Saturday, August 22, 2009

Shoeless Moe

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take of your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

                        Exodus 3.5

Grit and Grime

Several years back, a friend asked us to a black-tie holiday party she and her boyfriend were giving at his place. When the invitation arrived, it included a rather unusual advisory: “Guests are asked to remove their shoes before entering.” We accepted in writing and when she called to say how happy she was we were coming, we had to ask, “What’s up with the no-shoes thing?” She explained her boyfriend spent a small fortune getting his floors refinished and was concerned about 100 or so people scarring them with street grit and grime. It seemed odd, perhaps, but understandable.

When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, he’s invited to remove his shoes for the same reason. He takes off his sandals to protect the pristine condition of his Host’s domain. God’s presence has sanctified the bush’s perimeter. What was once a desert floor is now holy ground. The grit and grime Moses picked up during his travels corrupt the place where he stands. He’s welcome, but dirt that’s settled into the seams and crevices of his sandals won’t be tolerated. And while most Bible commentators equate Moses’s obedience with reverence and leave it at that, there’s more to learn from this episode.

Shoddy Associations

Scholars view Moses’s stepping out of his sandals casually because barefoot worship was common in Biblical times. Especially in city settings, where streets and alleys doubled as sewers and heavy animal traffic left its mark, temples of every sort expected worshipers to remove their footwear before entering, with some demanding everyone wash his/her feet as well. (This tradition lingers today, most notably in Islam, and also in several Asian traditions.) It makes scholarly sense to regard Moses’s taking off his shoes in the burning-bush narrative as a not-so-subtle confirmation that Moses indeed stands in God’s divine presence.

Beyond religious customs, though, the Bible takes a peculiarly dim view of shoes. In Exodus 12.11, the Jews are directed to wear shoes while eating the Passover in readiness to leave Egypt. In Joshua 9, delegates from a city fearing it may suffer Jericho’s fate put on old shoes to beg Joshua’s mercy. Twice, Ezekiel instructs Israel to keep its shoes on because in His anger, God will soon uproot them. Amos confronts Israel for selling “the poor for a pair of shoes.” John the Baptist describes Jesus as One “whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1.7) By and large, Bible shoes carry shoddy associations with impermanence, anxiety, and lowliness. If we think of Moses’s shoes in this context, we get a richer message from his burning-bush experience.

Pitching the Past

Where is Moses? He’s in exile, hiding in fear after killing a cruel slave overseer. That act, a strike to reclaim his lost identity, ultimately outed him as a Hebrew, rather than the Egyptian noble he’s presumed to be. Indeed, he’s spent the whole of his life in exile, living in Pharaoh’s court yet knowing he’s an outsider. Now, after feeling trapped for so long between two cultures, he has neither to fall back on. He’s far from the clay pits and oppression of Hebrew slavery and the pampered ease of palace life. He’s trying to carve out an existence where no one can find him, trudging across the desert with a few sheep to keep him company. He has no home. He’s anxious and afraid. He has no status, security, or pride. Figuratively and literally, his shoes are crusted with filth from his journey.

When Moses comes face to face with God, he’s first cautioned about getting too close. Naturally, he’s curious to see how the fire blazes without consuming the bush. Since there’s no logical explanation, he’s advised to stand back and accept it as is. He’s told to take off his sandals. Yes, it’s a call for reverence. But it’s more than that. It’s a divine directive to remove the filth that attached itself to him along the way—to stand free and clear before his Maker. There’s no need of staying tied in his shoes, nor any reason to hold on to them. He can’t lay them on the holy ground. So he tosses them. This is the pivotal moment in Moses’s life. By throwing his shoes aside, he’s pitching the past—his alienation, fears, and feelings of worthlessness. Such things aren’t fit for holy ground.

Let’s look at our shoes. As we’ve traveled between cultures and crossed wildernesses, walked dark alleys and polluted streets, all kinds of grit and grime have affixed to our shoes. We could spend our lives—as many do—trying to restore them to their true condition. Yet we’ll never rid them of dirt deeply embedded in their seams. The scuffs and scars can’t be rubbed out. Now let’s turn ahead and realize we stand at this very moment in God’s very presence. We’re on holy ground, a place of permanence, safety, and honor. It’s time to hear what He wants us to be. But first, we need to get rid of our nasty old shoes.

To stand in God’s presence and hear Him speak, we first have shoes encrusted with filth picked up along our journey. We pitch the past and look ahead.

