Jesus teaching: be phronimos

 

Phronimos

There is a teaching of Jesus that does not get talked about much, but I think it’s important (full disclosure: I think everything Jesus taught is important).  I’m going to break one of the rules they taught me in theology and mention a Greek word: phronimos (wise, shrew, prudent, clever, cunning, crafty).

I first encountered the word in the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16:1-8.  The parable is about a steward who is going to be fired, so he crafts for himself a retirement plan by calling in those in debt to his master and reducing the amount of their debts. This way they owed him a favor, and when he got canned, they would take him into their homes as a guest. “And the master commended that steward for being phronimos (v. 8).” Then Jesus says, “For the children of this world are more phronimos in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public teaching begins with the Sermon on the Mount and ends with three parables about the last judgment.  The Sermon on the Mount ends with the admonition that a man who is phronimos will build a house on rock rather than sand (Matt 7:24-27). The first of the parables about the judgement tell us that a bridesmaid who is phronimos will bring extra oil for her oil lamp (although nowadays she would bring extra batteries for her smart phone) (Matt 25:4).

Jesus also has some sayings that don’t use the word, but seem to be teaching something similar: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? (See Luke 14:25-33).”

What really got my attention was “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (phronimos) as serpents and simple as doves (Matt 10:16).”  What makes that even more interesting (at least to me) is that if you look at the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was popular at Jesus’ time (the Septuagint), in Genesis chapter we meet the serpent in the garden and learn that “the serpent was the most cunning (phronimos) of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made (Genesis 3:1).” I think Matthew’s readers would have immediately made the connection.

Why am I going through all this?  I’m glad you asked.  There is a lot of energy being expended in public discourse today that I don’t think is moving us forward. I want to move forward. Consider, for an internal combustion engine to move us forward, there have to be explosions (rapid burn of fuel).  But that isn’t enough. The explosions have to be contained, first so that they are not destructive, and second so that energy can be channeled in a useful direction. There will always be some energy dissipated because of friction between the parts, but engineers who design the engines try to keep that to a minimum so that as much of the energy as possible may be channeled toward getting the work done.

It’s one thing to want something to happen (that is motivation). It’s another to be willing to do something about it. It is yet another thing for that something to be effective in moving us toward where we want to go.  I suggest that being phronimos is about giving our efforts the best chance of moving forward.

More on this later.

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