Letter to the American Church – Chapter 16

Chapter 16

The Final Push

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – Ronald Reagan

It was June 1987. President Ronald Reagan was visiting what was then West Berlin, and was to give a speech at the historic Brandenburg Gate adjacent to the infamous Berlin Wall. It was the most vivid and monstrous symbol of Communism in the world, separating East Berlin from West Berlin, and of course was erected to keep those in East Berlin from escaping to the free west. Imagine a society so inhuman that it must erect a literal wall to keep its people from escaping. Of course, this is what evil must always do. It must cancel voices that speak against it, and must kill those who stand against it, and must imprison those who might escape its reach.

Ronald Reagan was an exceedingly rare leader in that he was fierce and bold in speaking  out against the great evil of Communism, and genuinely wanted to bring it down, to bring freedom to its captives, if God might use him to do that. But what made Reagan even rarer as a leader was that he seemed to understand that the Soviet regime was weak. It had always pretended to be strong, and to be inevitable and permanent. And many world leaders-including many in America, from both parties-had seemed to believe this lie. But Reagan seemed to know that because the Soviet Union was built on a lie, it was unsustainable and could be brought down-if someone had the courage to stand and fight against it. Which brings us to the single and magnificently memorable line he delivered that day as he stood there, framed visually by the Brandenburg Gate. It came in the middle of the speech, as he courageously and unexpectedly addressed the ugly reality of the infamous wall so close to where he stood. It was the proverbial elephant in the world’s living room, and suddenly Reagan would dare to address it. It was an extraordinary moment.

Most American leaders had been diffident about confronting the Soviets head on in these things. During the Nixon administration, under the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the idea of “detente,” which referred to the de-escalation of hostilities, had ruled the day. Kissinger also had often invoked the term “Relpolitik,” which was a fancy way of saying that one must accept things as they are and nto try too hard to change the status quo. Was this cynical, or was it cowardly? Or was it simply realistic?

In any event, in 1980-not long before Reagan was elected-the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, showing that perhaps “detente” was not so effective after all. The Soviets had shown themselves more than eager to take advantage of any opportunities that presented themselves to expand their empire. At that time Jimmy Carter was president, and the weakness he projected during his time in office made it difficult for the Soviets not to take advantage of the situation.

Indeed it was doubtless Carter’s failures that led to Reagan’s election, and so, from the beginning of Reagan’s presidency-as throughout his career-he would confront the evil of the Soviets and of Communism directly. But in 1987, in the weeks before his famous Brandenburg speech, when conferring with his advisers, Reagan had brought up his desire to say this famous line-“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”-and all of the establishment figures around him had expressed their serious disapproval.

Chief of Staff Howard Baker scowled that it would be “extreme” and “unpresidential,” and General Colin Powell-then Reagan’s deputy national security adviser-had soberly agreed. As far as they were concerned, such a direct and bold challenge to the head of the Soviet Union could only inflame the tensions between East and West.

It’s always challenging to argue with the worldly wisdom of such as Baker, Powell, and Kissinger. But truly great leaders know that sometimes doing the heroic and right thing is a lonely business, and that they will probably never get those around them to understand what they are doing. This is one of the hallmarks of true leadership. As we have said, Bonhoeffer felt quite alone in what he was doing, but he did it anyway, knowing that he had to be concerned only with the audience of One, who was God. And in 1987, Reagan knew that he could not do what the established “diplomatic” voices were demanding he do. Like Bonhoeffer, he knew that history would judge him and that God would judge him for what he did. And like Wilberforce, who thought of the Africans in slave ships, Reagan thought of those in the vast network of the Soviet gulag, many of whom had been cruelly persecuted for their Christian faith by the atheist Communist regime. Was there no one out there in the free world who really believed it was worth at least trying to deliver them from their suffering?

