Monday, September 18, 2006

Two Ways of the Kingdom of Heaven

Lately I've switched my devotional time to a straight-through reading of the Bible. I alternate Old and New Testament, but pretty much I'm just reading straight through, one or two chapters at a time. I augment it with Spurgeon's "Morning and Evening", but sometimes theres's no substitute for just plain reading the Word.

Today brought me to Matthew 25, and maybe lately I've been reading too many blogs, because my first thought while reading through the parable of the ten virgins was that in today's politically correct climate, this wouldn't fly. The prudent virgins would be roundly criticized for being unwilling to share their oil with the foolish virgins. We must have equality of results, even if that results in equal failure for all. Yet Jesus utters not a word against the prudent virgins. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the Kingdom of Heaven rewards prudence and lets the foolishness of the imprudent fall on their heads.

Then we come to the parable of the talents, with an ending sure to make the politically correct scream in rage: we take away from the servant with the least resources what little resources he has, give it to the servant with the most, and throw the poor servant out the door. The cries of "Oppression!" and "Favoring the Rich!" ring in my ears. The poor guy probably had mental problems: he had a twisted view of the master's character and a horrendous fear of failure. To be fair, the master accepts those problems, but points out that even under those conditions, there was an alternative: handling it over to the bankers who would produce a modest gaim with little risk. His weaknesses are accepted, but aren't allowed to be an excuse for doing absolutely nothing. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the Kingdom of Heaven rewards responsibility and punishes irresponsibility.

At this point, I can hear the applause rising among the conservative crowd, with assorted rumblings about "character", "responsibility" and "discipline". And that's ok.

And yet....

And yet....

The next thing we come to, in the same stream of thought, are the theme verses of the Social Gospel crowd, the judgement of the sheep and the goats. A place in the Kingdom requires reaching out and ministering to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.

Somehow, in our modern world, we at times make these two things opposites, contradictions even. The merest whisp of a suggestion that some of the poor and needy may have gotten that way due to imprudence or irresponsibility elicits rage and condemnation from some people. The assumption that all of the poor and needy got that way due to imprudence and irresponsibility is used as an excuse by others to avoid ministering to them. But neither of these are right. For Jesus, these two sides of the Kingdom are one. There is a place in the Kingdom to say "no" to fools who want us to save them from their imprudence. There is even a place to punish the irresponsible. But there appears to be no place for those who never help the truly needy.

Confessions of a Conservative Seminarian: Removing Tradition -- Clarity of Original Intent or an Attempt to Rewrite Christianity?

This post by cseminarian rang bells with me. And I think there's another error being made by the professors he refers to: the assumption that merely by discarding preconceptions, you are automatically prepared to see the text as the ancients saw it. The perspective differences between the ancients and us make that questionable. It's difficult enough to master the art of accurately listening to someone whose background and perpective differs from your own when that person is a contemporary and can give you feedback. Doing that across the distance of history is even harder.

The best preparation I know of for this is to develop said art in the here and now. In my case, God blessed me in this by redeeming my pre-conversion addiction to Fantasy/SciFi novels. Somewhere along the line I switched from "suspension of disbelief" (an expression I find fascinating - does that imply that most of us see disbelief as normal?) to "letting the story tell its story in its own terms". I may disagree with those terms, I may even find those terms horrific, but I'll agree to understand the terms and background the story is based on, rather than insisting on shoehorning it into my own terms and background.

That attitude can be shifted to people. In listening to people you agree to hear what they're saying in terms of their own background, assumptions and goals rather than insisting on fitting their words into yours. You don't agree to find their viewpoint as valid, but you do agree to try to see what they're trying to say from their own perspective.

This isn't easy, and may require abilities that some people simply don't have(carrying multiple perspectives in your head at once and keeping them straight isn't something everyone can do). But for those of us that can acquire it, this is a remarkably useful skill, profitable in a multitude of different areas. I at times wonder if you see this reflected in the introduction to the Psalms:
for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young --
let the wise listen and add to their learning
and let the discerning get guidance --
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise. (Pr 1:2-6 NIV)

If nothing else, this skill is invaluable if you end up involved in any way with counselling.

I can't give step-by-step instructions on learning this (because I didn't learn it that way), but Rule 1 is that miscommunication is extraordinarily easy, and can't be cured by precision of speech (as valuable as that is). You have to learn to spot the small clues that tell you that what you're hearing isn't what the speaker is trying to say, and let that alert you to check for background, assumption, perspective or terminological differences between you and the speaker, or to just plain ask for correction. Other than that, ask God to teach you and dive in. You'll make plenty of mistakes, but you'll learn from them. Along the way, you'll also get a much clearer idea of where your own particular perspective comes from (how can you contrast your perspective and the speaker's if you don't know where you're coming from?). You'll get a feel for how ordinary people communicate (which is often quite different from how scholars communicate). You'll learn to combine precision of concept with the imprecise way people often use words. And you'll figure out that sometimes you'll just have to admit you don't know, and wait for what it takes to give you clarity.

And you'll be much better prepared to read across those historical distances and actualy have a stab at getting what the ancients would have gotten out of it(not to mention following what the writer was getting at).