Consider the Lilies

“Consider the lilies,” says Jesus.

Is it a demand, like, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice?’” Or is it an invitation like that extended to Matthew who, as a taxman, was sitting in his booth collecting the blood-money from his people to be handed over to the occupying Roman force?

Jesus is walking along, says the Scripture, and he sees Matthew in his little booth, like those photo booths you’d see in parking lots of grocery stores, not even as big as a restroom at a Phillips 66 service station, and he just says, “Follow me,” and “he got up and followed him,” says the Gospel according to Matthew (no relation).

This invitation comes to Matthew as something of a command, for how else to explain leaving a job in which the money is made so easily (the size of the booth notwithstanding), just a matter of slipping an extra 10 percent on the standard tax so the Empire gets its money, you get your slice (in addition to your paltry salary), and everyone is happy—well, everyone with the exception of your people who await with dread and resentment the next shakedown at your command. If you didn’t mind being a pariah and knowing that every face turned toward you was either coldly indifferent or seething, then the job had its advantages. A pariah you might be, but a rich pariah you were, and that almost made up for being alone.

The lilies, then.

“They toil not, neither do they spin.”

***

Our work, what we do for most of the life we have, how do we see it? Is it a command or an invitation? Were we sitting in the little booths of our adolescence, bored and avaricious, waiting for a summons that only we would know when we heard it? Did we think the summons would be dispersed in general to everyone like us around us or would it single us out—we alone—lifted up out of the ordinary on the strength of a talent long buried like a bone in the garden, a talent perhaps, that we had ourselves buried for shame for even imagining it was our talent?

Or did we back into the spot, the one available at the time, that would become our place for so long that the weeds would grow up around the tires and the seasons wear down the frame as it settled?

Our self-image, like a Polaroid snapshot, emerges gradually from black to gray to color as we phase through our work life.

We imagine ourselves to be vaulting over all obstacles, achieving that which others have despaired of reaching, or bending down kindly to raise up those behind us who are slipping on the rungs of achievement. Suddenly there is no one ahead of us, the field is clear, we have been called to lead! We turn with an encouraging shout, only to find that the others, leaders and followers, have calmly dropped back. They regard us from a distance with pitying looks. We are alone.

We do not recognize the person we are until we see ourselves at work in the vocation we believe ourselves to be called to. Then we wonder if the gap between perception and vision can be bridged. We give ourselves to the work, glancing to the side at colleagues and up ahead at those who beckon—they make it look so effortless. We feel like imposters. It is in those moments that a fundamental truth is revealed to us: we have entered a conversation that precedes us by thousands of years and will continue after we cease to speak. It is possible that by listening we may learn and by speaking we may remember what we have learned. In speaking our own minds we may find that we have also spoken what others have thought but could not say. With Emerson we may be like the one who is “happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.”

***

Matthew followed Jesus, seemingly without hesitation. Was it a relief to shuck off the taxman’s cloak? He gave up routine, the comforting groove of repetition, for day-to-day dislocation and the tingle of the unknown. In a moment he jackknifed himself from solitude into a band of brothers, discarding ambition like a fraying belt and making no plans beyond the setting of the sun. What his former life had been was the mention of some nudges and terse comments at first, but then that arc of his life evaporated and was gone. Filled with a strange elation, he fell into the rhythm of the days, feeling his stride lengthen and his horizons widen. What was he now? The first time someone asked, “Where is your master?” he almost laughed before he realized that he had become a disciple, a follower.

“It is precisely the most solitary people who have the greatest share of commonality,” said Rilke. “The one who could perceive the whole melody would be most solitary and most in the community at once.”

Strangely, what Jesus offered was a hallowedness that made every action seem both familiar and sacral. There was an inwardness about him that lingered even when he smiled. Matthew found it compelling, a sense that even as Jesus was among them, sharing meals and stories and the hard ground under the stars, he was yet just beyond their reach.

His intensity was infectious, if exhausting. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” he cried out. He acted like a man whose life was converging with a future that was accelerating toward him at the speed of light.