(Tomorrow: From Coat to Robe; or, Rejected to Rise)

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Grace Correlation

Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.

                        Romans 5.20

Plenty Plus

As ministers in largely underprivileged areas, my parents never knew from day to day how many would come through their door, eat at their table, or end up sleeping under their roof. They stocked the house with plenty, plus added supplies for any unexpected needs. On rare occasions when just our immediate family sat down to dinner, Mom prepared extra in case the doorbell rang mid-meal. We stored enough linens and towels to quarter a small army. Out of genuine concern, my parents sought to allay reluctance or guilt on the part of those seeking help by honestly telling them, “Don’t worry. There’s more than enough.” They wanted their home to be a place where distraught people knew they could receive help without hesitation.

It mattered not if their needs were passing or permanent, minor or major. Some stayed for coffee and moved on. Others stayed for weeks and months, and several remained with us for years. Regardless, it was most important that anyone who turned our way felt confident plenty was available, plus more for others coming behind. And while my parents always feel honored if someone expresses admiration for their generosity and care, they’re also chagrined by it. As they see it, their plenty-plus strategy reflects the abundance of grace described in Romans 5.20: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”

God’s Privilege

It’s God’s privilege to answer our deficiencies with more than we’ll ever need. Nothing we’ve done—or will ever do—can possibly exhaust His grace. Of course, His boundless grace doesn’t release us to disobey recklessly and flagrantly. Paul opens Romans 6 with this: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” God promises grace to offset our doubts of its availability and remove our reticence to ask for it. Hebrews 4.16 encourages us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We have no cause to hesitate in coming to our Father for forgiveness or trusting His grace to rectify our situation. His assurance to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12.9 is equally valid for us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Beyond grace we need, however, we also recognize there’s also more than enough for those around us. Sadly, we’ll suffer injuries unconscionably inflicted by others. As we grope for explanations why they hurt us so deeply, knowing God’s grace remains as available to them as us permits us to release them to His care. Furthermore, while only God has the authority to pardon sin, forgiveness is an ability He shares with us. And He expects us to use it. When we can’t summon grace to forgive on our own, we ask for—and receive—added grace. We will never reach for more grace and come back empty-handed, because the greater the wrongs against us, the greater grace God places at our disposal. Where sin increases, grace increases all the more.

Too Powerful to Ignore

The grace correlation to sin is based on a plenty-plus coefficient—an x multiplier that guarantees God’s grace is always greater than wrong. This makes grace too powerful to ignore. Wherever we see weakness, in others or us, we also find grace in surplus. We can’t afford to allow sin to blind us to the grace that surpasses it. In Ephesians 4.7, we read, “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” Grace we seek has been pre-measured for our needs. This takes righteousness out of the equation. There’s nothing we or anyone else must do to merit grace because the work has already been done through Christ’s sacrifice. When we look at our deficits, we see more than enough grace to remedy them. When we look at failures in others, we realize God supplies more than enough grace to compensate for them.

Disregarding Christ’s commandment to love God and others is inexcusable. Yet vulnerability to temptation is also inescapable. In spite of our best efforts, we yield to human logic and cravings. We overlook pressing needs to pursue selfish desires. We bow to peer pressure. We trip over weakness. We revert to unhealthy attitudes and habits. Every time, we impulsively sink into self-condemning despair, promising never to do it again. But our promises aren’t powerful and reliable enough to overcome our frailties. That’s why God promises His grace. It’s the only promise we can depend on to be greater than our sin.

No matter how greatly sin proliferates, grace will always be greater.

(Tomorrow: Shoeless Moe)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tenure Trouble

“These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made the equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”

                        Matthew 20.12 

Staffing Issues

After college, I spent my first decade of employment falling into jobs offered to me. One put me in a university dean’s office. Let’s just say it didn’t sit high on my list of exciting jobs. The only suspenseful stretches came in the weeks leading to the tenure committee meeting, as professors jockeyed for one or two appointments. A blizzard of forms, reprints, and research blanketed my desk and my phone rang constantly with requests to see the dean. Following its sequestered deliberations, like cardinals leaving a conclave, the committee dropped a sealed envelope containing its choices on my desk so I could type the dean’s congratulations to those who “made tenure” and better-luck-next-time notes to those who didn’t. For a week or so, the halls buzzed with speculation about the choices. Once, while talking to a department head, I referred to tenure as job security. He immediately corrected me, saying, “Tenure isn’t a right of seniority. It’s a reward for service.” I still didn’t get it, and can’t say I do now.