Of course, one cannot help but suspect that establishment figures like Baker and Powell-like so many Republicans today, and so many in the American Church today-were in fact comfortable with the status quo. Often in history, leaders think of something as a “necessary evil” that cannot be vanquished and are only too happy to stand aside and let it continue, as though trying to bring it down is naive and foolish. Most in Wilberforce’s day thought of the slave trade this way. To go against such things was to tilt at windmills. But Reagan-like so many great leaders-was willing to come across as wild and unpredictable in how he led, if that was necessary. He was certainly sickened by the fathomless evil of the Soviet Union and refused simply to see it as inevitable “status quo”. He clearly wanted to do anything he could to bring down what just four years earlier he had infamously called “the Evil Empire,” which was another example of what his critics saw as his impolitic approach.

So Reagan was not about to let those around him dissuade him from saying what he clearly felt must be said in West Berlin that day. The world would be watching. And so that day, he said it, and with steel in his voice delivered the now famous line-“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

And when he said it, something happened. It was as though those words were mroe than words and carried tremendous spiritual power. Because when he spoke them, a crack began to appear in what so many had thought of as an adamantine edifice. It was as though with the single deft and well-aimed blow of those words, the world changed. People suffering in Soviet prisons would hear about it and would tap about it through the walls to each other. Someone out there, far away from them, knew about them and was fighting for them. Someone out there cared enough to boldly speak against the evil that imprisoned them and millions of other fellow sufferers. Someone out there believed in truth and freedom and was not afraid to fight for these ideals. We can hardly imagine how much hope that one line delivered to prisoners around the world.

Although Reagan hardly thought of it as such, what he said was a kind of prophetic declaration. Can we doubt that apparatchiks across the Soviet Union-not to mention demons-trembled when he delivered that line, when they realized that there was someone who had seen through their lies and who was on to them? What he said proclaimed liberty to the captives-literally and figuratively. It had tremendous power, as words sometimes can have. Reagan did what no one had done before, and in time the whole Berlin Wall-and then the so-called “Iron Curtain”-would come down. The vast seven-decades-old Soviet Empire would collapse, never to rise again. What he said paved the way for all that followed, and as we now know, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was toppled-and two years later the Soviet Union itself was dissolved. It is one of the greatest miracles in history, and what Reagan said that day was among the most important things that made it possible.

When we think of what he said that day, we might think of David going up against Goliath as hundreds of Israelite soldiers cowered. David knew that he couldn’t defeat the giant by himself, but he knew that God was with him. And as a result, we have been talking about what he did for three millennia. It is these people and these actions that change the world. All of the diplomatic niceties so strongly advised by the Bakers and the Powells of the world cannot understand it and cannot see that in the “safe” approach of their worldly wisdom, they are in fact aiding and abetting evil. It seems that they only want to keep it at bay indefinitely and never actually engage with it in open warfare, instead simply preferring to stay out of its way. But David and Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and Reagan and others-who are outraged by the evil that they see-are willing to risk everything to engage it, and to fight with all their might and main, whatever the outcome. They know that unless they try to vanquish it, evil will win.

What does this mean to us today? Is there something that to many of us now seems invincible and immovable, as the Iron Curtain and the Soviet empire seemed invincible and immovable? As the slave trade and slavery once did? Is there something that frightens us enough that we believe it ought not to be directly countered, but that rather ought to be pacified so that we might coexist with it? And what is this thing, if it exists in our time? What do so many perhaps wish might go away but many fear never will, so that we must make peace with it? Is it the cultural Marxism that talks about systemic racism, or the transgender madness that says the Bible’s view of human beings and sexuality is completely false, and is actually harmful and must be destroyed?

We know the Soviet Union was the face of atheistic Communism, but what we face today is rather less simple to see. What we face is not a nation state that imprisons its citizens within its walls, but it forwards the ideology of atheist Marxism nonetheless and probably does so even more effectively. Many think it is a precursor of what has been described as the system of anti-Christ-and whether it is or is not, it certainly stands against Christ and what we read in the Bible.

But the only question we need ask is: What would God have us do? If He be for us, who can be against us? Is our faith that kind of faith? We cheer for David, but dare we go up against the Goliath of our time? Or would we rather shrink back into the ranks of the Israelite soldiers as everyone else? Of course David-albeit imperfect and quite human-was a type of Christ. And armed with real faith in the Lord of Hosts, he did what no one else could do, and slayed the giant who had cursed God’s people and God Himself.

