformed. Instead of the language of born again, the apostle Paul will use the language of new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). And that is the great hope that drives the spiritual journey for Christians.

So the tenth commandment has a reason for being the ugly duckling in the list of the Ten Commandments. It cautions us against any spiritual complacency, the assumption that we can fulfill God’s expectations by simple obedient action to the law. What is required to fulfill those expectations is something much deeper and more radical than we customarily assume.

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* In calling it the tenth commandment, I follow the ordering of the ten commandments in the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition, the religious tradition in which I live. Although all Jewish and Christian traditions keep to a consistent ten commandments, some number them differently than others. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, for example, split the commandment on coveting into two commandments while merging the first two commandments into one. What I have to say about the commandment on coveting remains true whether we regard it as one or two commandments.

WS_5.5x8.5_template** I reflect on this insight of Paul at length in my recent book Charter of Christian Freedom. It is a study guide to the Letter to the Galatians written especially for people with no or a limited theological education. It can be ordered from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock or from Amazon.

 

Guilt vs. Shame

Because they are not the same, they call for different responses.

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Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

Recently I was talking with a friend with professional training in psychology. We were discussing guilt and shame. My friend pointed out to me that although guilt can slide into shame, they are not the same thing. It is important to our well-being that we stay aware of the distinction.

One of the best expressions of the distinction is found in a book by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, titled Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. They write: While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.*  My friend put it more succinctly for me. He said: Guilt is feeling bad about something I have done; shame is feeling bad about who I am.

I find this distinction very illuminating. I have been one who has tended to confuse guilt and shame by assuming they were variations of the same emotion.

When we feel guilty, my friend went on, we feel that in our behavior we have violated a value that we ought to have respected. That value may have been set by our society and culture. Or the violation may have been against our own internal values. But the key point is our violation comes through our behavior.

As an example, let us say we tell a lie. We feel bad about our doing so. We believe we should honor the truth, but we have violated that value by telling a lie. We feel guilty.

In shame, however, we feel bad about what we are or who we are. We feel bad about our very being. I am bad, not just in my actions, but in the very core of my being. As a result, we can feel our very right to exist or to belong is called into question.

To continue my example of telling a lie, shame tells us that when we told our lie, we became a liar. That defines who we are. We are wicked in our very being. We are no longer worthy of being loved, accepted, or belonging.

Shame’s Bitter Fruit

The emotional consequences are, therefore, often much more substantial. On the one hand, shame can trigger low self-esteem that moves into acute depression. On the other, it can trigger violent rage, especially when the shame has been induced by a real or perceived act of humiliation.

Recently I was reading a news feature in a Sunday edition of The Washington Post.** It told the stories of six angry men who had participated in the white supremacist march on Charlottesville on August 12. It explored the long roads they had traveled in developing the hate they now espouse.

Each man’s story—and his road into hate—was different. But I noticed that they all shared one factor in common. All felt alienated from the wider society. And often that feeling of alienation had come to a head through experiences when they felt they had been bullied, sneered at, or humiliated.

In humiliation, someone in effect tells us that we are so bad we cannot be loved. That violation of our sense of goodness then bears toxic fruit: anger and rage. I know from my  own experiences of being humiliated by others. If, however, we believe their negative assessment of our value, the violation can trigger deep depression. We are trapped in shame.

The Shamed Person’s Greatest Need

It seems to me then that if guilt and shame are very different, they may require different responses, especially if you are as I am a Christian pastor ministering to parishioners.

When dealing with guilt, I think we have an effective tool in the hallowed Christian practice of confession and absolution.  A person acknowledges how he or she has violated a norm by his or her behavior. As a pastor, counselor, or friend provides some form of absolution, the penitent is set free to go back to daily life, freed from the emotional burden guilt brings.

The penitent may fall into the same negative behavior again, but the absolution assures the penitent that he or she can seek to do better the next time they are tempted to engage in the same negative behavior.

But I am not sure that the traditional tool of confession and absolution is the best response for healing shame. For shame is about more than just what one has done. It is about one’s very being. One feels contempt about one’s very being alive. That contempt may have been imposed by someone else or by one’s own self. And because we are not good in our being, we believe that we can never do anything better when we confront the same temptation to engage in negative behavior.

In dealing with shame, we have to assure someone that it is OK to be who they are, to be the unique creation of God that they are. We have to convey to them that they are of value; in short, that they are loved. They may have done wrong, but that does not mean they are rubbish just because they exist. Conveying that healing message may not be an instantaneous thing. It may require slow and patient work.

Jesus, Guilt, and Shame

Because of the insight that my friend gave me into the difference between guilt and shame, I find myself looking at several gospel stories in a new light.

