Once again, from the February 2011 archives:
One of the more annoying aspects of the recent U.S. Congressional election campaign for me was the way a few female candidates taunted their male opponents to “Man up!” Apparently they were trying to get the guy in question to admit to some personal or professional failing–or maybe these women simply wanted their counterparts to agree to their own worldview as the “one right way.”
In the end, however, it was just a cheap political ploy to get a quick headline in our fast-paced 24/7 news cycle by portraying their male opponent as something of a “girlie-man.” Now, “Man up!” is a perfectly good rhetorical flourish. “Manning up” means to do the right and honorable thing. As such, there is at least a measure of nobility involved. It is, of course, a male-centric comeback. Arguably it’s sexist, although I could fill the rest of this blog post with pros and cons on that and still not sway anybody’s opinion. So I’ll just leave it at that. [Yes, I know I’m opening myself to the very charge of failing to “Man up!” here by being such a coward, but life’s too short to spend one’s entire time nitpicking.]
“Man up!” is akin to the more generic “Grow up!” of which we’ve all probably been the recipient at one time or another. I don’t have perfect recollection of my childhood years but I’m certain my older brothers aimed the taunt at me on more than a few occasions. As for my parents–probably them, too, although far less often than my brothers. No doubt others can recall coaches and boot-camp drill instructors covering this same territory, although certainly in more colorful ways.
Be that as it may, I’m going to segue to the task at hand and note that all four biblical writers this week address this topic: three of them directly; you have to read between the lines a bit for the psalmist. Not surprisingly, Apostle Paul is most direct:
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. –1 Corinthians 3:1-7
This was a theme to which Paul had to return so the Corinthians would get the point. In one of his most familiar passages (when was the last time you didn’t hear 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding?) Paul continues: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (vs. 11-12).
It appears there was considerable disagreement in the congregation as to whose ministry was most important, leading to jealous factions. Imagine that! Within the church there are those with gifts and skills as missionaries, others as pastors or teachers or money managers. Some minister well with children or youth or mature adults. If you’re lucky you’ve got somebody who knows how to fix a furnace on a winter night or create and manage a first-class Web site. Perhaps there is a lingering sense of loyalty to a former pastor, thus making it tough for anybody new (or younger) to make much headway. And then there’s the “We’ve always done it that way” crowd, which offers a pretty certain pathway to oblivion.
Paul couldn’t offer these Corinthians any spiritual “meat” because they were barely able to tolerate “milk.” But he knew that eventually they would. It would just require humility and dedication, for starters. He didn’t want them to remain “infants in Christ” forever, and the same can be said for us 21st-century Christians. Yet so many people today seem content to do exactly that. Some, it appears, start growing but eventually regress, finding discipleship too demanding, too all-encompassing, too restrictive of what they feel is a more attractive lifestyle. Browse the Christianity section of any big bookstore and you’ll have to wade through a lot of fluff and drivel before finding something of substance. In short, people reach a point of being satisfied with what they’ve got. They’re stuck and happy about it. Ignorance may be blissful but it’s also potentially dangerous.
Matthew shares some of Jesus’ most important teachings in chapter 5 of his Gospel. Coming directly after the Beatitudes (covered two weeks ago in the lectionary) and his sermon about salt and light (last week’s topic), Jesus now offers an extended discourse filled with “You have heard it said… but I say to you….” His method is often misunderstood by Bible readers, who think that Jesus is comparing opposites here: the Law as observed by the Jews and the Gospel to which he challenges his listeners. Remember that Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. With that in mind consider what he said: You’ve heard it said “Do not commit murder,” but I say “Anybody who is filled with anger is open to the same judgment as a murderer.” I can feel quite satisfied with myself as I hear Jesus utter the first half of that; I’m quite confident I’ve never murdered anybody. But filled with anger? Uh-oh. Now he’s got me.
Years ago President Jimmy Carter caught a lot of grief when he admitted in a Playboy magazine interview that he “had lusted in his heart.” What Jimmy had, and what most of his critics didn’t have a clue about, was his familiarity with the second half of Matthew chapter 5. Unlike too many other noted politicians, Jimmy Carter had not committed adultery. But he held himself to a higher standard, trying to do exactly what Jesus had first challenged his listeners to do twenty centuries before. It echoes the psalmist’s words, as well:
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways. You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances. I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me. –Psalm 119:1-8
It all comes down to the kind of choice presented to the people of ancient Israel, as recorded in Deuteronomy. That choice is greater than just to be physically alive or dead. They were about to cross the River Jordan into their Promised Land, ending 40 years of wandering (and spiritual preparation) to settle down, to essentially “grow up” as God’s people, the chosen ones. There were no guarantees, just a covenant (and that’s a whole other thing, as the Israelites kept rediscovering over and over again). It is the same choice those of us who say we follow Jesus as his disciples face today:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. –Deuteronomy 30:19-20
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010) is available at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.