Reagan knew that the Soviet Union presented itself-as all bullies and monsters and devils do-as something more powerful than it was. He knew that what its leaders desperately feared was that someone like himself would call their bluff. And he knew that most of the people around him had been perfectly content not to call that bluff, but to be bluffed. He-along with Margaret Thatcher in England and Pope John Paul II-knew that if they three fought hard, and pushed with everything they had, they could forever vanquish the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union. And now we know that they did just that.

But before it happened, they were denounced as unrealistic and as anti-Communist “extremists”. Nearly everyone but the three of them behaved as though the Soviet Union really were like an impenetrable and permanent wall that must be accepted and never be touched. But these three had the idea that it was a false wall. And that if they all with a concerted effort gave it a good shove, it would reveal itself to be a sham-a weak and tottering facade whose main posts were rotten. It would go down. Which was why those in power in the Soviet Union-who really knew it to be weak and on the brink of collapse-had to do everything they could to pretend it was immovable and permanent. But those with eyes to see knew this was a lie and knew this was a lie and knew that they must do what all the worldly wisdom said never to do. By the grace of God, they did it. And the wall came a tumbling down.

So the question comes to us. Will we all together now push that false barrier that stands so tall and so long that we cannot see over it and cannot see the end of it? Will we trust God who tells us that victory will be given into our hands and that we must fight with all we have? Or will we, like the twelve thousand pastors in Germany, hang back and see which way the wind is blowing, and in our inaction guarantee that evil prevails? Will we let the three thousand do all the work, watch them fail, and rejoice that we weren’t foolish enough to join them in their foolhardy crusade?

God is clearly calling us not to do that, not to repeat the unspeakably grievous errors of the Christians of that time. But He cannot and will not force us to do what is right. He only warns us and gives us the chilling example of what happened the last time, and through Bonhoeffer and others exhorts us to do what is right. Will we? Will you?

Heaven looks to you and to me to do the right thing. What part of the tottering wall has God called you to push? Are you to run for office? To homeschool your children? To give millions to some vital cause for freedom and truth and justice? Are you to speak out in a situation where others are being silent? Are you to vote-and even advocate-for a candidate some are denouncing as “un-Christian”, but whom you nonetheless know to be a champion of God’s purposes? Are you to risk your job-or your congregation, or something else? God is looking to see whether you trust Him with it, whatever it is. He is waiting for you to show Him that you know that whatever you have is His gift to you, and that you can trust Him with it.

As we have said to do what God asks always takes a certain amount of wildness. We remember that God is good, but His goodness is not safe and it is not tame. God is not the religious God of the Pharisees. He does not call us to be tame or safe or religious. It’s safer to bury the talent, but God condemns us when we behave in that way. It’s safer to hang back and see which way the wind blows-but God condemns us for hanging back when He has called us to the battle.

Bonhoeffer once told a student that every sermon should have a “shot of heresy” in it. Of course, this didn’t mean that Bonhoeffer was advocating actual heresy, but he was calling attention to something that we see in the life of Jesus, who over and over shows us the unpredictability and wildness in the goodness of God, which challenges our safe religious pieties. When we follow Him in this way, we are certain to be misunderstood by those who cling to their safe pieties and “worldly wisdom.” When they see the kind of behavior that Jesus exhibited-and that David and Bonhoeffer and Wilberforce and Reagan and so many others have exhibited-they will clutch their pearls and lift their skirts and express their horror at it. They have always done this. The Pharisees did it when Jesus said most of what He said. The twelve thousand pastors did it when Bonhoeffer went out on a limb in following God where no one else was willing to follow. And the establishment has done it in American politics and in American churches, and has blanched when someone shows real leadership and a real willingness to fight against evil. We cannot help but assume they have no idea of what Jesus was saying in the Parable of the Talents and are convinced that the wisest path really was to bury the talent and simply to keep one’s head down and stay out of trouble.

But again, the question comes not to them, but to you. Will you be the leader that God has called you to be in this way? Will you follow Him wherever He goes, and be a true disciple by looking to Him alone in what you say and do? If a holy remnant will now do that-and exhort others to join them-we will see such things in Heaven and Earth as were never dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. We will see God’s hand move in our time, for His purposes. We will see God’s will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.