In Mark 2:1-12, for example, we read the story of Jesus preaching in a house in Capernaum. Because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus, a group of men cannot bring their paralyzed friend close enough to Jesus for him to heal him. So they remove the roof above him and lower their friend on a stretcher.

Jesus heals the man, but before releasing the paralysis, he forgives the man of his sins. The story suggests that the paralysis is in some way tied to a sense of guilt that the man has because of some wrong he has done. Absolution of his wrong behavior sets the man free. As a result he regains his mobility. I see this story as one purely about guilt and its effective release. We encounter no sense that shaming has played any role in the paralyzed man’s plight.

It’s another matter, however, in the story we find in John 7:53-8-11. Here we have again a story about someone who has done wrong, in this case, a woman caught in adultery. Some scribes and Pharisees drag her out in public and place her before Jesus, demanding what Jesus thinks should be done with the woman. Should she be stoned to death as the Law of Moses requires?

Their actions are a public act of shaming for the woman, presumably in front of a crowd consisting only of men. She may not have been literally naked, but she must have felt emotionally as if she were. She would then not only have been terrified for her life, but also feeling deeply shamed.

Such acts of public shaming have often happened in the history of the church. It was a common practice in the early church for notorious sinners to be brought before the bishop and condemned publicly in front of the assembled congregation.

They would then be barred from participation in the Eucharist for a specified period of time. They might also be required to follow a particular program of penances. But whatever the specific requirements, the effect was to bring them into shame in front of the community.

The Catholic practice of private confession was introduced in the early Middle Ages in an effort to provide a more compassionate way of dealing with sin. It made the confession of sin and absolution a private affair between the penitent and the priest, not in front of the whole assembled congregation.***

In effect, Jesus forgives the act of sin when he tells the woman to “go, and do not sin again.” But what is going on in this story is a more powerful response on the part of Jesus to the public shaming of the woman. When he tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he addresses their shaming ploy head on.

It works. Each man in the crowd slinks away, so that Jesus is left alone with the woman. He then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” The woman’s dignity as a human being has been affirmed. She is set free again to be, to be who she is as a child of God.

The Father’s Response to the Prodigal Son’s Shame

Finally, it seems to me that we watch an amazing example of the healing of shame as we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here a man’s younger son demands his inheritance which he then squanders in a foreign land. He is reduced to poverty, but also disgraced by his circumstances. He as a Jew is reduced to feeding pigs.

It induces a profound sense of shame. As a result, he resolves to return home, but not to request to be re-installed in the family. Just to be enlisted among his father’s hired servants. He feels he no longer deserves to be regarded as a son. Instead he deserves to be an outsider to the family, and so he confesses as he meets his father.

But amazingly the father does not condemn his son for his failures nor consign him to servanthood. Instead, full of compassion, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him. He dresses him in fine garments, and throws a banquet for him. The son is re-installed as a son.

The rationale the father gives is: …let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

The response of the father to the son’s profound sense of shame is to communicate as strongly as he can that his son is loved. He is still his son, and always has been, despite his disgraceful behavior. What is most important to the father is not the forgiving of his son’s guilt, but the healing of his son’s shame.

I find these gospel stories so powerful because they suggest that expressions of forgiveness alone may not be enough when we are dealing with deep-seated shame. Healing shame requires something more. We need to know that we are loved.

This adds a whole new layer of meaning for me to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8: …God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. God loves us even before we repent of any wrong we have done. That, I believe, is the key to the healing power of the gospel.

Footnotes:

* Fossum, Merle A and Mason, Marilyn J. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. W.W. Norton, 1986. I actually encountered this quotation in the article on Shame in Wikipedia.

** McCoy, Terrence, Six angry men and their long roads to hate, The Washington Post, August 20, 2017. Front page.

*** Historians attribute the introduction of private confession into the church to the influence of Celtic Christians and their practice of anamchara (soul friendship), a practice in which spiritual friends mutually confessed their sins to each other and received absolution.

 

Why I Read and Study the Bible

Engagement with the Bible is a priority for me for one important reason.

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I have been writing this blog for five years. Sometimes the pressure of coming up with yet another new posting makes me anxious. Yet I continue to write because I continue to find myself captivated by the Bible. You may wonder why, so let me offer an answer.

It is not because I regard the Bible as a simple collection of ready answers to every spiritual problem or need. If I am feeling fear, then I turn to…. If that were the case, then the Bible would be just another volume of magic spells comparable to something Harry Potter might find in the library of Hogwarts.

I certainly have favorite passages of the Bible that I turn to in distressing times. But that’s not why I continue to invest my time and energies in reading and studying this book.

Nor do I read the Bible because I expect there to find infallible answers to every question I bring to it. To be honest, I give no credibility to any doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, although that was certainly the teaching in the religious tradition I grew up in. I am fully prepared to acknowledge that there may be errors of fact and viewpoint in some of what I read in the Bible.

