Note to self: If you haven't actually read the Bible straight through--and that means without skipping any of the Minor Prophets or any of the genealogies in Numbers--don't assume you're very familiar with it.
For example, Matthew 20:1-16--the parable of the workers in the vineyard.
Somehow, even though I had definitely heard this parable several times before, probably at least once in the form of a sermon, and almost definitely made a Sunday School arts and craft activity on it, I totally forgot about it. Hearing it brought up a few days ago gave me a shock. Wait, what? There's this parable in the Bible?
Basically, an employer hired three batches of workers throughout the day but finally paid them the same amount. HE distributed payment to the last ones first, a very significant move, since it led the ones who had been hired earlier on to expect they would receive even more than those.
To their surprise, they received the same amount--the standard amount for a day's wages.
Of course, there were complaints. Not from those who had come in last, for sure, but from those who had been hired first.
And the Master's response was a poignant reminder that grace, although it is what we need so badly, is also what we often fail to understand.
I find this scene almost comical because it has that unmistakable touch of real life. I can almost see this scene happening--in Sunday School, in class, at work, even at home. The sense of the entitlement has petty origins but should not be underestimated as a force.
Like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, this sense of entitlement often manifests itself as our understanding of justice. Isn't it unfair? But the two are not really the same and one way we can see this is the fact that entitlement is often characterized by being relative. As youth in this first world society, in the twenty-first century, our sense of entitlement is very much alive and kicking. We have so many expectations for our lives, be it the amount of pocket money we get, how strict our parents are with us, how often we watch movies and when do we go past the PG boundary, whether we get to attend that concert, and how many of the latest hit songs we ought to be humming under our breath. And so much of this is relative.
As someone who had a relatively isolated and sheltered childhood, (I hate reinforcing stereotypes about homeschoolers but there are some basis for truth) I often experienced getting 'the stare' from peers as I got older, when I accidentally revealed another Martian-worthy fact about myself. I wasn't allowed to watch TV? (well, we just didn't do it on a daily basis. It was almost always a special family event when we did.) I had no idea who Taylor Swift was until last year? I had never been to school before? (this one never fails to drop jaws)
These revelations used to be amusing until I realized they were often genuinely freaked out. I felt alarmed when I realized that they actually saw me as seriously deprived, if not downright abused, something I had no idea I was and had no desire to start feeling insecure about. To me, these were just characteristics of my childhood, part of what made me who I was, part of what enabled me to develop in the way I had. To see how, in someone else's eyes, it was something I had been denied, to see them experience a vicarious sense of entitlement, was a strange sensation. And hey, I discovered Taylor Swift in my own good time, without any obvious effects due to the delay--for better or for worse.
The interesting thing is that the complaints of the first batch of workers stemmed not from the reason that the Master had given them less than they deserved--they got exactly what they expected--but because someone else got more. If they hadn't seen him passing a denarius to the others each would had definitely gone home without any complaints, whistling, with his denarius stowed comfortably in his pocket. The value of one denarius suddenly became relative.
They were unable to rejoice with the other workers, even though it cost them nothing to rejoice; if the Master had given those workers less than one denarius, it certainly didn't mean he would have given the previous ones any of that margin.
Entitlement blinded those workers from seeing the grace that the Master showed to the other workers hired later--and it is strangely touching to me how that little touch in verse 6-7 evokes so much mercy and empathy in the Master, who saw and understood the anxiety those workers must have felt, waiting helplessly for someone to hire them so they could earn the money they needed to live. I thought of the direct correlation between work and survival, which was the poignant impression I got from North and South.
