Friday, October 14, 2011

Seekers and Searchers

Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. (Proverbs 11.27)

For Good

Last Sunday our pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, challenged us to define the dynamic governing our lives. Do our lives grasp for grace? Or do they lead from grace? It was a new question—well, actually, a new way of framing a question as old as our faith and the obligations attached to it. Her explanation brought the dilemma into sharp focus.

A life that grasps for grace is never content… always striving… always mildly disgruntled… always seeing either the wrong of those around them, or blaming all the problems of the world on themselves. If only I could get it right… If only they could get it right… Concern for self at the center of every formula. A life that leads from grace may not always be content, either. But the discontent fuels a response… that sense that a gifted life must be working in partnership with God for good. And, as one resource put it, not concerned with are we saved—but what are we saved for?

With that, the differences between the for-grace life and the from-grace life were so vivid I’ve found myself reevaluating the tiniest things, wondering, “Am I doing this for my benefit? Or am I pursuing it for good?” It may very well be that our thoughts, actions, and beliefs will prove beneficial for us. Indeed, it’s foolish and self-destructive to adopt mindsets and behaviors that result in unnecessary loss or harm. But are we as far as it goes? This quandary strikes me as something more probative than thinking through avenues to share goodness we receive, whether unanticipated or obtained. In other words, it’s not simply a matter of generosity or “paying it forward.” (Though both typically come into play.) It’s daring to test our desires and aspirations for value they present to people we love and live and work among. If what we strive to accomplish produces unfavorable results for others, what’s good for us may not be for good.

I say “may not” because not everyone responds favorably when we grow and prosper. The values, beliefs, and expectations of many near and dear to us may create conflict. Their perceptions may be clouded by personal experiences or deeply held social standards. To be blunt, some may envy goodness we achieve and receive, or resent our confidence we will find goodness. Coming out is a prime example. Often we delay honoring our God-given identities for fear some will react with dismay, possibly even hostility. Yet a closeted existence breeds dishonesty and deception. It’s no good to anyone—not people who love us, not people we know and love, and certainly not us. So while we lament and forgive the limitations of those who reject us, we rely on God’s grace to lead us from fearful denial to seek goodness born of self-acceptance, trust, and gratitude for our making. Belief that enforcing our integrity will result in good that reaches beyond us steels our resolve.

Shorting Dreams

So our quest begins with assessing goodness we desire. Will it make us better people—more caring spouses, more attentive parents, truer friends, finer citizens, and so on? Will it enable us to be clearer examples of grace, more faithful disciples, and more compassionate witnesses of God’s love? Will what’s good for us surpass us to be favorably received in our homes, communities, workplaces, churches, and extended relationships?

Proverbs 11.27 expands on this notion of a life leading from grace and one grasping for grace when it says, “Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it.” It divides us into two camps: seekers and searchers. The language characterizing each is bold and revealing. Seekers are diligent. They’re consistent in how they approach every situation in life, rather than applying situational approaches that make for an inconsistent life. They seek good by seeking favor, looking beyond immediate concerns and personal longings to ascertain their merits in a wider context. And seekers diligently use these criteria for everything they undertake. There are no big deals and little deals. Seeking good by seeking favor in all they do is how they live.

Searchers never see past the good stuff to consider how what they’re looking for may affect the lives they touch. More often than not, grasping ends up shorting dreams that inspire their reach. “First Spouse Syndrome” is classic case. A couple starts out dreaming of a financially secure, happy, and healthy family. They work hard and cut corners so one or both successfully land on a high rung of the business ladder. But things go awry during the ascent. Sacrifices cause fractures in the relationship. Fatigue and anxiety engender selfish behavior and resentment. Work and family become increasingly distant universes that fight to eclipse one another. By the time searchers arrive at their goal, those they dreamt of benefitting from their efforts are left behind. There’s a new spouse, new family, and new life. And it’s all because they lost sight of favor that goodness provides for people beyond the one who finds it.

No Guarantees

We catch a glimpse of Proverbs’ profound wisdom by noting how it equivocates about results. It offers no guarantees that seekers of goodness will always find it. Yet it explicitly warns searchers they’re asking for trouble by not looking past their own desires and ambitions to envision how they’ll impact others. Why doesn’t Proverbs promise goodness will come when it’s sought in the larger context of favoring those we love and serve? Because life’s not fair. Our purest, most selfless motives won’t always meet with everyone’s approval. Indeed, seeking what’s right and good—“working in partnership with God for good,” as Joy put it—will likely set us at odds with searchers among us. One of the first things that seekers discover is that’s just how it goes. Psalm 34.19 tells us to anticipate turbulent times, while also urging us to remember Who our partner is. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” it says, “but the LORD rescues them from them all.” Jesus backs this up, reminding us God makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.45)

If seeking goodness that favors others isn’t a sure thing, we may wonder what’s the point. It goes back to evaluating how we live. If our search for goodness starts and ends with us, we’re bound for disappointment. When what we seek is driven by a desire to bless others, we’ll find more than enough goodness to offset occasional shortfalls. On that we have Christ’s word: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33) It doesn’t get any surer than that.

Once again, O God, Your Word calls us to a reckoning with our motives and desires. Increase our depth of vision to look beyond ourselves to seek goodness that favors those around us. Draw us into partnership with You, working for good. Amen.

