Monday, May 9, 2011

No Comparison

Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. (1 Peter 1.17)

Restoring Balance

Sunday’s readings presented such a bounty of riches it was hard to choose the Emmaus Road story over the other texts. The straightforward counsel in 1 Peter 1.17-25 sparked particular interest in light of its relevance to topics frequently discussed here. Reluctant to choose one at the other’s expense, it seemed best not to choose at all. Yet trying to cover both in one post was a recipe for disaster (tempting though that was). At a glance, the thread connecting the Emmaus narrative with Peter’s teaching isn’t readily apparent. But it’s implicitly there.

The Emmaus Road disciples are in the not-so-enviable position of witnessing Christianity’s dawn. Nothing is guaranteed—including their safety in Jerusalem, where being a known follower of Jesus may lead to reprisals, even execution. It seems wisest to put the whole discipleship adventure behind them, avoid the dangers of hanging around where they clearly aren’t wanted, and head for home. In contrast, Peter (or, more probably, someone writing in the recently martyred Apostle’s name) addresses second- and third-generation believers. The Church’s fundamental doctrines and structure are worked out by now. Much of what the disciples first struggled to understand is standard knowledge. As revolutionary faith steadily morphs into conventional belief, a new set of issues expose Peter’s readers to dangers very similar to those the Emmaus Road disciples dreaded.

Intended for circulation among several congregations in Asia Minor—a volatile melting pot of ethnic and religious animosity—the letter’s first task centers on steeling believers’ ability to outlast persecution. There is every cause for concern, as conventionalism has damped faith’s fires. Burning hearts the Emmaus travelers experienced when Christ rekindled their belief have cooled down. Worthy passions have been diverted in pursuit of strife. Pretenses of advantage rooted in spiritual one-upmanship weaken the churches from within. Restoring balance will strengthen internal resolve to overcome external threats.


By no means is this severely crippling holier-than-you posture a uniquely Asian deficiency. (Nor, as we know all too well, is it a uniquely ancient one.) John’s first letter castigates Jewish believers for the same offense: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” he says. (1 John 1.8) Big chunks of Paul’s European epistles—especially to the high-minded, high-handed Corinthians—rampage against ego-driven dysfunction. Braggadocio in Corinth is so bad Paul stoops to boast of his maturity and wisdom, simply to shut the braggarts down. “Let no one take me for a fool,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 11.16-18. “But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.” Lest his mockery be misread as approval of striving for competitive advantage, however, Paul soberly interjects, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (v30)

Paul and John’s messages are identical: if we can’t bridle the urge to brag, we brag about what we’re not rather than all we imagine we are. “Therefore,” Paul says, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) This is classic Christian psychology—countermanding a harmful impulse (pride) by inverting its objective from vaunting superiority to embracing humility.

Although Peter diagnoses the same syndrome, he treats it pastorally rather than psychologically. Instead of focusing on dysfunction, he readjusts the Asian churches’ mindset by mimicking the technique Christ uses to reinvigorate the Emmaus disciples’ belief. Peter takes his readers back to their faith’s roots, walking them through its evolution from prophetic times to present. Of the prophets, he writes, “It was revealed to them that were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.” (1 Peter 1.12)

Divorcing Faith from Myth

Between the lines we read “these things” are bigger and more enduring than religious convention—bigger and more enduring than we are or ever will be. They’re not to be trivialized and abused as fodder for bragging rights. What’s more, the audacity to exploit timeless truth as a launching pad for one’s spiritual superiority ultimately reveals one’s ignorance of the truth. How dare we compare ourselves favorably to others when no comparison enters into God’s love and regard for each of us! In verses 17-19 Peter says, “Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Since he writes to diverse faith communities comprised of Jewish and pagan converts, “the empty way of life” indicts all types of religious pride, whether seen when adherents to the same belief compete or one belief claims it’s “right” to the exclusion of others. Peter gives us a lot to chew on here.

Divine impartiality debunks the myth of comparative advantage. Yet divorcing faith from myth is something we can’t seem to do. When we observe extreme displays of religious pride—Christians torching Qurans, Jews and Muslims blowing each other to smithereens, the Hindu caste system, and so on—we’re appalled. But religious extremism isn’t born intact. It grows from seeds we carelessly nurture with unchecked boastfulness. While reading this, chances are your thoughts ran to persons or groups who boast of righteousness superior to your own; I did the same. It’s extremely difficult to recognize taking offense at others’ failings constitutes failure on our part. Condemnation of any kind belies false sense of superiority. It’s a weakness that weakens our world and blinds us from seeing it through God’s eyes. It resists confessing faith is bigger and more enduring than we are or ever will be. In God’s eyes, no comparison between us exists. By loving and judging us impartially, God looks at our differences and sees all of us as equally—uniquely—alike. Rather than striving against one another, we should strive to do the same.

Governing ourselves to view others as God sees us—with divine impartiality—humbles us to realize there’s no comparison between them and us.

Postscript: "Father’s Eyes"

This little Amy Grant tune packs quite a wallop by inspiring us to see one another as God sees us. It’s one of those songs that sticks with you—and becomes a tremendous help in moments when we’re tempted to look down on others, including those who look down at us.

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