Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More Thoughts on "Crafty Means"

"The best thing you can do for your fellow is not to tell him, but to wake things up that are already in him." -George MacDonald

I wrote in my last e-musing that Jesus was master of subtle indirection. There are numerous examples of this subtlety, but one that comes to mind is his use of the non sequitur: an answer that doesn't follow-at least until you’ve thought about it for awhile.

For example, a man once queried Jesus: "Are only a few people going to be saved?" Jesus' teaching, in an earlier gathering-in which he compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed-probably triggered the question. It was natural, therefore, for this man to assume that Jesus believed that the number of subjects in the Kingdom would very small. That question-the number of the elect-was an academic theological issue the rabbis often debated.

Jesus went straight to the heart: "You," he said, "must make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to" (Luke 13:24).

By his unexpected response Jesus turned the theoretical, "How few?" into the personal, "How about you?"

It occurs to me that the man's question is analogous to the "What about people who've never heard?" rejoinder from those who are trying to stave off the gospel. Rather than trying to explain the enigma, perhaps our response might be: "Good question. I don't know about those who've never heard the gospel, though I do believe God will do what's right. But you’ve heard. How about you?”

And then, there was an occasion on which someone in a crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me" (Luke 12:13). Jesus answer was a terse, "Beware of greed," speaking to the selfish motives underlying this man's demand for fairness, exposing our own hypocrisy, for many of our demands for legal redress are driven by personal greed and self-interest. It’s not injustice but greed that destroys our souls. "Why not rather be defrauded?" Paul would say. That's what Love would do.

Luke mentions another situation in which some people reported to Jesus the tragic news about certain Galileans "whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1). Apparently Pilate's troops had surrounded and slaughtered a group of Jews while they were worshipping in the temple. We don't know anything more about the massacre, but it's in keeping with what we do know about Pilate's character.

Once again Jesus' answer was unexpected: "Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them-do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:2-5).

Jesus' answer laid bare the hearts of those who reported this event. Apparently, their take on this slaughter was that these "Galileans" were worse sinners than they and deserved the punishment they received. Pilate's cruelty was surely God's wrath turned on these wicked folks. "No," Jesus replied, "Unless you repent you too will perish in your sin."

All of which reminds me of a severe, self-righteous man who sat across from me at lunch one day and growled, "9/11 is the wrath of God against gays!" I was stunned into silence. Looking back, I should have said, "Unless we repent, we too will perish in our sin."


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