Jesus’s story of vineyard workers (Matthew 20.1-16) may be what he tried to explain, though. Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to an employer with staffing issues. He goes out early one morning to hire day laborers for his vineyard, promising to pay each of them one denarius—a day’s wages in Roman times. About nine o’clock, he hires more laborers, does this again at noon, and finally adds more workers around five p.m. He promises every worker the same wage. At the end of the day, those who worked 12 hours expect more than those who worked less and they’re outraged when they watch the foreman give every worker the same pay. “You’re paying those who worked only an hour the same wage you’ve paid us,” they protest. The owner answers: “I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (v13-15) Jesus caps this story with a moral: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (v16)

Too Much Work, Too Little Time

Christ’s teaching focuses on two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. Both areas deserve rigorous exploration. For our purposes, however, we can delineate them broadly as responsibilities and rewards. Any time we hear Jesus speak of “the kingdom of God”—“Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6.33; NKJV); “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17.21)—He’s speaking of our duty to embody the presence and love of God here on earth. When He talks of the kingdom of heaven, as He does with the vineyard story, He’s discussing eternal rewards for service. In other words, the kingdom of God is more like our job description, while the kingdom of heaven is God’s tenure policy. And this story may surprise some of us, because it confirms that God’s tenure is based entirely on service without regard for seniority. He rewards all of us equally, despite respective length of service. And there’s a good reason for this.

The landowner looks at his vineyards and sees there’s too much work to do with too little time to get it done. The laborers he hired at dawn are doing an excellent job, but they need more help. He continues increasing the staff through the day, right up to the last minute to help them. Yet if he only offers latecomers a fraction of the day’s salary, he’s less likely to get the service and commitment he needs to finish the job. So he wisely decides to offer everyone equal pay—not for equal time or results, but for equal service. The first worker and the last one receive the same reward by meeting the same standards. When Jesus says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” He means we should expect to be judged equally no matter when we answer His call to serve. He needs all of us to finish His work.

The Burning Pier

I make my living as a communications consultant to sales and marketing leaders. In the process, I pick up a lot of business metaphors. One of my favorites is “the burning pier”—an analogy for urgency to respond to shifting business conditions before it’s too late. It’s wise for all of us to adopt this mentality regarding our commitment and service to Christ. It’s urgent we act on our duty to love God and others without reservation. Our “vineyard” is ripe with people who need to know God’s love and forgiveness. Lives have stalled in shadows of darkness we can eradicate with our light. Waiting for believers with more seniority and experience to arrive may end with services we were called to provide undone.

In Ecclesiastes 9.10, we’re told: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” When we leave this life, each of us will be evaluated by how well we fulfilled our duties to the kingdom of God. If we do our best with what we find to do, we’ll be rewarded the same as any other worker. In the vineyard story, the landowner tells the second group of laborers, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” (Matthew 20.3). He says the same thing to us. We can’t afford to do less on the premise we’ll receive less than those who’ve been on the job longer than we. He will pay what’s right. Tenure trouble doesn’t exist in God’s vineyard. Everyone who answers His call is granted immediate tenure. Everyone’s job security and rewards are ensured on par with everyone else’s. Worrying about time on the job wastes time we need to get the job done.

Everyone who answers God’s call to service receives immediate tenure; He rewards all equally, regardless of time on the job.

(Tomorrow: The Grace Correlation)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Will Be Back Soon...

Sorry for no post today. Got stranded in bad weather/air travel issues. Will be posting in the next 12-24 hours, though. So please forgive me, and check back tomorrow!


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back to the Garden

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

                        Genesis 2.15

Half a Million Strong

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in life, work, and what’s going on here, a major milestone passes before I realize it. Such was the case last weekend with Woodstock’s fortieth anniversary. Although I was a few weeks from 10-years-old when it took place, the three-day festival set off reverberations that echoed through my youth and resound even now. Something happened at Woodstock, the likes of which the world had never seen and may not see again. People set out from every corner to celebrate a culture they created and nurtured. While the world watched with (not unwarranted) trepidation, the crowd united on borrowed farmland to prove it lived by the peace, love, and harmony it extolled and demanded. This wasn’t Woodstock’s intended purpose; it was conceived for profit. But as a metropolis of 500,000 sprang up with breathtaking speed, a common mindset seized the crowd. Removed from civil services like law enforcement, emergency services, and basic utilities, they displayed a portrait of civilization finer than any empire. “By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half-a-million strong,” begins Joni Mitchell’s immortal song. Anyone who was there, wanted to be there, watched from afar, or—like me—grew up in its pearly afterglow most likely agrees: the people of Woodstock were nothing if not strong.

