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Monday, August 17, 2009

the unexpected hanging

After the logician was convicted of murdering his wife, the judge sentenced him to hanging. The hanging was to occur the following week, but the judge added that the exact day of the hanging would be a surprise. The logician would not know the day until the executioner arrived at the prison cell.

The logician began pondering the sentence even as he was being led to the cell. He couldn't be hanged on Saturday, because if he were still alive at the end of Friday he would know before the executioner arrived that the hanging would occur on Saturday. Therefore, he couldn't be hanged on Friday: knowing that Saturday was out, if he were still alive on Thursday night, he would know before the executioner arrived that the hanging would occur on Friday. Therefore, he couldn't be hanged on Thursday...

Continuing in this manner, the logician had eliminated all the days of the week by the time he was locked in his cell. He was exuberant, knowing he could not be hanged after all.

Thus when the executioner arrived on Wednesday morning, the logician was utterly surprised.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

the dishonest manager

About 2 1/2 years ago I blogged about the parable of the dishonest manager. Of all Jesus' parables, this one makes the least sense to me.

I'm currently taking a class on Jesus' parables through Grace United Methodist Church, and this was the parable for last week. One of the great things about this class is that for each parable there is a video with a modern retelling of the story.

One thing the video emphasized, which had not occurred to me in simply reading the parable, was the reaction of the debtors. This, I think, throws a new light on the parable.

The rich man is mainly concerned with keepin accurate books. He really doesn't care about sufferings of the tenant farmers who work for him. While he amasses great wealth for himself, he locks others out of financial independence.

The dishonest manager, on the other hand, understands that people are more important than rules. The less pious person turns out to be the hero (kind of like the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help the injured man while the priest and the levite had more important things to do).

But this raises the question: Are we to emulate the manager in his dishonesty? Does God want us to be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?

My initial reaction is no, we don't need to be quite that detailed in relating the parable to our lives. The dishonest manager is there mostly for shock value.

But in re-reading the parable, I've noticed something else. Jesus uses the phrase "dishonest manager" in verse 8, and "dishonest wealth" in verse 11. So maybe we are not supposed to relate to the manager at all. The manager is our money. We — particularly Christians living in the United States and other first-world nations — are the rich man, and we've kept others in debt for much too long. While it might be unfortunate but expected to see huge income disparity within the economic systems of the world, the church ought to hold itself to another standard.

If I understand this parable, Jesus is saying that we should give more of our "dishonest wealth" — and all wealth is dishonest, regardless of how honestly we obtained it — lest we become enslaved to it.

But just how much does Jesus want from me? Should I give up my retirement fund? (With the way it's going lately, it won't be worth much anyway.) Should I stop saving for a newer car? Should I forget about buying a house?

I liked this parable better when it made no sense at all.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

who knows?

A Taoist parable

In a valley lived a farmer. He was not rich, but neither was he poor. He had food enough for his family. He had fields that yielded a good harvest year after year. And he had a very fine work horse.

One morning the farmer discovered that his horse had run away during the night. His sympathetic neighbors said, "What bad fortune!" But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

Two days later, the horse returned, bringing three wild horses with it. The farmer's neighbors were happy for him. "What good fortune!" they said. But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

A few days later, the farmer's son was trying to tame one of the wild horses when the horse threw him to the ground, breaking his arm. The neighbors said, "What bad fortune!" But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

A week later, military officials arrived in the valley, looking for able-bodied young men to conscript into service. Because the farmer's son had a broken arm, they left him alone. "What good fortune!" said the neighbors. But the farmer simply replied, "Good, bad, who knows how it will turn out in the end?"

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

expressing the truth

Can you imagine, for example, a modern economist articulating truths about our standard of living by reciting a poem? Or by telling what happened to him during a late-night walk through East St. Louis? Or by offering a series of proverbs and parables, beginning with the saying about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle? The first would be regarded as irrelevant, the second merely anecdotal, the last childish. Yet these forms of language are certainly capable of expressing truths about economic relationships, as well as any other relationships, and indeed have been employed by various peoples. But to the modern mind, resonating with different media-metaphors, the truth in economics is believed to be best discovered and expressed in numbers.

- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

If, in Postman's quote, you hear echoes of Marshall McLuhan's aphorism, The medium is the message, it's because Postman was a disciple of McLuhan. But regardless of how the media might affect our thought processes, I think it is obvious that the modern mind does not look for truth in the same way ancient people did.

How does this affect our understanding of the Gospels?

In an era where rhetoric was considered as important as logic, Jesus was a skilled rhetorician. But to us, does it really matter whether he made the Pharisees look bad in conversation?

In age of low literacy rates, Jesus was a master storyteller. But today, do the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son have any resonance? What does it mean to us that God's kingdom is like a mustard seed, or like a net full of fish?

In a time when the universe seemed capricious, Jesus was said to have power over wind and waves, and to be able to cast out demons. He was said to be able to feed large crowds with a small amount of food. Do these stories have any meaning for today?

In the 21st century, are the Gospels relevant? Or is our world so different from first century Galilee that we can't really understand them even if we try?

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

down the chimney

Sometimes the best way to explain things is through narrative. Jesus understood this, so he taught in parables.

In my post last week I suggested that the same Bible passage may have several possible interpretations. Shortly after writing it I found this post containing two parables that illustrates what I was trying to say.

An excerpt:

So the Rabbi, in exasperation, said, ‘OK, answer me this. Two men go down a chimney. At the bottom one of the men has a face covered in soot. Which man turns to wash his face?’

Immediately the young man replied, ‘Why the man with the dirty face.’

At this the Rabbi began to turn around saying, ‘No, no the man with the clean face washed for he saw that his friend had a dirty face and so thought that he must also by covered in dirt and thus washed.’

‘Please, test me again,’ replied the young man.

‘OK’ said the Rabbi, ‘Two men go down a chimney, at the bottom one of the men has a face covered in soot. Which man turns to wash his face?’

The young man is confused but replies, ‘Why, the man with the clean face.’

But the Rabbi simply roles his eyes and says ‘No, no. It is the man with the dirty face. He sees the reaction of his friend and realises that he must be covered in soot.’

‘Please test me once more’ replied the young man ‘for now I know.’

Once more the Rabbi said ‘Two men go down a chimney, at the bottom one of the men has a face covered in soot, which man turns to wash his face.’

‘The answer I said first, but for a different reason’ said the young man.

‘No’ replied the rabbi, ‘ they both washed their face, for how could either of them think that they could have descended a chimney without getting dirty. Now go home and come back when you understand.’

The other parable is good, too.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

a parable, updated for our times

The Kingdom of God is like a preschooler with eight chicken nuggets. If one of them falls to the floor, will he not leave the seven on his tray, and crawl under the table to get the one? And once it is found, he will proclaim it cleansed from all impurities, and no one will be able to snatch it from his hands.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

wei wu wei

Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.

In a previous post, I mentioned the influence of Taoism in my life. One of the things that draws me to Taoism is its embrace of paradox. For example, one of the central ideas of Taoism is the concept of wu wei, literally translated non-action. What does this mean?

It doesn't mean to be passive, and it manifestly does not mean to be detached from one's surroundings. Quite the opposite. It means to be so in touch with our environment and with the people in our lives that our actions flow naturally from the situation.

This notion is often extended to wei wu wei, action through non action.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Perhaps the best way to explain wei wu wei is to give an example. Every river flows to the ocean. An individual drop of water does not need to carve its own path; it merely needs to follow the course that has already been laid out. The drops of water are not acting on their own; they are doing what the situation calls for.

When rain falls on grass or fields, it soaks into the ground and feeds the plants. It doesn't seek the nearest river, it does what the situation calls for.

That's wei wu wei.

A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.

Putting wei wu wei into practice means knowing what our situation calls for, and knowing it intuitively so that our actions flow naturally, without conscious effort.

My father has the ability to talk to a stranger and almost instantly find some sort of common ground. My wife has the ability to know exactly what to say to cheer up a friend. Neither my dad nor my wife think there is anything unsual about what they do. They just do it. That's wei wu wei: spontaneous and natural action producing harmony.

On a larger scale, wei wu wei means helping to bring about peace and harmony with society and nature. It means being in tune with the Tao.

The closest Christian analogy, I think, would be seeking the kingdom of God. Jesus taught:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” ... But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

That's wei wu wei.

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