But What About Us?

House in a bubble
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/2864168894/in/photostream/">Hartwig Kopp Delaney</a>

Mark 10:28-31

Peter began telling him, “Look, we’ve left everything to follow you.”

Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who leaves home, or siblings, or parents or children, or gives up their business to follow me and to engage in this great cause will get a hundred times as much back right now. You’ll have homes, siblings, parents and children, and businesses – and plenty of trouble. And you will be immortal. But many folks who are used to being first will be last, and the last will get their turn first.”

The question is one we all ask ourselves now and again. Is what I’m striving for worth what it’s going to cost me to achieve it? That’s great, Jesus, that you’re helping all these people, but what about us?

I’ve noted before that the disciples have signed on for being in the inner circle when Jesus takes over. Jesus’ repudiation of the quest for wealth and power has finally sunk in. And he wants to know: if that’s not what we’re getting out of this, then what are we doing here?

Jesus never did promise them they’d be in the inner circle, or rich, or powerful. He promised them he’d teach them “how to capture people’s hearts.” And, if they can finally learn to do that, they will never lack a home, or close fellowship. And they will always have plenty to do.

But to have these things, to really be related to the hundred-fold abundance of humanity, you have to really care. You really do have to put them first. And that’s the paradox. You can’t “care” for people if you’re all the while expecting them to care for you. You can’t capture their hearts if you see them as a means to your own ends.

As it turns out, the only way to gain the rewards Jesus offers is to be the first to divest yourself of whatever privilege you have of going first. Put another way: it’s not about helping yourself. It’s about helping someone else get their turn.

A Paradox of Opportunity

Friendship Parados MathMark 1:16-20

(See also Matthew 4:18-25)

As Jesus went along the Galilean seashore, he saw brothers Simon and Andrew, fishermen, casting nets in the sea. He said to them, “Follow me and I’ll show you how to capture people’s hearts. Without hesitating, they followed him. A little further on he saw James and John Zebedee in their boat fixing nets. As soon as he saw them, he called them, too. And they left their father and their hired help and followed him.

Both in the calling and the following, there is no hesitation. No second guessing. No “let me think about it for a while and get back to you.” The response to the opportunity is immediate. The moment Jesus sees the people he needs, he calls them. The moment they see the leader they have been looking for, they follow.

According to the Friendship Paradox, “most people have fewer friends than their friends have, on average.” Strange, but mathematically true. It happens, though, because generally speaking, you’re more likely to find and interact regularly with people who are, on average, more socially active. The people who have the most friends are the people who are most outgoing and receptive to new friendships. On the other hand, they, by being more active, are more likely to find less active people – like you and me.

The connection to this story about Jesus calling the first disciples is this: opportunity works the same way. And opportunities expand with the number of people you know.

Finding the right people for your movement doesn’t happen every day, of course. But it certainly won’t happen if you’re not open to the possibilities. You’ve got to be looking. Even when there are other routine things to be done (mending nets). And, if you’re not ready, the people who are looking for the opportunity to be a part of your movement will probably find something else.

But the opposite is also true. The more you look, the more you find.

Strange, but mathematically true.

2 Paradoxes and the Common Good

Paradox by Andrew

1 Corinthians 12:4-7

There are many ways of being spiritual, but the point of being spiritual is always the same. You can serve in any number of ways, but it’s always about serving Jesus. There are lots of things to do, but the energy to do them for everyone in every case comes from God. So whatever you have, its for the common good.

It’s when we miss the point that things go wrong, even if we’re “spiritual.” In fact, 99.44% of the trouble (church trouble, political trouble, job trouble, family trouble, personal trouble) stems from missing the point.

That point? That it’s about the common good.

Sure, we want it to be about us. But it’s not. And any road to “what’s good for us” that doesn’t pass through the common good is a dead end.

Two paradoxes:

  1. When you do something for the common good instead of for yourself, you end up better off yourself. But it doesn’t work if your motive for doing something for the common good is to end up better off yourself.
  2. When you do something in which you completely forget yourself, you end up doing what it is uniquely yours to do, and you become completely yourself.

Jacob’s Fight Night: It’s a Koan

Jacob wrestles with an angel
Jacob and the Angel, by Jacob Kainan, 1977, Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
-Genesis 32:22-32

Too many things about this passage just don’t add up:

  • It says “a man” wrestled with Jacob. So why do we insist on saying it was an angel?
  • Or, alternatively, if you assume that “striven with God” implies that this man is really God, why do we insist on saying it was (merely) an angel?
  • Since “the man” had put Jacob’s hip out of joint, it seems that he could have just run away have to leave as day was breaking. So why does he need to ask Jacob to let him go?
  • Why would Jacob think that someone he’d been fighting with all night would be inclined to bless him?
  • Why does the man want to know Jacob’s name?
  • It seems odd that a complete stranger would have the audacity, let alone the authority to change your name.
  • Was the man really referring to himself as God (“For you have striven with God…”) or does he just know something about Jacob’s past? And if he knows something about Jacob’s past, how?
  • Who is this man? Why is he offended that Jacob should ask. After all he had asked the same question? (And, if he was God in disguise, it doesn’t make any sense that he would need to ask Jacob’s name.)
  • Jacob seems to think that he has seen God face to face. In the person of a man. How can a man be God? Or can God be a man? (Hint: this is an intentionally leading question for people who believe that a certain other man was God, but the Christian implications of this are completely foreign to its original context, so applying Christology to this text is out of bounds.)

You can probably come up with a few more. But the main paradox to consider is:

  • Why is a story about Jacob’s finally growing up couched in a children’s fable that’s stated moral is merely to explain how the town of Peniel got its name and why Israelites don’t eat the thigh muscle?

We must remember: before the Bible and Judaism and Christianity were ever known in the west, they were Eastern religions. Even the Romans considered them as such before Constantine. These proto-historical narratives from Genesis are set in the near east, and are told of people who have within a generation of their own time-horizon just arrived from the far east. They are not identical to the other religions we think of as eastern religions today, but they do share an eastern mindset and worldview.

The story of Jacob’s growing up is like unto a koan: a story in which enlightenment is found in the contradictions, not by resolving them, but by coming to a deeper understanding of them.

I’m not going to tell you how to interpret any of these contradictions (at least, not in this post). But I will say that if you sit with them long enough, you can find enlightenment. And, preachers, if you can crack any one of these nuts before Sunday, I guarantee you any one of them will preach.