The next day they were moving through a springtime field awash with flowers, heading north following the line of hills to the west. “Consider the lilies,” he said, trailing a hand through the blossoms as they walked. “They neither toil nor spin.” They didn’t need to toil to justify their short time on this earth. They simply were: they were their own reason for existing. As brief as their lives were, he said, God took care of them. Wouldn’t He do the same and more for you? God knows what you need.

That night he said to them, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Don’t worry about tomorrow.” He looked round at them, quizzical faces turned up in the firelight. “Tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And now Matthew is considering the lilies, even as he turns over all that Jesus has said. He thinks about those for whom life is one hard-scrabble decision after another, those who could never imagine that the story provides an excuse for blithe idleness. For them, subsistence is necessity and tomorrow is never guaranteed. For them, faith is all the guarantee they will get—and all they will need.

He decides it is an invitation: “Consider the lilies!”

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Image Credit: Josephine Amalie Paysen / Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8684
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Such a beautiful and timely study.

“Don’t worry about tomorrow,” is a command so difficult for us.

We need this constant reminder to “consider the lilies.”

I think I will plant some as a reminder.

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“We do not recognize the person we are until we see ourselves at work in the vocation we believe ourselves to be called to.” Consider the Lilies --9 April 2018, by Barry Casey.
Extraordinary wisdom that I plan on sharing with others, giving Barry the credit he deserves for his practical and timely advice. I plan on reading most of the article to a group of community young people I work with Waking up this morning to reading this article was like eating a delicious and nutritious breakfast for the soul. Thank you!

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Beautiful Barry. The mystery to me was what kind of itinerant preacher could impact Matthew so remarkably? Socrates offered ethical and philosophical genius; others offer the promise of power or wealth. Jesus offered his vision which was not perceivable then. What kind of intrinsic “authority” could summon such devotion?

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So many profound thoughts in this article…it will take a while for me to sort through all of them.

Thank-you.

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Thank you, Sam! I hope it opens the imagination for your group.

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Thanks, Jim. That mystery always gets to me and is part of what I am exploring here. I’m trying to get inside the minds of the disciples to understand how and why they responded the way it was written they did.

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That is because their culture is so far removed from our own.

Being a disciple, especially of one as famous and charismatic as Jesus Christ, was an occupation option There were many who were eager to be Jesus’ disciple. Even women supported him in his ministry. John, the Baptist, had disciples. Prominent Pharisees had disciples. Concomitant with that was the socio-political climate at the time and the promising message of Jesus that “the kingdom of heaven was at hand.”

It is difficult to find an exact equivalent in our time. The closest I could think of would be a singing celebrity willing to accommodate some fans on a concert tour around the country. Many would jump at the opportunity. There are celebrity fans like that.

Perhaps the best example, though a subversive one, would be Adolf Hitler and the magnetism of Nazism in an economically challenged Germany in the decade leading up to World War II.

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Interesting the author has a resume that includes more than thirty years of teaching. Surely he did more than consider lilies. The point to me is following Jesus is not a transactional act. Adventism is built upon transactional living. Lilies don’t pay tithe, consider that!

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I was responding to his attempt to, in his own words, “get inside the minds of the disciples to understand how and why they responded the way it was written they did.

He concluded by saying, “[Matthew] decides it is an invitation: ‘Consider the lilies!’” And so I searched about in my mind for a modern day equivalent impetus for such alacrity in following where the invitation was simply to “Consider the lilies!

I admire the way @bearcee writes. And I enjoy reading his articles. They are like the lilies of the field, without practical purpose but a joy to behold and contemplate. For philosophers, the search for answers is an end in itself. We do not eat to fill our stomachs, but to savor the taste.

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Yes, that is exactly the point—and the mystery. The very act of following this person was a radical act of faith. By contrast, most of what we do during our working lives is prudent. That doesn’t mean it is without faith, but the faith of the disciples in this is astonishing to me.

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Thanks, James, for your kind words. I think you get what I’m trying to do in these essays. This one was a workout; it came line by line as I tried to think and feel my way along. And if they give people an opening for a new way of thinking and responding to the Spirit, then they have accomplished something!

