That title doesn’t really tell you what this is going to be about, does it? Well, this is a thought and a mini-book review in one.
I’m currently reading the Gospel of Luke (in the ‘Final Quarter’) and once again came across Jesus’ call, not to arms, but to lay all on the line for his cause:
23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24 NET Bible)
Many of you will know that chapter 9 is pivotal in Luke, marking a turning point in Jesus’ ministry, in the course of which Jesus elicits from his disciples who the people think he is, and then ‘turns his face to go to Jerusalem’ and lets them know that if they want to come, it’s all on the line, right down to their lives. It’s all or nothing.
The quote above would be a pretty accurate summary of a book I’ve just finished reading, Crazy Love by Francis Chan. It’s unusual for me to read the kind of book that you would find popular at a Christian bookshop (bookstore, for US readers). I normally read more academic and factually-oriented things. But my sister bought me this last Christmas, and I finally worked my way down to it in my impossibly high bedside table must-read book pile.
I won’t try to summarize it further, but I did find it challenging. Sometimes I disagreed with Chan, such as when he (like everyone else) assumes that when Jesus says within the parable of the sheep and the goats,
‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’ (Matt 25:40 NET Bible),
that he was talking about doing good for every human being on the planet. That’s a nice thought and a good ideal, but I strongly suspect that Jesus was talking about his disciples, and to the crowd: “They’re with me, and how you treat them, including when I’m gone, I will take personally!” Well, Chan has lots of company there.
When he was challenging the Western reader to live less indulgently and give more material means to the work of God, I knew he was right and felt suitably guilty. At the same time, I would like to be reassured that Chan himself really lives like this. He assures us in the book that he does. I’m just inherently suspicious of people who get their income from the church, telling others to give more money to the church. Well, let’s trust that Chan is not milking the system. No sense assuming the worst, though that’s kind of a gift of mine.
At the end of the day, I thought his book was good, though uncomfortable, reading. It was meant to be uncomfortable – it’s a classic prophet’s call, and God’s task for prophets is certainly not to make people comfortable.
So I felt suitably guilty.
All the more so because I’m a Christian academic. The academics in Luke 9 aren’t the good guys. They’re among the baddies in Jesus’ story. If Luke 9:22 were translated into current English, it might say that those who reject Jesus would be “the elders, the head priests, and the biblical scholars (‘γραμματεῖς’, traditionally ‘scribes’).” When God does a new thing, as He certainly did in Jesus, the traditional political leaders, the existing religious leaders, and the academics normally do their best to shut it down. Old wineskins don’t take well to new wine. Jesus taught with authority; scribes (scholars) hedge their bets and prevaricate (Matt 7:29). The prophet believes. The scholar doubts, checking and rechecking.
The one who is greatest in the economy of God is the child, not the expert (Luke 9:48). God revels in ‘destroying the wisdom of the wise’, and ‘frustrating the intelligence of the intelligent’ (paraphrased from 1 Cor. 1:19 NIV).
So is there any hope for the scholar in God’s kingdom?
All I can find to cling onto here is Paul’s teaching about the one body needing a lot of different parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31). I believe that we need a range of gifts at work in the church, and our sheer diversity is our strength. We need prophets like Chan to kick us stiffly up the backsides at regular intervals. It hurts but it does us good. We need the tenderhearted people too, to pick up the pieces afterwards. We need all kinds.
Perhaps God wants, still, the odd Nicodemus, the odd Joseph of Arimathea, to play a part in His plan and purpose.
Because it’s hard to change how you’re wired, and God is responsible for that wiring, at the end of the day.