Seeking goodness by seeking favor for others requires us to look past our own desires and aspirations. It’s the difference between a life that grasps for grace and one that leads from grace.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find.” (Matthew 22.8-9)

Courting Danger

A couple years after Nintendo launched its game system, I bought one for Walt, thinking it the perfect birthday gift for him and a fun diversion for us. When I asked the clerk to recommend a few games, he handed me one based on The Lord of the Rings and something called “Grand Theft Auto”. I wasn’t so sure about his second choice. But he promised we’d love it, saying it was the season’s bestseller. We didn’t. The complicated controls made us feel old and inept, and we were unnerved by the graphic violence. Worst of all, the winning strategy directly opposed what we’d grown up with. Instead of avoiding danger—steering Pac-Man clear of Blue Meanies or watching for snakes that might kill Frogger—the game aggressively courted danger. Reaching the next level required players to wreak mayhem on whomever their avatars encountered. Appearances were deceiving and the rules seemed to shift with the developers’ whims. After giving it our best shot, we lost interest. Lack of dexterity, intuition, and ability to stomach the violence made the experience too unenjoyable.

Revisiting Jesus’s wedding feast story in Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22.1-14) may affect us in the same way. It’s very complicated, particularly if we’re accustomed to navigating the parables with ease. It’s not at all intuitive; the rules appear to change on a whim, as though Jesus makes them up as His story develops. And (in Matthew’s version, that is) it’s extremely—one might even say, gratuitously—violent. The tale is three-tiered, with each level introducing new characters, all courting danger to various extents, some to the degree we’re temporarily shut out of the story. We can’t conceive what provokes their rash behavior, and it's hard to rationalize the violence it causes. So wrestling with this parable is neither pleasant nor easy. Yet giving up on it too quickly will end with us missing one of the Gospels’ most fascinating, illuminating experiences.

An Open-Door Party

Here’s the story. Level One: A king invites the crème de la crème to his son’s wedding feast. Once everything’s set, he dispatches messengers to gather the guests. But they don’t come. So he sends a different group of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, “It’s time to show up.” Neither the momentous occasion (a royal wedding) nor the king’s trouble and expense—not even the honor of being invited—fazes the guests. Some offer piddling excuses: can’t get off work, can’t leave the farm, etc. Others attack and murder the messengers, inciting the king to order his troops to kill the killers and torch their city.

Level Two: With the feast on the back burner, the king tells his servants, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find.” (v8-9) They fan out across town and invite randomly chosen strangers—“good and bad,” verse 10 says—to celebrate the prince’s marriage with the king. Since Jesus scoots through this part of the story rather swiftly, never describing the guests’ response to the invitation, let’s fill in the blank with how we’d react. Our first thoughts would turn to why we shouldn’t attend. We’re not dressed for it. We don’t fit in that crowd. We won’t know how to act. We haven’t time or means to buy a suitable gift. Some of us, the “bad” folks Jesus mentions, might suspect we’re being duped; it could be a sting operation to lure us into a police trap. Having heard of the king’s temper, we probably worry about offending him once we’re there. So accepting the invitation is, in itself, courting danger. Do we dare? Absolutely. It’s an offer too grand and glorious to refuse.

Level Three: Either the king gives the impromptu guests time to dash home and change into customary wedding attire, or he outfits them once they arrive. In any case, everyone’s dressed to the nines and having a good time when he spots one guest in casual clothes. He confronts the man, asking, “Friend”—Jesus uses a sarcastic term more like, “Hey, buddy”—“how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” (v12) The man doesn’t reply. It’s tempting to imagine he shrugs, as if to say, “I heard you were giving an open-door party and thought I’d check it out.” More likely, he’s dumbstruck because he’s caught enjoying the king’s kindness without honoring his wishes. The king sentences him to a fate worse than death, binding him over to “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v13)


After taking us through this gnarly, harrowing scenario, Jesus sums it up with a daunting moral: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (v14) In light of whom He’s talking to (the disciples and Pharisees) and when He’s speaking (a few days before he’s arrested and executed), the parable breaks down easily. The king is God; the son is Jesus; and the invited guests are Israel’s religious establishment, which preaches exclusive right to divine favor but has a history of persecuting prophets sent to corral their behavior. The servants who take to the streets are apostles ordained to invite outsiders—estranged Jews and pagan Gentiles—to God’s table. They’re heralds of inclusion. And what of the imposter? We can see him one of two ways. Perhaps he’s a presumptive guest, possibly one who initially turned down the invitation, whose inflated sense of self as the king’s “friend” misguides him to believe he’s above honoring his host’s wishes. Or maybe he’s just a fool who abuses the king’s hospitality by refusing to change in a manner befitting the occasion. Either way, confusing the king’s grace with license to ill spells his doom. Like the no-show corpses buried in their city’s cinders, all the imposter can say is, “I was called.” His disregard for the king’s stature and standards deprives him of any right to number among “the chosen.”

Now comes the hard part, when we ask how Jesus’s story speaks to us. And make no mistake, it delivers an extremely profitable, potent, and pressing message. As with nearly all His parables, Jesus prefaces this one by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Thus, the story reveals how many who hear God’s call become casualties of self-imposed arrogance and ignorance. Some let obsessions with security and success keep them from the feast. Some give way to intellectual pride that rouses hostility to God’s invitation. Some presume insider status that exempts them from God’s expectations. Some exploit God’s grace by foolishly ignoring what’s asked of them.

And where do we fit in all of this? It comes down to choice. Do we join untold masses who are called but don’t show up? Worse yet, do we delude ourselves to think we’re doing God a big favor by showing up? Or do we override hesitations and feelings of inferiority to accept the open invitation to sit with other chosen guests—good and bad—at God’s table? When we put it like that, the stunning “Aha!” that ends Jesus’s story is inescapable. God does the calling. Choosing, however, is left entirely to us.

Dear God, we couldn’t more thrilled and delighted that You’ve invited us to Your feast. Nothing in this world could keep us from being there. All we ask is that You show us how to please You and be worthy of Your calling. Amen.

God calls everyone to the feast. Being numbered among the chosen is up to us.