Before Knowledge

Joni didn’t get to Woodstock. She stopped off in New York to appear on TV and by the time the program ended, the roads were closed and the crowd had grown too dense for safe helicopter landings. She watched the coverage with the rest of us. But these were her people and when she put pen to paper, she tapped their collective yearning: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Without articulating it as eloquently as Joni, Woodstock’s people intuitively retrained their focus from partying (though they did do that) to establishing a temporary Eden, free of hatred, violence, and crime. They riveted the world and earned its admiration with their ability to live together in peace and care for one another without judgment and law. They created a safe place that resembled Creation before knowledge, before we disrupted its balance and flow with our stolen sense of good and evil.

You may scoff. Before you do, though, consider this. Despite perilously meager provisions and a woefully inadequate staff, Woodstock ended with only two deaths, a traffic fatality and a heroin overdose. That’s a 0.00004% accidental death rate. No American city one-fifth Woodstock’s size came close to it that weekend. Statistically and theoretically, this made no sense. But why should it? Woodstock’s crowd rejected logic to take care of one another. For three days, they set aside personal preferences to unite in purpose. There were no good people and bad people at Woodstock. There were only people, every one unique and all of them the same. When Joni Mitchell saw this, years of growing up in a small-town church guided her understanding. Going to Woodstock was going back to the Garden.

Exceeding Our Purpose

Genesis says God put us in the Garden “to work it and take care of it.” He endowed us with governance—i.e., oversight and superior intelligence—yet nothing in Scripture suggests God intended us to govern in a legal and moral sense. That came later due to our inability to govern ourselves. We were placed for reasons having nothing to do with law and justice. God chose us as His gardeners to till the Garden’s soil and tend to its upkeep. Yet all it took was a whispered promise about knowing how to discern good from evil to turn God’s paradise into a living hell. Our irresponsibility forever burdened us with more responsibility than we could manage. We exceeded our purpose. Instead of tending the Garden for common good, we took it upon ourselves to deprive a few for the benefit of many. Majority rule ruled the day. Survival of the fittest justified crushing the weak. Conformity was rewarded; non-conformity was punished. “Right” was praised. “Wrong” was condemned. Meanwhile, as we tried in vain to groom one another, the Garden went to seed.

Sacred Mountains

“Right and wrong” aren’t synonymous with “good and evil.” History is knotted with nations marching headlong into evil, believing they’re right. Every war starts this way and ends with each side hating, wounding, torturing, and slaughtering one another for “what’s right.” Yet when is destroying God’s creation ever good? It’s evil. The same holds when we engage in personal conflicts. Overconfidence leads to becoming too self-righteous for our good. As Solomon says in Proverbs 14.12: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Destructive action against another becomes evil by usurping God’s judicial authority. He alone sees who’s right and wrong. When we decide to decide for Him, when we say we speak for Him, we exalt ourselves above Him.

According to Isaiah 41.13, Lucifer made the same mistake: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.” Like the Tempter, we’re over our heads when we boast in our knowledge. We weren’t made to tend to God’s affairs. He put us here to care for His world and everything and everyone in it—to make things grow, not to tear them down. Destroying lives is easy; nurturing them is hard. It demands great strength and commitment. It takes strength to climb off our sacred mountains. It takes strength to forget what we know and remember what God placed us here to do. It takes strength to care for others first and us second. But it can be done. Woodstock, of all places, proved this. We've got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Back to the Garden: Joni Mitchell sings "Woodstock."

(Tomorrow: Tenure Troubles)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Under the Influence

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

                        Acts 4.13

A Plan Falls Apart

A late, great friend had a saying I miss: “I love it when a good plan comes together!” Our little group worshiped at the same church, and after service Dwayne would saunter up to see whether we were going to brunch or an impromptu potluck. If we hadn’t worked it out yet, he’d plead, “Somebody make a decision,” and walk off. If we knew what we wanted to do, he’d bring smiles all around by delivering his trademark line with gusto. “I love it when a good plan comes together!” Dwayne's mantra returned to mind recently while reading the Acts 4 account of Peter and John being summoned before local religious leaders. The Apostles have no plan at all, while the leaders had what seemed like a good plan to end this Jesus business once and for all. But the hearing only confirms their plan didn’t come together. It's come totally apart.