Well, that’s it. I hope that you have learned something valuable from this book and that it has encouraged you to answer what it is that God is calling you to do!

Advertisement

Letter to the American Church – Chapter 15

Chapter 15

“Religionless Christianity”

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” -Galatians 5:1

Paul’s words to the Galatian church should haunt us, because there can be no question that we in the American Church have drifted from the pure and utter freedom that it means to live out our faith fearlessly. Will we repent of this and avoid the sure judgment that comes of our disobedience? Or will we continue to let fear dictate what we do, and continue in our religious bondage to sin and death, and reap the whirlwind?

Bonhoeffer had been calling the German Church to this kind of freedom and faith, but in vain. He knew that few had heard what God was saying through him, and that he had been misunderstood by most-many of whom would nonetheless survive him and see for themselves the rightness of what he had been saying.

But without question the most misunderstood thing in all of Bonhoeffer’s life came after his death, when confused, theologically liberal theologians seized on two words he had written in a private letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. Bonhoeffer never dreamt the world would see the letter, but Bethge was persuaded after his friend’s death to publish his letters, which were filled with profound and important thoughts. The book was titled Letters and Papers from Prison. But in the post-war confusion, a false narrative arose as a result, claiming that Bonhoeffer in his final days had drifted away from the theologically orthodox Christianity so evident in his earlier writings and had slowly evolved toward a kind of humanist position in which the God of the scriptures was no longer at issue-as though the Bonhoeffer in the dank solitude of his prison cells had reconsidered everything and had come out in a different place than the Bonhoeffer of the previous decade. As it happens, this was untrue in every way; indeed, precisely the opposite was true. But many times, a false narrative takes hold, and decades or centuries may pass before it is corrected.

Bonhoeffer was indeed reconsidering everything in the solitude of his prison cells, but the way in which he did so and the results were perfectly opposed to what many confused post-war theologians had so hastily and sloppily concluded. In his letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer wondered whether we needed a “religionless Christianity”; he was not saying we need a religion devoid of Christianity or apart from Christianity, but exactly the opposite. He was saying we need a true and a deep Christianity, one that is not merely “religious,” one that does not lie to God with “fig leaves” of theological statements and creeds, but that understands we are to live out our faith with every atom of our being in every second we have on this earth, and with every breath God gives us to breathe. Anything less than this kind of faith is nothing at all.

Bonhoeffer saw it was the dead religion of German Lutheranism of that time that had failed to stand against the unprecedented evil of the Nazis, just as he had warned in his Reformation Day sermon in 1932. Bonhoeffer saw what had happened, and in his private letter to his best friend, he said as much. He knew more surely than ever that the days of mere church attendance and intellectual assent to various doctrines were the culprits, that they were what had allowed the unprecedented evils of that time to flourish. The dead religion of many churches in Germany had shown itself not only to be flimsy and useless, but to be piously playing the part assigned it by the devil himself. The “Christianity” of the German churches had been dead religion masquerading as Christianity, and in succumbing to it, those churches had become nothing less than handmaidens of evil. Bonhoeffer saw that if evil ever were to come again, it would require nothing less than a true faith, a “religionless Christianity” that would stand with everything against that evil, that would give it no quarter, and that by the grace of the God who had died for us would triumph to His glory.

It is ironic and tragic: that Bonhoeffer in his prophetic way was unable to communicate these things to the German Church before it was too late, and it is further ironic and tragic that when the rubble was settling over the ruins of Europe, his nearly final words on the larger subject were so widely and fundamentally misunderstood. But the question comes to us in the American Church all these years later: Will we heed Bonhoeffer’s cry for a full-throated faith that does not hope, but that knows God has defeated death, and that lives in a way that makes this plain to anyone who cares to see? Will we kick away the traces of our dead religiosity and fear-based pieties and speak truth whenever we have that opportunity, come what may? Will we wipe away the false boundaries between our faith and everything else-whether “politics” or culture-and act as though Truth is a Person who knows no bounds, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and who died that we who are the crowns of God’s creation might at last live in true freedom, with the authority that He gave us when He died and rose from the grave?