I hold this position because I do not believe that human beings are given the gift of infallibility, infallibility of any kind whether we locate it in reason, the Pope, general church councils, or the Bible. Only one is infallible. That is God. And human beings do not share that divine characteristic. To be human is to be capable of erring, and we all do, including I believe the authors of the Bible.

The very human process by which the Bible came to us

My study of how the Bible was written, edited, and compiled has shown me how thoroughly human was the process by which we received the Bible. No angel dictated the words of the Bible to its authors (as Muslims believe Gabriel did with the words of the Quran). The process that brought us the Bible is full of all the historical contingencies that accompany any human endeavor.

Furthermore, that process means we find different voices and viewpoints expressed in the Bible as a whole. The books of the Bible do not speak with one unified voice.

I offer one example. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah and the book of Ruth offer contradictory viewpoints on the legitimacy and value of Israelite men marrying foreign wives. Yet all three books are included in the Bible. And for that reason I must hear and take seriously what each of them says in their contradictory viewpoints. I cannot pick and choose to accept only one. The canon of the Bible means I must hear each voice with equal seriousness, for given different historical situations, one voice may speak a message that I need to hear at that time over the others.

 The divine mystery that is the Bible

So skeptics may say to me with some astonishment, “Why do you continue to read and study the Bible? Isn’t it a vast waste of time?” Some might even say a detrimental waste of time. Look, they say, at all the pain and hurt people quoting the Bible have brought into human history.

Their question reminds me of a scene in the movie Zorba the Greek, where Zorba asks his scholarly English companion Basil why anyone dies. Basil says that he does not know. Zorba responds, “What the use of all your damned books if they can’t answer that?” Basil responds: “They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.”

In an analogous way, I continue to read and study the Bible for one important reason. It may not answer all my questions, but tells me of the privilege and challenge of being called to be a child of God, of living in the divine mystery that lies around, beneath, above, and inside me. It feeds my spirit, nurtures my faith, shapes my mindset, guides my behavior, forms my character, and inspires my hope like no other book.

Because of all that I can affirm with full conviction what the Pauline author says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. 

 I would ask you to notice about this sentence (so often quoted as proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration) that its primary focus is not on the use of the Bible to proof text doctrine, but to shape the way we live and behave. The author is most concerned in the power of the Bible to form us as believers so we can live lives of Christian service.

I truly believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but not because the Bible claims to be so inspired or a church authority declares it so, but because of the mysterious power it has continually to nurture me in my life of faith. I do not understand the nature of that power, anymore than I understand the mysterious way the Spirit of God guided the contingent process of bringing the Bible into being.

Exactly how God has inspired the Bible is a mystery to me. Yet I continue to believe that God has done so because of the power the Bible has played in my life. I first became captivated by the Bible as a teen-ager. And through all the up’s and the down’s of my tumultuous spiritual journey I have been able to turn to the Bible as a steadying force in my life.

The dual pillars of my spiritual life

I said my spiritual journey has been tumultuous. I mean that. And through all the twists and turns of my spiritual and emotional life, two things have proved my anchor. One is my engagement with the Bible; the other is my regular participation in the Eucharist. They have been my personal Jachin and Boaz, those foundational pillars that stood at the entrance of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 3:15-17).

Together, the Bible and the Eucharist have grounded me spiritually. And I note that they also form the two foci—the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Sacrament—that have formed the historic Sunday liturgy of the church. That liturgy, too, has a mysterious divine power. It feeds me spiritually. It heals my emotions. It challenges my passivity. It shapes my character.

So why do I continue to read, study, and wrestle with the Bible? Why do I try to share something of the fruit of that engagement in my blog postings? Because here I touch the mystery of God and God’s ways and purposes in the world. Hear I touch the mysteries, the challenges, and privileges of being a human being.

And here too I gain insight into the nature of this cosmos in which we live. The Bible tells me this cosmos is not meaningless, despite all our experiences that suggest otherwise. Instead the Bible calls me to trust in the hidden ways God is guiding this cosmos to its mysterious, but glorious destiny.

 

 

 

The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.

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One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.

 

Know Thyself

Spending some time alone may be healthy before we rush into active service.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Thinker placed in front of his rendition of the Gates of Hell, 1880, Museé Rodin, Paris.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:9-13) tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness there to be tested by Satan. Why does Jesus need to be alone for 40 days in a barren landscape?

I like to think that need follows inexorably from the breakthrough experience Jesus has at his baptism. At the moment when he comes up out of the water, Jesus hears a voice in heaven say: You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

The heavenly voice speaks a word of unimaginable affirmation. It singles Jesus out for the spiritual distinction of being the beloved Son of God. The voice is saying in effect, “You are uniquely close to me, as close as a son is to his father.” This affirmation is accompanied by a filling with spiritual power as the Spirit descends upon Jesus.