Not long after Pentecost, Peter and John attend Temple and a lame man begs them for money. “We don’t have any,” Peter says. But he has power to command the beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3.6) The man is healed and runs into the Temple, leaping and rejoicing. Everyone’s curious how it happened. The Apostles proclaim Christ, which gets them reported to the authorities. They question Peter and John about their authority to heal. Peter boldly explains, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” With the poise of a trained scholar, he cites Psalm 118.22, saying Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone”—adding Christ alone has the power to heal and save. The plan to remove Jesus from the picture hasn’t worked. As long as His followers preach and perform miracles in His name, He’ll never go away.

No Denying

Conceding their plan’s failure, the leaders contemplate next steps. Here’s where the story gets really interesting, because Peter and John don’t mean to create problems. They meet someone in need and help him. People wonder how they do it, so they tell them. The religious authorities ask similar questions and Peter, whom verse 8 says is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” answers on their level with a prophecy they know very well. The healed man comes to court to corroborate their story. Nothing the Apostles do or say intends to corner Christ’s opposition, yet that’s what happens.

Peter and John are obviously “unschooled, ordinary men,” which is why their courage—i.e., audacity—takes the learned council aback. “They took note that these men had been with Jesus,” Acts 4.13 tells us. With the healed man beside them canceling any chance to dispute his healing, they’re sent away while the council discusses the matter privately. Verse 16 says they’re at a loss about what to do with Peter and John. News of the miracle has spread over the city. It’s too late to refute it. Even so, this needs to stop. They tell the Apostles not to speak or teach in Jesus’s name. Peter and John refuse, saying, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (v17) From the council’s side, there’s no denying the miracle and Apostles’ bold testimony. But more, important, where Peter and John stand, there’s no denying their authority to speak, teach, and heal in Jesus’s name.


Peter and John don’t draw attention on purpose; they’re noticed because they’ve been with Jesus. They’re under the influence of His example and teachings. Listen to how they answer the order to cease talking about Him: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (v20) Christ’s love and grace have overpowered them. Restoring the man’s mobility is what Jesus told them to do: “they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16.18) Talking about Christ is second nature; in verse 15 of the same chapter, Jesus told them to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” The hearing happens exactly as Jesus said: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12.11-12) The Christ inside comes out of them. It’s unforced and unprovoked—to the point of being unconscious.

Christ’s power and love don’t come bottled and wrapped for easy consumption. If we truly want to live under His influence, we first have to take time to be with Him. We need to talk to Him, study Him, listen closely to what He says and how speaks, and observe how He behaves. The better we understand His character and teaching, the more influence He has over us. His thoughts crowd out our thoughts. His love removes our fear. His will conquers our willfulness.

Did Peter and John suspect healing a man in Jesus’s name would cause trouble? It’s hard to imagine not. They were at the Temple, home of the plot against Christ. Still, they spoke strength to his frailty. Did they know preaching Christ would stir controversy? Of course. But they couldn’t disobey Jesus’s command just to avoid criticism. Were they concerned about the council’s charges? Naturally—but they weren’t worried. They’d been with Jesus. They were under His influence. They had every confidence He would live up to His promises. He did. And He’ll do the same for us when we reach out to others, speak to them about God’s love and mercy, and allow God's Spirit to guide how we respond to challenges. Living under the influence is how we rise above weakness and opposition.

Two men under the influence. (Peter and John Running to the Tomb: Eugène Burnand; 1898.)

(Tomorrow: Back to the Garden)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

More to Do

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

                        Luke 12.48

Nesting Narratives

Most of us know this verse as a proverb: “To whom much is given, much is required.” We apply it to everything from intelligence to money. Yet the statement arises in a very specific context. Jesus is talking about management and readiness. He begins with a simple story about servants.  “Be ready for service,” He says in Luke 12.35, like a staff awaiting its master’s return from a party. When they’re properly prepared, they’ll open the door for him, and he'll be pleased by their attentiveness to his needs. It will go well for them if they’ve done their work and stayed up to greet the master, regardless how late he comes home. Then Jesus does a peculiar zigzag that throws off His entire audience, including the disciples.