Likewise, I was forced to wonder, what is our equivalent today? Am I one of those grumbling workers throwing dirty looks at those hired later? I suppose sometimes Christians are tempted to compare the amount of blessing--whether success, help, response, ability--that God grants in their ministry, in correlation to the amount of time or effort they've put in. We've been serving faithfully drafting the prayer letter and schedules for church, yet no one gets inspired and encouraged by our labours the way everyone did over the mission trip So-and-So organized, for example. Or perhaps I put in all that effort to organize a meetup and only two people turned up; whereas this last minute idea got overwhelming response. I've been praying for my loved one's salvation for years. Why should someone else's prayers be answered so soon? It's been months since I started struggling to do my devotions every day, and yet I haven't experienced the same sort of effortless refreshment and joy that she shares so enthusiastically about after getting up at six once. Or even--I came to faith years earlier than he did, and yet God seems to be blessing him with so much spiritual growth. Why did so many challenges and distractions come my way when I first believed, and yet this guy seems to be living in a constant state of hallelujahs?
Entitlement is destructive because it prevents us from being able to rejoice with others. It prevents us from being able to appreciate the grace already shown to us, it prevents us from understanding grace itself--the very essence of which is unworthiness, the opposite of entitlement.
I know I've said this before somewhere on this blog, but King David is probably my favourite Bible character.
I mean, have you read the Psalms? He makes you forget how big the time gap between you is.
And the story of his life? The ultimate action-packed rags-to-riches story.
This guy was the kind of lead male material movies and books endlessly revolve around. Warrior. King. Shepherd. Musician. Poet. And good looks to top it off. He had it all. Think the tenderness of Tom Hiddleston's smile combined with the machoism of Hugh Jackman's musculature. Intelligence. Charm. Humility. And the list goes on. No wonder "all Israel and Judah loved him."
So it's worth taking a look at the few glimpses the Bible gives us of this incredible, yes, actually glamorous leader and man of God, before he became what he was. When he was just that boy next door--albeit a good looking one.
I was listening to a reading of 1 Samuel 16 recently and verses 6-11 reminded me that the illustrious King David was actually the youngest to seven older brothers. All of whom, it appears, were strikingly handsome and impressive. Or at least Samuel felt so.
"So it was, when they came, that he looked at Eliab and said, 'Surely the Lord's appointed is before Him!' But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as a man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." So Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And the Lord said, 'Neither has the Lord chosen this one.' Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, 'Neither has the Lord chosen this one.' Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, 'The Lord has not chosen these.' And Samuel said to Jesse, 'Are all the young men here?' Then he said, 'There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.' "
Seven older brothers!
Now, I've never had an older brother, but I've observed friends who do. And even if they have good relationships with their siblings, somehow a fair amount of bullying and competitiveness--good-natured or otherwise--seems to characterize what it is to have older brothers, especially a few older brothers. At least initially, the youngest one seems to exist in the shadow of the older siblings who boss them around, bully them, and lead the way. I don't want to diss older brothers, and I'm perfectly sure they can be lovely--in fact I grew up lamenting I didn't have one for that same conviction; that, ahem, they would be nicer than an older sister. But just to add a bit more colour to our portrait let's skip a step forward and take a look at the next chapter, at the brief glimpse we get at a candid moment between David and his brothers. Before anyone starts complaining that I've been unjust to older brothers, let's just focus on the older brothers in this specific context--which is all that concerns the scope of this post.
"Now Eliab his oldest brother heard when he spoke to the men; and Eliab's anger was aroused against David, and he said, 'Why did you come down here? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your pride and the insolence of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.'
And David said, 'What have I done now? Is there not a cause?'
(1 Samuel 17:28-29)
I can totally imagine this, albeit with an updated vocabulary, being reproduced among 21st century sibling quarrels.
"What you doing here, twerp? Don't think you can slack just because Dad's not watching. You ought to be cleaning toilets at home. Still got the guts to sneak out here after us, hoping to join in. Who do you think you are? Go home, baby, it's your bed time."
And David: "Can you chill?"
I think it's a pretty significant indication of the dynamics between the brothers. So there's a good chance that the glamorous King David grew up being bossed within an inch of his life by seven older brothers who--if they all took after Eliab--were not only tall and handsome and impressive, but also domineering and insecure and full of themselves.
What a way to learn humility.
Not the most glamorous way to prepare to be a king, the leading warrior of the national army--
--but definitely effective.
