Crumbs from the Master’s Table

Given current trends in North American Christianity, and culture, I can easily imagine a day when a child, seeing a crucifix for the first time and asking her mother what on earth it might be, will receive this answer: “That, my dear, is someone who did not take very good care of himself.”

This will strike you as farfetched only to the extent that you do not read self-help books, watch your local PBS station (insofar as there remains any difference), or spend time hanging out with clergy.  To do any of these three even in moderation is almost inevitably to come face-to-face with the notion that a truly good shepherd never lays down his or her life for anybody.  One begins to anticipate a new translation of the gospel in which the resurrected Christ will say to Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Simon insists that he does, Christ will reply, “Then feed yourself.”

Having said this, I might surprise you if I also say that convincing people to take care of themselves is one of the greatest pastoral challenges I know.  And it remains such a challenge precisely because of the ubiquitous lip service this culture pays to “taking care of ourselves.”  Once the sheep have heard the false ring of “a stranger’s voice,” even when there’s some merit in the stranger’s advice they will fly from it.  At that point it takes the Good Shepherd himself to bring them back to health and balance.

Fortunately, that is precisely what the Good Shepherd does in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  It is certainly not one of the sweeter stories about Jesus…  That said, it is important to recognize that the Master is only one of two principal characters in this poignant drama.  There is also the mother with the sick child.  I think of her as a single mother with no status and few material resources.  Had she a husband or some other male advocate, would she not have sent him to negotiate with the rabbi?  Instead she goes herself…  

I’ve met her, of course, and so have you.  When my daughter was only three months old we had to take her to the pediatric ward of a large hospital far from home.  Mercifully, our stay was short; the physicians’ alarm proved unfounded.  For other families, visits there were heartbreakingly routine.  I remember in particular one mother and child who shared our room.  Her son had an extreme form of cerebral palsy; one evening we were awakened when he nearly choked to death on his own saliva.  Nurses and doctors rushed into the room and saved him.  I retain the image of his mother in the morning, the face hard with worry, the soothing words tendered in a hoarse voice.

Now I wonder: How did she “take care of herself?”  What did she get by way of “centering” beyond a few hurried cigarette breaks?  If no one feeds the sheep, you see, then the only people who can truly take care of themselves are those already well taken care of…

If the Canaanite woman could bring about a turning in Jesus himself, what stones we are if she does not convert us too.  “O woman, great is your faith!” he exclaims – this after he has characterized her as one of the “dogs.”  He might almost have said, O Woman, you are faith.  Faith with a steadfast heart, a dead-end job and a sick kid.  Maybe the time has come to put stained-glass images of the Canaanite woman in our churches.  Then if some child should ever point to a crucifix and ask, “Who is that?” we can point to the window and answer, “Find her, and she will tell you.” 

— Garret Keizer, Feed My Dogs (Matt. 15:21-28)
[Christian Century, July 28-August 4, 1999, p. 741; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation]


Doing Away with God in the Name of Peace and Quietness

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore – on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe.  It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium.  We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him “meek and mild,” and recommend Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.  To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand.  True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as “that fox”; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a “gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners; He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.  He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if He was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.  But He had “a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him.  So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.

–Dorothy Sayers

A New Creation

A new creation, by which the image of God is renewed (Col. 3:10), does not happen by the sham or pretense of some sort of outward works, because in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts; but it is “created after the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). When works are performed, they do indeed give a new outward appearance, which captures the attention of the world and the flesh. But they do not produce a new creation, for the heart remains as wicked and as filled with contempt of God and unbelief as it was before. Thus a new creation is a work of the Holy Spirit, who implants a new intellect and will and confers the power to curb the flesh and to flee the righteousness and wisdom of the world. This is not a sham or merely a new outward appearance, but something really happens. A new attitude and a new judgment, namely, a spiritual one, actually come into being, and they now detest what they once admired. Our minds were once so captivated by the monastic life that we thought of it as the only way to salvation; now we think of it quite differently. What we used to adore, before this new creation, as the ultimate in holiness now makes us blush when we remember it.

Therefore a new creation is nora change in clothing or in outward manner, as the monks imagine, but a renewal of the mind by the Holy Spirit; this is then followed by an outward change in the flesh, in the parts of the body, and in the senses. For when the heart acquires new light, a new judgment, and new motivation through the Gospel, this also brings about a renewal of the senses. The ears long to hear the Word of God instead of listening any longer to human traditions and notions. The lips and the tongue do not boast of their own works, righteousness, and monastic rule; but joyfully they proclaim nothing but the mercy of God, disclosed in Christ. These changes are, so to speak, not verbal; they are real. They produce a new mind, a new will, new senses, and even new actions by the flesh, so that the eyes, the ears, the lips, and the tongue not only see, hear, and speak otherwise than they used to, but the mind itself evaluates things and acts upon them differently from the way it did before. Formerly it went about blindly in the errors and darkness of the pope, imagining that God is a peddler who sells His grace to us in exchange for our works and merits. Now that the light of the Gospel has risen, it knows that it acquires righteousness solely by faith in Christ. Therefore it now casts off its self-chosen works and performs instead the works of its calling and the works of love, which God has commanded. It praises God and proclaims Him, and it glories and exults solely in its trust in mercy through Christ. If it has to bear some sort of evil or danger, it accepts this willingly and joyfully, although the flesh goes on grumbling. This is what Paul calls “a new creation.”