Remember Joseph? Not Joseph of the famous duo Mary and Joseph, but Joseph the son of Jacob? Joseph of the coat of many colors fame?
In the life of Joseph, we see one who broke the mold and the power which the mold has over everyone living in it. By the “mold” here I mean simply the expectations of the world in which we live and move and have our being. Call it our surroundings, our culture, our reality. Normalcy is the air we breathe, the water we swim in, and any other metaphor you can think of for the matrix within which we live our lives.
Culture can be thought of as a corporate way of life constructed out of long practices within a group of people. Culture, in this sense, is the social norms, practices, beliefs, and assumptions which animate the way of life of a particular group of people. We usually only become aware of our culture when we encounter someone who follows a different set of practices, social norms, etc. Culture is engrained and self-evident to us. In a word, culture is powerful.
Joseph breaking conventions
Joseph’s life thwarted the expectations of his culture in many ways. He was the favored son, although not a firstborn. His favored status was painfully obvious to the rest of his family. Joseph’s oblivious father ended up sealing his fate by giving Joseph a gift highlighting his status as the family favorite: a special robe. At this, his brothers took matters into their own hands to reestablish the expected social norm. The logic behind their actions works something like this:
- We may not like being the non-favorite, but at least if everyone is playing by the same rules and the firstborn is the default favorite, we are in the same boat as everyone else we know.
- Joseph is not the firstborn (in fact, he is number 11 of 12), thus him being the father’s favorite makes life uncomfortable—our family dynamics don’t match up with how they are supposed to be.
The brothers’ dislike of Joseph, fueled by his own rather superior behavior, results in Joseph becoming a slave.
But even as a slave, Joseph breaks the mold. He became a slave who ruled a household, then a prisoner who ran the prison, then who ascended to the very height of power as the de facto ruler of Egypt in matters regarding domestic policy. His life arch is nothing short of astounding and unconventional.
After the family is reunited in Egypt, we get a glimpse into Joseph’s own perspective on his exceptional life. While talking with his brothers—now scarred that he will pay them back for what they did—Joseph acknowledges that the journey he has taken was God’s will, rather than their bare act of jealousy-motivated violence against him (Gen. 50.19-20).
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
Joseph becoming conventional
But what chiefly interests me right now is how utterly conventional Joseph turns out to be. We see this in chapter 48 when Joseph takes his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to his father Jacob to be blessed. Joseph gits ticked off at his father because he blesses Ephraim with his right hand, even though Ephraim is the younger son. “Come on, dad,” he says, “don’t you know that Manasseh is the firstborn and should have the better (that means “right-handed”) blessing?”
Thinking about the life stories of who is involved here, it is an odd thing for Joseph to get upset about. Joseph is the favored son, despite not being firstborn by a longshot, of the non-firstborn patriarch who deceitfully stole the blessing of the firstborn from his elder brother, Esau, and then sneaked and cheated a fortune for himself. Why on earth would Joseph expect anything conventional in this blessing arrangement?
Pure and simple. The firstborn gets the blessing. Even when two such non-conventional persons as Jacob and Joseph are involved, the programming power of culture is nigh on impossible to escape. All his life experience to the contrary, Joseph is as convinced as everyone else around him that the firstborn must receive the greater blessing because that is how things are done.
Living within cultural expectations
Why does this matter for us? It is an interesting story about two dudes who lived a long time ago, and in itself does not have much implication for the further plotline of the Bible. But it has huge implications for understanding less who we are and more how we are.
Just like Joseph, we live in a world of cultural assumptions which shapes and forms us to immense degrees. The values we have about good, bad, justice, poverty, money, rights, conventions, etc., are indelibly imprinted by the situation around us. By our culture. There is little that we think, say, believe, and do, which is not shot through and through with cultural normalcy. Like Joseph, we are capable both of having profound insight into the works of God in our lives and in the world and also be largely blind to what God is doing in the world because our assumptions fall in line with our cultural expectations rather than the eyes of faith.
One of Jesus’ masterstrokes as a teacher is that he asked lots of questions which force his hearers to examine their lives from a different perspective. These questions force us to question our assumptions about reality, of what is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust, etc.
What are we doing in our lives such that we are being shaped more by our life experience with Jesus than by the default expectations of how the world works which we unconsciously imbibe from our culture?
Stating the problem is a start; answering it takes all that we are.
Justice is all the rage these days.
What exactly justice is is a complicated notion, full of complicated sub-discussions and issues. In the Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (or the Laborers in the Vineyard) in Matthew 20.1-16, an interesting wrinkle in justice stands out.
Remember the basic story: a man hires workers for a full day for an agreed upon wage, then goes out several more times throughout the day and hires more, finally paying everyone the same amount no matter how long or short they worked. Understandably, the guys hired first are ticked that the latecomers who worked for 1 hour got paid as much as they did, after working for 12 hours. That is not at all fair.