Learning patience, humility, and self-sacrificial love is never harder--and more real--than it gets within the family. Because there's no specific end in sight. It's all about the tiny things, the microscopic, split second decisions that won't win you applause for keeping your temper or smiling though you're tired.
There is a quote by C.S. Lewis which has become mainstream, but hopefully not cliche, because it really is insightful: Hardships prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny. I can't help but think that though David's boyhood might not exactly count as hardship, it was that kind of small, thorn-in-the-flesh kind of situation--not life-threatening enough to be glamorous or reflect well on you; just normal and petty enough to be drearily tiresome.
God was preparing him, teaching him lessons in humility and patience which were the foundation for his enormous prospects, through all those years when he probably thought 'ah well, just my luck.'
It's easy to glamorize David's hero qualities, his trust and reliance on God, when he was leading an army and ruling a country. We tend to forget they started with stray bears after his sheep, and bossy older brothers.
There is so much imagery in the Bible, something I took for granted growing up reading it. I just got used to all the metaphors. My sheep hear My voice. You are the light of the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit.
But one image that still felt strange to me was how Jesus tells us to eat Him. I used to squirm during communion, feeling embarrassed for first time visitors being creeped out. Of all words and images, why food?
On the other hand, food is such an important part of our lives.
Hunger is an inevitable experience of being alive--more accurately, of being human. In our first world culture we have three meals a day. And whether breakfast means a simple bowl of cereal to you or a full hot meal complete with rice, soup, side dishes, and pickles (Korean style! what a great way to start the day) that means a considerable portion of our day is spent in consuming food and preparing food. If we look at the percentage of time we spend on food, juxtaposed with the greatest things the human race has achieved, it somehow has a deflating effect. Beethoven could have written some of the world's most beautiful symphonies but he still had to stop for lunch.
And Jesus Himself felt hunger pangs! Was hangry enough for turning bread into stones to be a legitimate temptation.
That was part and parcel of humbling Himself to take on the form of man. When I see mynahs scuttering along the road side, anxiously searching for scraps, it makes me realize how their lives are simply all about finding the next meal. I feel sorry for them until I realize that from one perspective, so are ours. It is a somewhat dehumanizing feeling to realize how completely dependent we are on food. Especially if you see all our grand ideals on the potential of humanity and the purpose of life as depending on something as prosaic as a bowl of rice or a pack of biscuits or half a cold boiled potato.
Having said all that on how hunger can be seen as a weakness, I think I needn't go to all that effort to convince you that despite all said above, food nevertheless continues to be one of the greatest, most tangible blessings we can enjoy from God, every single day; one of the most colourful and cheering parts of our everyday lives, one of the simplest and yet most satisfying things we could possibly do for ourselves or others. I just saw a photo on Instagram, where a struggling college student posted about how her boyfriend had showed up with groceries to support her. And really, who wouldn't be touched by that? I know that when someone buys me food I generally feel even more humbled and thankful than if they had bought me something else. Every mouthful I take becomes a reminder of their kindness and my sense of being in debt to them. I remember to this day the dear friend (rather, I'd prefer to say "aunty," Singaporean style) who bought me my first Starbucks when I was in my early teens, and the sensation of gazing at her over that magnificent mound of whipped cream with a sort of rapturous gratefulness. (In case this sounds weird to you--for someone who grew up on an allowance of two dollars a week, and who stopped getting pocket money once I started working odd jobs, Starbucks at six dollars a cup is a level of decadence somewhere in the clouds.)
Food is good. It may not reflect us in the most glamorous light, but because of its sheer goodness we embrace it wholeheartedly.
I think of one particular bus ride, travelling back home one night from teaching. It was cold and raining, of course. I had about a dollar and forty cents on me (I think I had just bought my books then; all hail the annual season for debt!) and I was hungry. Absolutely faint, I decided, as my nose picked out with wretched satisfaction the traces of McDonalds' lingering around a student's backpack, Four Fingers chicken in the woolly blazer of an office lady, and something that smelt perishingly like fried hokkien mee in the white styrofoam packets an old lady was carrying. The bus stopped briefly in front of a hawker center where, through the blur of rain-misted glass and people on the streets trying to outstep the drizzle, I saw the warm glow of a heavenly paradise where all sorts of food was arrayed and displayed, inviting, demanding, clamouring to be eaten.