We have come to that place in history now, and the Lord looks to us, the American Church. Will we be His people now, as the world looks to us in the midst of madness? Our Bible studies and sermons have all been meaningless if we do not make what we learned come alive in ways that are self-sacrificial and that show we really do know that God has defeated death. To do anything less than this is to represent a lie, and to lie to God in doing so. How else shall we put it? This is the hour for which each of us has been born. If we live fully in that freedom for which Christ has set us free, we will see God’s hand in ways we dare not imagine. We will see miracles small and great, and we will see not only revival, but reformation. We will see the goodness of God make its way into everything we do, because that is God’s will for us and for the world at this time. Many who do not yet know the God we claim to worship will see how we live and will want to know Him, and will come to know Him, and will become a part of what He is doing in our generation. Dare we believe that, or are we already headed to the caves, believing nothing we do can matter, and that judgment is falling and all we can do is save ourselves?

So you who are the Church-for it is not an institution, but a collection of each of us, in direct personal relationship to God-are responsible in this. You. It does not happen apart from you and cannot happen apart from you. God looks to you now, and to you alone. He has put history and the future in your hands. In the end, you cannot look to your pastors or leaders, but must look to God Himself. He will lead you in this, and you will either let Him lead you, or you will not succeed. He created your for a relationship with Himself, and although He wishes to use your pastors and leaders in helping you along this journey, He cannot do so unless you yourself take the ultimate responsibility in this. It is with you that He wants a deep and a personal relationship. He created you for that, and your life can never be what it is meant to be unless you know that and step into it without fear.

Are you willing? Are you ready? God has chosen each of us to live now, at this very moment in history, for His eternal purposes. We are not here now by some mistake. God has ordained that we be born when we were born and that we live now, to do the works now that He has prepared for us in advance, to His glory. It is an unimaginable privilege. This is the hour of the American Chruch. We are charged with pointing our fellow Americans and the whole world to the God who has somehow allowed us the inexpressibly great privilege of representing Him in these dark days. Will we do so? Will you?

But sometimes, in order to do something, we need to see an example of it. As my friend B.J. Weber has often asked, “What would that look like?” And so, for a final example of what this might look like, we turn to something that happened in 1987.

 

Letter to the American Church – Chapter 14

Chapter 14

Justifying Ourselves

To attempt to justify ourselves before God is to wish to be God ourselves, which never ends well. And whenever we do this we fall into the trap of behaving a “religious” excuse. We pretend this is the safe path, just as the servant who has buried the talent pretends he is taking the safe path, but is really condemning his master as being hard. His lie is a religious lie.

But in all these cases we imagine we know that God is a hard judge, and we deal with Him as such. We cover ourselves with fig leaves and claim to believe certain creeds, or we say that we buried the talent so we wouldn’t lose it. But God sees our deeper motivation is satanic. It is to supplant Him and become Him ourselves. We attempt to manipulate Him with our actions so that it is we who are in charge and not God Himself. This is the path of dead religion, and religious scrupulosity is at its heart. The Pharisees would tithe their mint and other herbs, but their hearts were far from God.

But when we treat God as the hard judge in the parable, it is obvious we are living in fear of Him. We do not love Him but secretly hate Him. We believe that if we make the slightest mistake He will condemn us, so we do as little as possible (bury the talent) and certainly avoid any kind of sin or action we think wrong. But by living in this way we cease to live freely. We are in bondage.

In Bonhoeffer’s time, many in the Church had taken this path. They avoided trouble. For one thing they cooperated with the authorities, because Romans 13 seemed to make that unavoidable. It was not their job to argue with those authorities or resist them-and certainly not to work against them. They must be good citizens and let things happen as they happened.

But Bonhoeffer in his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question” made it clear it is very much the Church’s obligation to counter the state if the state’s actions are evil. God was calling His people to something far above merely avoiding sins and keeping their noses clean.

For most in the German Church, God was the “hard master” of the parable whom they feared and disliked. So their actions were calculated to give Him back His talent and be done with it. But Bonhoeffer clearly saw this was not merely wrong, but evil. It was not merely that the churchgoers of his day did not love God, but actually hated him. The difference between these views may be summed up by saying, “Being a Christian is not about avoiding sin, but about passionately and courageously serving God.”