And you know what? The vineyard owner never talks about being fair. The key word he uses in arranging payment with the latter hired workers is that he will pay them whatever is “just/right” (Mt 20.4).
Justice is a key aspect of God’s dealing with the world. The vineyard owner is like God. While it can be perilous to press every detail of a parable into profound theological points, humor me for a second as we think about his promise to pay them “whatever is just.”
The vineyard owner does not prorate the salaries based on hours worked, giving the 1-hour workers 1/12 of a denarius, and so on. That is what I would expect for a “just” payment arrangement if I was employed under similar circumstances. And that is what the first set of workers expected. If the last group got one day’s wage, certainly it was all but right for them to get more.
Instead, the vineyard owner calls it “just” to give everyone a whole day’s wage regardless of how long said worker worked. He doesn’t give anyone more than he had promised to pay; he doesn’t give anyone less than he had promised to pay; and he gives generously all at the same time. Justice, in this parable, does not involve skimping or short-changing anyone, but it also doesn’t involve rigidity; justice is allowed to be generous.
The Justice System
At risk of raising ugly political feelings, humor me in an exercise to think in a Christian way about justice. When I think of “justice,” the most prominent institution that comes to mind is “the (criminal) justice system.” What is “justice” within this system? While, it is many things, but what strikes me at the moment is that justice is mainly a negative thing. That is, justice is usually measured in retributive punishment. Someone commits a crime and justice is a certain jail sentence, or fine, or sentence to community service, etc. Justice is “paying off one’s debt to society.”
Justice, in this context, has room for concepts like “grace” and “leniency,” as well as “severity” and “penalty.” But a word that has never come to my mind in thinking about the justice system: generosity.
Justice in the Kingdom of God
In the Kingdom of God, justice is not (only) a negative thing. It is not (only) about punishing those who break the law. It is also a reality that is rich in generosity. Justice comes from a perspective of abundance of love, not scarcity of resources.
In applying this parable to our own lives, this parable gives us a model of justice to follow. The vineyard owner’s actions of unfairly paying those who worked less the same wage is described as “just.” Justice in the Kingdom of God is a positive concept animated by love and mercy.
The vineyard owner hires multiple workers at multiple times and this is an exercise in justice. Justice, in this view, looks a lot more like aiming to help others fulfill their potential and meet their needs rather than aiming to punish.
Is punishment part of justice? Of course. But if you are like me, the punishment side of justice is far easier to understand than the generosity side of justice. Being generous with his goodness is part of God’s justice in his kingdom.
Being people who live in God’s Kingdom (under his rule) and who pray for his kingdom to come on this earth as it is in heaven, we probably need to square with the generous justice of God.
Maybe that is a new term. So let me explain it briefly by way of a few observations. According to a recent study by eMarketer, the average US adult spends close to 8 hours looking at a screen of some sort each day, including 2 hours of watching streaming videos (TV shows, YouTube, movies, etc.) and 1 hour on social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc.). Of course, many of us spend a good deal of our time working looking at a screen as well. On average, over 3 hours of that 8-hour total is with a smartphone.
To put that in perspective, on an average day the average American adult spends more time looking at screens than sleeping. That is a first in world history! I don’t know where you fit into that statistic—less or more screen time—but increasingly few people in our culture don’t fit into this statistic.
This is not meant to be alarmist—though aspects of it are certainly alarming—but realistic. We are an increasingly digital people.
Along with the increase in digital input, the amount of time we spend fellowshipping with other believers—indeed, other people in general—tends to keep decreasing.
For those who care about faithfulness to Jesus, we have to ask ourselves how all that screen time is forming our souls. Because it is.
The world of Google, Facebook, Amazon, cable news, streaming music, and any other digital platforms does not exist to just offer us some useful tools, but to convince us of certain things. Browsing through websites is an experience of discipleship. We are being taught in a million different little ways to desire certain things, to believe certain “truths” about life, and to understand ourselves and others in certain ways. No technology—from the humble garden rake to the most advanced computer system—leaves its user the same as when they came to it. We use tools because they help us, but we also need to be mindful that they change us.
Enter digital discipleship. This blog is an effort at digital discipleship. Through it, I am hoping to inject some more intentional Gospel hope, spiritual challenge, and Christian influence into your digital consuming habits. Many of us see each other only once a week, on Sunday morning. And worshipping together on Sunday morning is awesome. This blog is a way to further play the role of teacher in the church as we live life together.
What this blog is
In short, I will use this blog to further teach and process the world as I try to figure out what following Jesus faithfully looks like in a world of smartphones, genetic engineering, and the age-old specters which continue to haunt us in the form of poverty, hopelessness, pride, etc., many of which take on new faces in the new type of world we live in.
Sometimes I will write further thoughts on the text for a sermon, sometimes random thoughts on a given passage of Scripture, sometimes more extended reflections on pressing issues which face us as God’s people in the here and now. Some thoughts simply cover things which we don’t really have a good forum to discuss in other contexts yet are relevant in thinking about living as followers of Jesus. All of it is meant to be an invitation to see how the gospel of Jesus Christ should shape our lives, our thinking, and our action, day by day.