Talk about a mountaintop spiritual experience! It must have been an incredible high. That is precisely what made it dangerous. This high could have led to Jesus’ spiritual and mental unhinging. He could have become so full of himself and his special status that he could have become unbearable to be around. Or he could have gone mad, just as many mentally deranged persons have who have delusions about being god.

Either outcome would have defeated his mission. For Jesus’ status is given to him for the purpose of his mission. He needed to learn how to subordinate his ego-centrism to his mission.*

I think that was the task he faced as he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus had to come to understand deep in himself what it meant to be the Son of God. What that status permitted him to do and what it did not permit him to do. He had to understand his identity in a profound way before he was fit to pursue his mission.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Takes on the Temptations

I suggest this interpretation of his testing in the wilderness because of what the gospels of Matthew and Luke bring to the story. Mark tells us nothing about the exact nature of the temptations Satan poses to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke do. We need to pay particular attention to the wording they give to the words of Satan.

When Satan poses his first temptation, it is a temptation to Jesus to use his spiritual power to gratify himself, in particular to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But we need to note how Satan introduces that temptation. His first words are: If you are the Son of God…. Satan zeroes in on that very special identity that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice at the baptism.

Again when Satan raises the second temptation, the temptation is to use Jesus’s special relationship with God to call attention to himself and to gain fame and admiration. He is to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God’s angels will rescue him from killing himself.

Once again we need to note how Satan introduces the temptation. He begins: If you are the Son of God…. Satan exploits the heavenly voice’s words to Jesus.

Satan does not use these same words to introduce the third temptation. But the third temptation presumes upon the status which has been conferred on Jesus. In its Old Testament usage the words Son of God have royal associations.** Jesus is tempted to seize his right to be king by worshipping power as represented by Satan.

Each of these temptations derives its power as a temptation because it exploits Jesus’ new consciousness of being the Son of God. Jesus must penetrate into this revelation to understand it, to understand what behavior is appropriate to his identity and what is not. And that takes some solitary time alone to wrestle with his own self.

Out there in the wilderness Jesus was probably not spending the bulk of his time watching the gauzy clouds float by in the sky. He was probably struggling with his own thoughts and emotions trying to plumb the meaning of the breakthrough experience that had been his in his baptism.

The Biblical Paradigm of the Exodus

What I find fascinating about Jesus’ experience is that it seems to be a common experience for people who undergo breakthrough spiritual experiences. Take the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:17, Paul tells us that after his breakthrough experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately went away into Arabia.

Paul tells us nothing about what he was doing there nor for how long. But he does move out into the wilderness. I like to think that he did so to be alone, to try to begin to understand what had happened to him in his revelatory experience with Christ and what this now meant for him and his life. I suspect he was wrestling with his own new identity and calling just as Jesus was in the desert.

What I find further fascinating about both Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences is how they conform to the Old Testament paradigm of the Exodus. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, especially in the breakthrough experience of the miraculous crossing the Red Sea, God leads the people out into the Sinai desert there to wander for 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.

There is, I believe, a very concrete reason why God does this. In Exodus 4:22-23, God refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. Pharaoh is to let God’s son go so Israel may worship and serve the Lord.

Israel as a people is given the same status as Jesus in his baptism. And Israel must learn to understand what that status means for them just as Jesus must. That is the important work that is going on in the Sinai wilderness those 40 years of wandering. They are being shaped into a people who will be able to live as the chosen corporate son of God when they enter into the land. We can then see the Exodus wanderings as a series of educational temptations.

Israel, of course, never fully passes the tests. When they enter the land of Canaan, they enter with an imperfect understanding of what their special status means. As a result they fall prey to new temptations to exploit and abuse their status as a son of God. In the Christian story, this sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who will finally fulfill Israel’s destiny.

This Exodus paradigm has been lived out over and over again the lives of many Christian saints. An outstanding example is St. Anthony, the hermit in the Egyptian desert who helped launch the monastic movement in Christianity. And the monastic tradition has continued this paradigm by requiring candidates to undergo a lengthy novitiate (a time of spiritual formation and testing) before they take their final professional vows.

I believe we need to honor this Exodus paradigm as well as we individually go through our spiritual journey in life. When we have breakthrough experiences spiritually, it may be hazardous to our spiritual health to rush out into Christian service in the world. Instead we may need, just as much as Jesus, Paul, and Anthony did, to take some time to be alone, free of distractions, to plumb the meaning of what has happened to us. Unless we do, we will botch our mission by misunderstanding the meaning of our identity.


* Jesus will once again confront the issue of ego-centrism in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he must subordinate his own desire to live with the demands of God’s will. He does so in the words of his prayer, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36).

** For examples, see Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.