He turns His focus from the servants to their employer. If the master knew when a thief planned to invade his home, Jesus says, he’d be on guard. Since he doesn’t know, it’s best to be watchful at all times. Clearly, He’s talking about remaining vigilant for judgment. But the servant and thief analogies don’t mesh. First, Jesus is talking about servants’ responsibilities to serve their master at any time. Next, He’s giving on seminar on home security. Taken together, it’s unclear who’s who. It appears we’re the servants in the first and master in the next, while He’s the master in the first and thief in the next. The parables read better as nesting narratives than all of a piece. (Some scholars think their odd juxtaposition is an awkward cut-and-paste job.) But their common thread is readiness, and as we read on, Jesus clarifies this with another parable.

Management 101

After the first two stories, everyone looks around to see if others get it. They don’t. Peter asks if the stories apply to everyone or just the disciples. Jesus doesn’t say. Instead, He talks about a master who assigns one servant to attend to the others’ needs while he’s away. If the manager uses his time and authority wisely, Jesus says the master “will put him in charge of all his possessions.” (Luke 12.44) Now suppose the manager, thinking he’s in charge for an indefinite period, abuses his authority to beat his fellow servants, eat their food, and drink their wine. The master returns unexpectedly to find his staff bruised and hungry, while the manager’s wasted his time—and his master’s trust—abusing others and indulging himself. Christ predicts the master “will cut [the manager] to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.” (v46)

This is Management 101: delegated leadership, meeting objectives in a timely manner, and maintaining productivity, workplace safety, and staff satisfaction. We’ve all worked for great managers and lousy ones. The great ones treat everyone equally. They’re transparent about their success relying on those they manage. They’re dedicated, consistent, and inspiring. Lousy managers play favorites and conceal self-serving agendas. They intimidate and exploit others’ insecurities to foster fear and panic. Great managers encourage improvement and confidence. Lousy ones threaten their people with dismissal. Great managers prepare for surprise visits from the higher-ups. They get promoted, as do many they lead. Lousy managers get fired. Those they mistreat, however, keep their jobs. Since responsibility for success isn’t theirs, neither is accountability for failure.

Performance Criteria

Jesus summarizes the three case studies like this. The person who knows what the master expects and procrastinates or fails to meet expectations will suffer greatly. The person who doesn’t will also suffer, though minimally so, much like employees with lousy managers are penalized with overtime or miss out on bonuses. But responsibility for readiness belongs solely to the manager. It’s his/her job to keep everything in order, with the staff standing by for the master’s arrival. It’s his/her task to be prepared when the master shows up without warning. It’s his/her duty to treat others as equals, showing them the same concern and care he/she seeks, focusing on their needs rather than his/her desires.

When Jesus says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” He’s not talking about gifts or blessings. He’s spelling out His performance criteria for our lives. When we look closely at the three parables, we recognize our standards of success sit squarely on Christ’s laws of love: “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22.37-39) This is what He’s assigned to us. This is what we’re required to do. We’ve no time to procrastinate. Nor can we misuse Christ’s authority to abuse others with intimidation and fear. Nor we can we keep His love to ourselves, sinking in a drunken stupor of acceptance while others starve.

“Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins,” says James 4.17. Each of us knows good we’ve not yet done--love we can return for hatred, kindness for cruelty, provision for poverty, mercy for condemnation, and acceptance for rejection. Our lives are full of people needing forgiveness and love—God’s and our own. Tomorrow isn’t promised. Our master may call us at any moment. “I didn’t expect You so soon” won’t suffice. For all the good we’ve done so far, there’s still much more to do.

Fill in the blank today, tomorrow, and until He calls.

(Tomorrow: Under the Influence)

Postscript: “Through My Eyes”

Justin Lee, Executive Director of The Gay Christian Network, emailed me with a link to preview “Through My Eyes,” a GCN documentary about young gay and lesbian believers’ struggles to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. The full DVD is on its way to me and I’ll be able to give a better-informed assessment after I’ve seen it. But on its own, the film’s trailer is a powerfully moving testament to the profound conflicts GLBT believers deal with.

Please take three minutes to watch this trailer. Whether or not you identify with gay Christians, by its end you’ll most assuredly identify with the sincerity and faith in Christ these kids express. (I personally identified most closely with the young man in the green t-shirt near the trailer’s middle.) You’ll find more information about the film on this page of the GCN site.