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.
Right now there’s some really important conversation going on, and I am distressed that it is not being done well in many corners. There are three concerns: the spread of the virus, the destruction of the economy, and the deterioration of civil liberties. They are all huge, and how we navigate the current situation is going to be enormous for human well-being in the future.
We must work together and follow proper procedures to defeat this virus. It is only with the cooperation and sacrifices of all of us that this can be dealt with. We remember that our actions impact many other people we cannot see.
Poverty kills. We cannot keep food coming without an economy. We cannot keep our healthcare system going without an economy. When people bring up the economy, some will accused them of prioritizing money over human lives and being willing to kill people for their greed. Wait a minute here. Think of how we usually work. Can there be any doubt that if we made all cars so they couldn’t go faster than 25 miles per hour that would save lives? Think of how many terrible accidents would be avoided. It would inconvenience us and slowly reduce productivity, but it would save lives. Why haven’t people made the same case? Life does have some risk, and absolute security does not exist on this planet. We can have the discussion of how we balance the risks and the harms of the decisions involved. We don’t have to rule the discussion off limits.
If we are going to destroy someone’s life’s work, hope and dreams, and reduce them to poverty, they are going to want to ask if the particular rules that do it are necessary for our safety, or if they were just put together arbitrarily. When people think that rules are made that are inconsistent to the point of being capricious, that concern needs to be addressed. When someone says, “You are just being inconvenienced” they are demonstrating a lack of awareness and sensitivity. Some people are being inconvenienced. Some people’s lives are being destroyed.
I’m not a historian, but as I understand it, totalitarian governments often start during a crisis, and, of course take extraordinary steps to deal with it (so far so good). But then, there continue to be more and more authoritarian decisions that seem less and less necessary to deal with the crisis, but if you question them, you are immediately attacked for being unconcerned about the crisis and the well-being of the nation. It is the nature of human beings that people in power tend to think they should have more power. Our country was founded on limited government with checks and balances to keep this in check, and many countries that did not do this fell into totalitarianism. This was dramatized in George Orwell’s book Animal Farm. If it ever becomes out of bounds to challenge government practices, we are in dangerous territory.
That said, I cannot overemphasize the importance of being responsible when challenging. When people who are protesting details of the lockdown leave their cars and gather close together closely without masks, they are making their opponents’ case for them. When someone says, “If you are afraid you can stay inside, but don’t make everyone else do it.” They are not taking into account that they are affecting more than themselves and risking more than themselves. They are risking other people they come into contact with. We think of the people who work in grocery stores who can’t control who they come into contact with. We think of the health care workers who have been working long hours and who have not been seeing their families for fear of infecting them. These are unprecedented times, and strong action is called for, so it would be good to be careful about assuming the worst too easily about our elected officials.
How we deal with this time will have deep and lasting effects on our future. The conversations we have are essential to that. If we want others to take our concerns seriously, it would help to take their concerns seriously. If we want them to give our motives the benefit of the doubt, it would help to give their motives the benefit of the doubt. May charity rule our hearts.