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You know Barry, when I read essays written by Adventists, even though the subject matter differs, the spiritual perspective is always the same - that mankind is the master of his fate and has absolute control and authority over his own will. This anthropocentric view is deeply embedded and cannot be questioned because it forms the foundation of the great controversy doctrine. Yet, Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Have I not chosen you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’ (John 6:70). (Yes, Jesus chose them all including Judas and even called Judas ‘friend’ as he betrayed Him. As Peter revealed in Acts 2:23, it was all part of ‘the predetermined plan’ of God).

As one commentator put it, ‘You did not come to Jesus. God gave Jesus to you.’
Our condition is hopeless and helpless before the Holy Spirit works on our hearts. Indeed we are hostile to God and are incapable of comprehending spiritual things (See Rom 8:7, 9:16; 1Cor 2:14; Titus 3:5). Our resulting faith is also of God (Heb 12:2).

You are right in saying how God chooses to work is a mystery to us. It’s a difficult thing to try to get your head around. God’s ways are not our ways. As I see it, even though Matthew chose to follow Jesus, in reality it was not his decision.

Dave, I don’t consider myself to be in the extreme spiritual perspective that you describe. Nor do I subscribe to the predestination view that you seem to hold. God’s mysterious nature (as we perceive it) doesn’t preclude our constant searching for God and finding God. If we are truly “incapable of comprehending spiritual things” then it isn’t clear to me how God could get through to us. If God gave us the freedom to choose God (which is what God seems to want above all else from us), then the last thing God would do would be to coerce us or to pull a fait accompli on us. This is where our active faith comes into play, faith that God ignites but that we exercise. And God is also there when our faith flags. My constant prayer is, “I believe! Help my unbelief.”

Hi Barry. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
Perhaps I can clarify a couple of things.

As you are aware there are two major theological constructs in Christianity today - Calvinism (folks believing in the predestination of our fate by God) and Arminianism (those who say God gave us free will to choose). Both have Scriptural backing but I now believe that each falls short in describing the nature of God and His plan of salvation for us. Paul said that ‘All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching…’ so there must be truth to be gained in understanding the passages that support both views.

The point I was trying to make in my first comment was that we can only comprehend spiritual things after God’s Spirit has moved upon us and given us some sort of ability to do so. Paul says in Romans 3:11 quoting Psalm 14, ‘There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.’ I think Arminians long ago conceded this point. They call this first move of God ‘prevenient grace’ (prevent in old English meant to precede).


Of course, the Arminian then argues that God does this for everyone and we have a choice in how we respond to this grace while the Calvinist says no, He does it only for ‘the elect’ and if it’s the real thing it’s irresistible i.e., if God has so chosen you, your salvation is assured.

I don’t know if you have studied the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism in any depth but when I first became an Adventist I worked with several Calvinists and so was exposed to their system of belief. They have many passages supporting their view (many more than support Arminianism according to some knowledgeable people). It was very distressing to me because for years I couldn’t reconcile what I had been taught in Adventism about free will with their understanding.
Several years ago when I set out to study the Bible on my own I came across some writings that supplied me with a different way of looking at things and enabled me to see that certain elements of both are true and others are false.
So, in answer to your thought that I seem to hold to the predestination view I would say I can now allow for both. The short book (really a long letter) linked below shed some important light for me on God’s plan for humanity and how He is going about carrying it out. If you are interested it will challenge you to re-examine many things you have been taught and perhaps help you to a new understanding:
http://www.alampthatburns.net/jukes/restitution/restitutionofall-contents.htm

BTW, I also often pray to God to help my unbelief.

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Thank you, Dave, for the explanation and for the references you supply. I appreciate the care you took in explaining. I will check out these sources, but my reaction, to be honest, is to recoil in horror from predestination! The instance of both views being present in Scripture, however, suggests to me that there were real differences between the Bible authors—and that’s okay. If you can allow for both views, then I can too, although I have always been solidly in the free will position. Thanks again for your insights.

Barry, I’m glad that you are willing to read the linked article by Andrew Jukes. One of the reasons I want you to do so is because he explains the higher purpose God has set out for ‘the elect’.
Once you realize their coming role in God’s greater plan for humanity I think you will have much less of a problem with predestination.
Happy Sabbath!

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