There is a reason why I still reread Frances Hodgeson Burnett's A Little Princess. Even as a child I loved that book for its depictions of food and hunger, so satisfying and relatable to read about. I still can't forget how that book made a meat pie and freshly baked buns become so important, so unforgettable.
And I finally understand why the Bible uses the imagery of food so often to describe our relationship with God.
Jesus said, take, eat. This is My body.
To eat is to acknowledge our weakness, our need for food.
In the same way, eating the Lord's Supper is to acknowledge our weakness--our sin.
And yet, the connotations of food, of a meal, are anything but depressing. We associate it with comfort, with happiness, with companionship, with enjoyment. We find so much pleasure in food that we embrace our need for it joyfully, are all the better able to appreciate it.
God offers us the fulfilment to our deepest needs and most wordless desires; to the loudest reminders of our weaknesses.
And He does this, so delightfully and wonderfully, that we can embrace our neediness and weakness, joyfully.
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live...
We were studying John Donne's sonnets in class. I scrolled wildly down my phone, speed reading for my life; I plume myself on being a pretty fast reader, but there's only so much reading you can do on the way to class in the bus--especially if you're prone to motion sickness. One play is the most I can manage before looking so green around the gills the man next to me glances nervously down at his nice white shirt.
Meanwhile, a voice droned on in the background about Donne's colourful life and corresponding poetic career. Brilliant erotic love poetry, much of it tongue-in-cheek, which reflected his playboy phase; succeeded by his conversion and transition to brilliant spiritual poetry, besides the sermons he wrote as a pastor. You had to admit that was interesting. If it had been the 21st century you could be sure it would be a feast for the tabloids; PLAYBOY TO PREACHER or something alliterative like that.
But just for now, I was in a still moment of my own. When time stops. Which movies clumsily try to capture by blurring out the background and sound, and casting golden light on the center; but everyone who has experienced it know it actually feels more like being flung into the sky.
Because that's where I was. I reread it, hastily, regretting how quickly I had skimmed past it, though it had reached out and caught at my heart with a thousand tiny hands as I hurried by. Something in me gasped a little; somewhere, where a vague feeling roiled without any words to make it conscious, I knew that this poem had homed.
How many times had I struggled with this feeling, that there was some exquisite conflict deeper than I could understand, that had to do with the very fiber of being human and sinful; of having a soul which longed for eternity; of having both, warring and embracing at once, till I wept with confusion and hardly knew what I wanted, how I could want such different things at the same time.
This is sanctification, that dull heavy word in theology that represents in the life of a Christian the bleeding, trembling, pulsing experience of dying to sin and living to righteousness. So set on pushing forward, so full of life, its heart-throbs sharpened by pain like the process of giving birth.
This is the paradox, the wonder, the irony of how two such oppositional things could possibly be reconciled; how the flesh could hold both sin and Spirit, how we who were made for God could desire Him even when we least deserved Him, even when we thrust ourselves further from Him.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
(Yes, in case you think I'm still somehow in the clouds, I eventually hit earth with a thump through sheer possessiveness over this poem. I wanted to treasure it away from the sacrilege of detached critical analysis and the bloodless examination of its poetic techniques. Somewhere in those lines a piece of me now was and to have it dissected with the further sacrilege of bored yawns and pragmatic powerpoint slides was like watching part of me being eaten by cannibals who didn't even appreciate the taste. The very ridiculousness of my feelings soon brought me back to reality. I even managed to write prosaic bullet points on Donne's usage of imagery without feeling like a murderer. And lo, there you have the beautiful bewilderment of opposites once more in my almost simultaneous experience of transcendence and laughably petty absurdity!)
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are