So why do some keep silent at certain times or avoid certain subjects? Is it because they are afraid of making a mistake for which God will judge them? Many in the Church today have what Bonhoeffer might have called “theologically restrained objections” to coming across as political, or even merely to voting for a candidate whose demeanor doesn’t tick all the boxes they think necessary. For them, it is not about doing what they think is the right thing for all concerned-whether in how they vote or in other things-but is more about their own theological purity. In other words, they are not thinking about others, but about themselves. But they are not thinking about others, but about themselves. But they are doing it for “religious” or “pietistic” reasons.

Let’s take the example of a Gestapo officer coming to the door of a man hiding a Jew in his basement. Perhaps the homeowner is a good citizen who “doesn’t want any trouble,” but who, when the desperate Jew came to him, was not able to turn him away. He may have been afraid that someone would see him talking to the Jew, and perhaps it was safer to let him hide in his basement for a while than risk being seen talking to him. O course the Jew would not stay there, but for the moment, it was the best option.

But now comes the moment of truth. A Gestapo officer comes up the man’s walk and knocks on his door. The man answers and the Gestapo agent puts the question to him unadorned: “Are you hiding a Jew in your basement?” But wait, perhaps the Gestapo agent is craftier than that. He doesn’t wish to implicate the homeowner in this, and perhaps nudge him to lie. On the contrary, he wishes to show the homeowner that if he plays along with the government-whom he, the Gestapo agent, represents-then it will go well. After all, the homeowner is not himself a Jew. So perhaps the Gestapo agent asks: “Hs a Jew imposed himself upon you, and is hiding in your basement?” If that is the case, the homeowner is as much a victim as anyone. The Gestapo is there to help.

So the man has to make a decision. He goes to church and knows that lying is a sin-or so he has always understood. If he says there is no Jew in his basement, he will be guilty of lying; not only will he be in trouble with the Gestapo and perhaps be sent to a concentration camp, but he will be guilty before God, too. He must never lie! What would God make of it if he did? So to be justified before God-to be sinless in this matter-he tells the Gestapo agent what he knows as a fact. “Yes, indeed,” he says, relieve. “There is a Jew in our basement.”

In his book “Ethics”, Bonhoeffer gives the example of a young girl in school, whom the teacehr harshly asks, “Is your father a drunkard?” Bonhoeffer explains that in this case the girl does not owe the teacher any answer. She does not owe the teacher the “truth” of the matter because the plain facts o fit and the actual truth of it are two different things. She is under no obligation to dishonor her parents and give this prying teacher the dirty piece of information he wishes to ferret from her in the name of “truth.” So if she does not answer or even if she says no, Bonhoeffer says she is justified. Her “lie” is not the sort of lie even God would condemn. Far from it.

The homeowner in whose basement the Jew is hiding is in a similar situation. The Gestapo agent wishes to harm-or just as likely murder-the Jew. So the agent does not represent God, and any answer to his question must reflect the reality at hand. But if the homeowner views God as a “hard master,” his answer will not serve the truth. It will serve neither justice nor God’s purposes; it will serve the devil’s purposes. So if the homeowner tries to justify himself by “not lying” in answering this question, he delivers the Jew to his torturers, but feels it was the only option he had. After all, he could not lie, could he?

But again, God takes another view. God is not a moralistic fuss-budget or nitpicking God who is lying in wait. When we tell a lie for a larger good, He does not swoop in and say “Aha!” and condemn us. If we know who God truly is, we know that He is not against us, but for us. He is not Satan the accuser, looking for what sins He can find to condemn us. He is the gracious and loving God who sent His own Son to die so that we could be forgiven and saved. And when He sees us act in a way that is not calculated to protect ourselves but that is rather magnanimous and self-sacrificing for the sake of another, He rejoices-because in this He sees that we know Him to be not the hard master, but our loving Father in Heaven.

So for example, if we vote for someone whom others may criticize as being guilty of this or that, the real question is, did we vote for that candidate because we genuinely believed they would enact policies to help people, despite what some might think? Or did we vote or not vote because we were mostly concerned about what others would think of us? Were we thinking of ourselves, or were we thinking of others? These are the questions we must answer honestly.

Let me further illustrate my point.

