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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Castle and the Cave

It is often said that the three enemies of the human soul are the world, the flesh and the devil. The first and last members of this triad are instantly understood; the middle one ... well, not always.

In the New Testament, the word “flesh” (Gk: sarx) possesses a range of related meanings from merely natural (“the two will become one flesh”) to expressly wicked (“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”).

This being the case, when we come across references to “the flesh” we may find it helpful to ask ourselves in which sense it is being used.

The Apostle Weighs In

I’m thinking particularly here about this passage in Galatians 6:
“Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
I’ve reflected on these verses before, so I won’t beat this idea to death, but increasingly I see them as primarily applicable to the Christian use of resources. After all, the section begins with “share all good things” and concludes with “So then … let us do good.” The entire paragraph is a thought progression, not merely a bunch of unrelated good stuff Christians ought to do, and the paramount thought is that Christians should use the good things we have at our disposal in ways that will last for eternity.

Logical, no?

New Testament Proverbs

But that’s not always how these verses get used. Verse 7, for instance, has found regular employment as a kind of New Testament proverb: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” So I’ve heard messages on reaping what you sow, reaping more than you sow, and reaping later than you sow, as I think almost everyone has. Father and mothers often tell misbehaving children, “You’ll reap what you sow,” and this is very often precisely what happens in life: liars get lied to, cheaters get ripped off, disobedient people get disobeyed and violent men meet violent deaths — the sort of thing we often refer to as karma or cosmic payback.

Now, I don’t think that’s an egregious misuse of the verse. Pulling a line with a specific original meaning out of its context to serve as a more general truism has a venerable history. But if we miss the author’s original intent, we’ve missed something significant, and it seems to me Paul is telling us there are two ways we can use the assets we have been given in this life, whether they be monetary or otherwise: we can “sow to the flesh” or “sow to the Spirit”.

Living Under the Second Law

Here I think “the flesh” simply denotes that which is subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (in brief, that without intervention of some sort, things tend to fall apart and that entropy is a cosmic rule of thumb). When Paul talks about sowing “to the flesh”, he is not concerned with the danger of Christians expending our resources on things that are wicked to the core — things that damage our testimony and displease our God by their very nature — but rather on perfectly common things that give us a temporary glow of satisfaction only to become subject to entropy and perish.

Basically, Paul’s channeling the Sermon on the Mount for people who weren’t there to hear it:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

Biting the Dust in Short Order

Back to Galatians: Like “flesh”, the word “corruption” also has a range of meanings. Sometimes it denotes moral decay and spiritual wickedness. But here, when Paul says, “the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption,” I don’t think he means anything particularly evil. He just means that when we invest our lives, energies and resources in things that are merely natural, we can expect them to do what natural things always do: bite the dust in short order. They will perish and corrupt.

My landlord just paid a few bucks to have a nice new set of stairs built for the front deck. It’s not a traditional castle, but it’s HER castle, if you get my drift. The stairs looked wonderful for a few weeks, but foot traffic is already scuffing the paint. In a year they’ll need another coat, and eventually to be fully rebuilt. And one day the whole house will need to be torn down, despite its apparent solidity. This is how it goes. Investments in houses, cottages, cars, furniture, physical maintenance or development (perhaps a gym membership or a trip to the spa), and so on are all subject to corruption. These efforts are often necessary but ultimately futile.

The Futility of Asceticism

And no, the answer is not to go and live in a cave. Paul instructs the Galatians to “share all good things”, not to give them all away in one final blowout and become a hermit. (The Lord did tell one young man to “sell what you possess and give to the poor”, but that was more about exposing the impossibility of being declared righteous through keeping laws than about laying down a universal principle for his followers to live by.)

Giving all your stuff away is hard, but you only have to do it once. The Christian’s calling is harder: we are to find ways to extend the goodness of God to others, and to do this repeatedly throughout our entire lives, in the face of relentless temptation to self-indulgence and waste.

That’s tougher, I think.

The Cave Is Out

So the cave is out for the believer. Thus in Colossians, Paul deals with the futility of asceticism and what he calls “severity to the body”. Such self-flagellating excesses are every bit as useless as blowing everything we have on ourselves. Paul can speak of “things that all perish as they are used”, referring to the legalistic, reactionary regulations people impose on themselves in an effort to make their lives meaningful. These have an “appearance of wisdom” but are ultimately of no value.

No answer there. Sorry.

What is? Well, sowing “to the Spirit”, I suppose. Engaging in the sorts of acts characteristic of our new nature. Doing good to all men. Sharing all good things. Laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Living to make the best use of everything you’ve been given for you, your family, your church, your community and the world.

Somewhere right in between the cave and the castle.

So where do you live?

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