What this blog is not
As digital as we are becoming, we are actually analog beings. Better yet, we are flesh-and-blood beings that God created long before any human being had the slightest inkling of what electricity was. As flesh-and-blood beings, a huge part of what we need is simply to be together.
Technology enables many amazing things. Praise the Lord that the ability to stream church services allowed, and continues to allow, us to practice prudent safety in the midst of the covid pandemic. Who knows when such a response will be needed again? And, Lord willing, it will no longer be necessary in the near future.
What spending that time apart has shown us is that being apart is not the same thing as being together, even if we can still have a sermon, sing songs, and all the other things. God made us as people to live in community. God made us to love each other as we rub shoulders with each other in life. Digital community, while a real part of our lives and growing in its influence, is not enough. Digital community does not equal the church.
This blog is not meant to discourage us from being together. Digital discipleship is simply another avenue to talk Jesus to each other and the world around us.
I hope that this effort will prove helpful. I am convinced that in the world we live in, digital discipleship will become increasingly important. I am trying to figure out more how to do this well, whether through blogging or other means. And, I am trying to figure out how to best be a flesh-and-blood pastor ministering to flesh-and-blood people living here and now.
May God bless us as we move forward in following him in this brave new world with the same old brokenness and same old need for the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Take a couple minutes and watch this awesome LEGO© version of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish builders that someone put together.
Pretty cool, right?
The parable and the house(s)
Notice that in this video version of the parable, the houses which the two builders build are completely different. One builds a hovel on a rock—and he is wise; one builds a mansion on the beach—he is a fool. I’ve looked at many different visual adaptations of this parable and see this theme over and over again. The foolish builder either builds a lavish house, or a slovenly quick-pop-up house, etc. The wise builder, by contrast, is often depicted as building a strong and simple house. His house lasts because it is well put together and not ostentatious. The foolish builder loses his house because it is poorly built or an extravagant waste of money.
The above video well illustrates this line of interpretation (and yes, videos and pictures are interpretations). The houses of the two builders are completely opposites of each other, so the foolish builder comes off both as a critique of where he builds and as a condemnation for his ostentatious wealth as displayed in the type of house he builds.
While fun, the interpretation in the video is not actually found in the parable at all. Notice that there is no actual discussion of how the house was built or what kind of house was built. The discussion in the parable is based entirely on where the house was built. We can imply that there was some difference in the house that was built and possibly that there was more work involved in the one than the other, but even in Luke’s version (Luke 6.46-49), the focus is entirely on the foundation. Not the house.
Letting our focus drift from the foundation to the sort of house that is built—and how much work goes into building that house—can desensitize us to the heart of the parable. The parable strikes a nerve and importing the notion of wealth and sensibility into it can make it miss some of that nerve. Jesus has lots to say about wealth, but that is not the point of this parable.
You see, in this parable Jesus’ point is not to condemn wealth or laziness. The point of the contrast is not that one builder worked hard to build the house and the other did not. The contrast is what kind of foundation they built on.
Keeping the main thing the main thing
I think the element of wealth and laziness vs. industriousness which this video introduces functions to lessen the strikingness of the parable. It makes it easier to swallow. When we turn the parable into teaching the virtue of working harder and smarter, it is suddenly easy to position ourselves as the “good guy” in the parable: “I am willing to work hard and I am not wealthy, so I must be the good guy in the parable, not the bad guy.” The problem though—and this was an endemic problem in Jesus’ ministry—was not that he was dealing with people who were too lazy to work hard at following God. In point of fact, many of the religious leaders who opposed Jesus most vociferously were extremely devoted to religious life. Jesus’ parable challenges their understanding not of how hard someone must work to get into the Kingdom of God, rather of how that work must be oriented.
There is a big part of us that likes the message “work harder, work smarter, and you will enter the Kingdom of God.” The problem, though, is that Jesus doesn’t say “work harder.” This parable is not about how hard the builders work, but about where they work. If you work hard building on sand, when the flood comes, whatever you built, no matter how hard you labored at it, will come crashing down. By contrast, if you work hard building on the rock, it will stand. The outcome is not based on how hard you work—it is assumed that you will be working at building your life. The outcome is based entirely on where you build.
Jesus does not call us to work harder. I should say, Jesus calls us to something more profound than working harder. Working hard is assumed. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t just tell us to work smarter. Again, that is assumed. Jesus challenges the very foundational principles of our lives. Where is our hope? What are we banking on to bring us through in the end? What are we turning to to find meaning for our lives? What is love and how do we show it to other people? These are the sorts of foundational principles of life which Jesus challenges.
You are building your life-house on something, and you are working hard at it. Jesus challenges us to be sure that the hard work we are doing is on the right building site.