The Story of Rahab

In the Book of Joshua we have the story of the two spies whom Joshua sends to Jericho, which God has commanded him to conquer. They go to the home of a prostitute named Rahab, who hides them. It is similar to the fictional story of the Gestapo agent we have just told. Rahab not only hides the Israelite spies, but when the king of Jericho sends his men to her house, she lies, saying that they have left-which they certainly have not.

We might think she was only doing this to save herself and her family; knowing that the Israelites were blessed by God and would certainly overtake Jericho. But even in this, we mistake the larger meaning. The author makes it quite plain that because she knew the God of the Israelites was truly God-and was with the Israelites-her actions are considered the actions of a woman of faith. That she is a prostitute who lies only underscores the point for us. If we think of God as a hard master and moralistic judge mostly concerned with whether we “sin” or not, we have missed the point and do not know God at all. A hard master and moralistic judge could never count a prostitute as worthy of his praise and blessing. That God is not God, but the devil. He is legalistically scrupulous on such issues, and certainly could not reward this woman for openly lying.

But as we say, the God of the Bible is not quite who we think He is. Of course He is against prostitution and against lying, but He is far more against those who are moralists and legalists because He knows they do not know Him. They do not know Him as a loving God, and therefore they do not love Him. In fact, they hate Him. So because of Rahab’s faith in the God of Israel, she is lauded both in James’s letter and in Hebrews 11, the famous “Hall of Faith.”

But it goes much farther than that.

For context, we should know that the spies who went to Jericho might well have chosen Rahab’s home to visit precisely because she was a prostitute, knowing this would be a place their presence would be easier to keep secret. But by standing boldly with the people of Israel-with the people of God-Rahab somehow stood with God Himself. So when Jericho was destroyed, not only was she not killed, but-according to the Scriptures-she actually lived with the Israelites for the reminder of her days. We must know they would not have allowed her to continue in her profession. So the only conclusion we can draw is that her act of faith-for such is called twice in the New Testament-enabled her to find complete forgiveness and redemption, so much so that God enabled her to be in the very genealogy of the Messiah of the world. It is an astonishing story and a perfect picture of the boundless mercy of the God of the Bible.

Can we imagine that we find Rahab’s name in the genealogy of Jesus? The God of grace and love is a God of such redemption as we can hardly fathom. He reaches out in love to anyone, and especially to those who know they are not respectable, who are not fooled into thinking they are somehow justified by their own behavior. So if our own view of God is too contracted and constipated to see that He reaches out to those whom we might loathe and think beneath, us, we only condemn ourselves.

The picture we have now is of a God who is not the pinched and moralistic religious deity some have painted him to be, but rather a God who has a wildness and unpredictability to Him. We may remember thatin C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia, we learn that Aslan-the Christ figure of those extraordinary books-is not tame, but wild. And he is good. But the goodness of Godis a wild and unpredictable goodness, infinitely far from the pious and “religious” tameness so many of us have mistaken for the real thing.

After all, He is himself a Person and not a set of rules or an algorithm. The Jesus who confounded the elite religious leaders of His day-but who made the simple crowds cheer-is that God. To those who worshiped that “religious” God of their own making, who was not God at all what Jesus said was infuriating and what He did enraging, which is why they knew they must kill Him. And in allowing them to do this, He infuriated and enraged them once and for all eternity, for in this way He defeated Death itself. It is this glorious Jesus-wild and unpredictable-who reveals Himself to us now and calls us to follow Him. Dare we do anything less? Shall we not trust Him? Will we trust Him? We were created to do that very thing, so to do anything less is to fearfully writhe away from the magnificent freedom He gives us and to find ourselves forever in chains.

 

Letter to the American Church – Chapter 13

Chapter 13

The Parable of the Talents

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'” -Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus’s Parable of the Talents is a powerful illustration of what God thinks of our “safe” and “religious” reasons for not doing the right thing, and succinctly expresses the dilemma Bonhoeffer faced, and that we face today.

The question Jesus asks of us in this parable is: Who do we say God is?” Is He someone we love and trust and know to be a God of grace toward us, or is He rather a “hard master” who can be counted on to punish us if we make a mistake or fail in some way? Jesus makes it plain that those servants who risked the talents they were given were rewarded for doing what they did, and that the servant who “played it safe” by burying the talent was roundly condemned.

Here too we see there is no safe middle path. Jesus abundantly praises the servants who risked what they were given, and unequivocally condemns the servant who has played it safe. But why? For one thing, Jesus is saying that to play it safe is not to play it safe at all. There is no safe option and if you pretend there is, you are deceived and a liar. Either you deem God to be a grace-shedding God or you condemn Him as a hard taskmaster. You must own up to your choice. You cannot have it both ways.

Jesus is telling us that God is a loving God whom we can trust, even if we make mistakes. The question is whether we know and trust Him to be loving, and trust Him so much that we are not frightened in doing something like risking the money He has given us. If we really love Him back, we will do whatever we can to take what He has give us and make it grow. It’s obvious that neither of the servants who did this were doing something crazy. They weren’t gambling foolishly, for which God would condemn them, but were treating their master’s money as though it were their own. If it really had been their own money, they knew that they could make it grow by “trading with it” and promptly did so.

Jesus tells us in the Golden Rule that we are to “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” And this is an example of that. To truly love someone is to “do unto them as we would have them do unto us.” These servants loved their master enough that they were willing to do with his money what they would have done with their own. Their master’s true nature enabled them to do this. He freed them to take risks, knowing this is what he would have wanted them to do. He trusted them to do that, and they trusted him to trust them.

Of course we notice that Jesus does not tell the servant who played it safe that he might have done better. On the contrary, he unequivocally condemns him. He seems to be saying that that servant is not under grace, because by treating his master as someone who is not full of grace but is a harsh master, he has put himself out of the reach of that master’s grace.

In some ways it is a chilling parable. Jesus seems to be saying, “If you treat me and my Father as though we are ‘hard masters,’ we will actually be hard masters. The choice is yours. I have made you in my image with full freedom, and when you act as though I am a hard master you actually make me into that hard master. You have that power. You chose the God whom you chose, and that God is your God. Have you chosen the true God, or a counterfeit? If you have chosen the counterfeit, behold, you have chosen Satan. You have chosen freely and will live with your choice.” What could be more chilling?

So there is no middle road, no safe road. Jesus is saying that you either know Him and love Him and trust Him-because you know that He loves you and trusts you-or you do not. Jesus was always discerning the hearts of those to whom he spoke, and it is precisely what He does in these parables. He sifts our hearts and divines our intents in a way that reveals Him to be no less than God, which can be frightening. It is certainly amazing. He is God. He knows our hearts. We cannot fool Him.

In Jesus’s parables, He fources us to see ourselves and forces us to declare ourselves. Whose side are we on? We have only the two choices. There is no middle ground, and if we try to take that middle ground, we stand condemned. In this parable of the talents, the choice is clear. Either we rejoice in God and love Him and trust Him or we do the very opposite and side with His enemies, judging him as “hard” and behaving in a way calculated not to entrust ourselves to Him. We do not bless Him by our behavior, but protect ourselves from Him. In other words, if we do not see Him to be our loving Father, we adjudge him to be someone more like the devil, or indeed, actually to be the devil. If we see him as “religious” and “legalistic” and moralistic, the power He has given us by making us in His image actually enables us to make Him into that other thing. As we judge Him, we judge ourselves.

It is an astonishing power that He gives us. Our freedom is an impossibly great gift, and if we are not careful, we end up using it in such a way that we condemn ourselves as harshly as the devil condemns us. We either stand in the freedom wherewith Christ has set us free, or we stand with Satan-which is the Hebrew word for “Accuser”-condemning and accusing God, and thereby condemning and accusing ourselves.

Jesus tells us these things to warn us, and has given us this parable in that vein. We are so free that if we do not see our freedom and live it out, we make ourselves slaves. Not just slaves to sin, but slaves to the one who wishes to drag us into the eternal slavery of Hell.

And there is no middle way. We sink or we swim. We either step out of the boat and miraculously walk on the water to Jesus, or we drown. As it happens, we cannot remain in the boat. And those who do remain in the boat will drown as surely as the one who has stepped out of the boat and does not walk to Jesus upon the water.