Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Getting It Done

King Joash noticed God’s temple in Jerusalem was in disrepair.

At the time Joash reigned over Judah, Solomon’s temple had only been standing for a little over 150 years. So this wasn’t a signal to bring in the wrecking ball and start from scratch; the temple was carefully, durably and very expensively built. It didn’t need wholesale reconstruction. But it had definitely seen better days.

Something needed to be done, and it was the king who identified the problem and set about solving it.

The Obvious Solution

So Joash did the most obvious thing he could think of: he called together the priests and Levites and charged them with the responsibility of seeing to the necessary repairs. They lived in the temple precincts. They worked there. Thus it seemed to Joash that the priests and Levites had the proximity and motivation to accomplish what he had in mind. He proposed to fund the work out of “the money of the holy things that is brought into the house of the Lord, the money for which each man is assessed — the money from the assessment of persons — and the money that a man’s heart prompts him to bring into the house of the Lord.” So he gave the religious professionals their instructions, and he went away.

Some time passed. Nothing happened. We don’t know exactly why. Nothing suggests the priests and Levites pushed back against the king’s edict in any visible way. Nobody squawked about his idea being unreasonable or unfair. Nobody said, “Your idea isn’t a good one” or “Your idea won’t work.” They just didn’t do anything. The money that came in from the assessment of persons and the money from voluntary gifts continued to flow where it usually flowed, and no repairs were made.

The Less Obvious Solution

Eventually Joash noticed he wasn’t being obeyed, and he called out his old mentor Jehoiada the priest and asked why nothing was happening. The priests agreed to change their ways, and it was decided to fund the repairs in a more obvious way, making a direct appeal to the people for the upkeep of God’s house. So Jehoiada created the first recorded “collection box” in Bible history. He drilled a hole in the top of a wooden chest and sat it to the right of the altar, where everyone could see it. His officials and the king’s men would come periodically, bag and count the donations, and use them to pay the masons, stonecutters and other repairmen to do their jobs.

The work got done. A happy ending, more or less.

“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,” as the apostle Paul puts it. A historical narrative like this one is useful to modern Christian readers on several levels. One of them is quite practical: by looking at the history of the people of God carefully, we can note which of their various methods of building up the testimony of Jehovah in the world worked, and which didn’t. Hopefully that helps us to avoid similar errors.

Drawing Parallels

What might we take away from this little historical episode? I’m glad you asked:
  1. Agreement and action are two different operations.  That temple repairs were a major item on Judah’s “to do” list was evident to all. Nobody told King Joash, “Everything’s fine, don’t sweat it.” It’s possible for a congregation to all agree together that something needs to be done without anyone in particular making a move to solve the problem. That can be the product of humility, or laziness, or lack of encouragement, or lack of specific direction, or all kinds of other things. But if you want to get anyone moving, something more than identifying the problem needs to be done.
  2. Solutions to problems need to be realistic.  We don’t know where the money collected from assessments and gifts was being directed at the time Joash told the priests to redirect it into repairing the house of God, but it was definitely accumulating and going somewhere. It wasn’t that people weren’t bringing it. And yet Joash’s first idea didn’t work. Maybe that money was legitimately needed for other things. Maybe a bloated bureaucracy was gobbling it up, as often happens, so that there wasn’t as much available for expenses as Joash assumed. Either way, it was eventually realized that the existing funding mechanisms would not support even a very important new initiative. Something new needed to happen. Make your own applications here ...
  3. If you want something done, point your finger at a person.  I have often heard elders identify problems for the congregation from the platform in a very general way, just as Joash first identified the problem with the temple: “We could use more volunteers. The building isn’t getting cleaned regularly or properly. The Sunday School doesn’t have enough teachers.” All that is well and good, but don’t expect a huge response. General appeals hold no particular urgency for individuals. We all figure somebody else will do it. Until Joash called out a specific subset of the priests and held them accountable, nobody budged. One way or another, you need to call somebody out. How did the apostles handle the problem of overlooked widows? “Pick out from among you seven men ...”
  4. If you want something done, supervise it.  Jehoiada bored the hole in the chest and put it by the altar, but the king’s secretary helped bag and count the money. When Joash was only in the business of identifying problems, they didn’t get solved. Watching other people fix things rarely does. But once Joash got personnel from the palace directly involved, things began to move forward. It wasn’t that priests can’t count and secretaries can, though that may be true. It was that the regular presence of the king’s secretary was an ongoing reminder of the king’s commitment to the project, and an incentive for the priests to see through what they had started.
  5. If you want something done, ask the right people to do the right jobs.  The first attempt failed partly because Joash assigned the job to the wrong people. “Let the priests take, each from his donor, and let them repair the house wherever any need of repairs is discovered,” he said. You see the problem, right? There’s no mention of workmen here, just work. Priests are not necessarily either good administrators or good repairmen. They probably had no idea where to even start. Finally, the oversight of the actual work was given to real workmen instead. That’s when things began to move. In the church, elders do not necessarily make good deacons. That’s why the New Testament has qualifications for both. If you want something spiritual to happen, ask an elder. If you want something practical, don’t. Elders are busy enough already.
  6. If at first you don’t succeed ...  The best thing about this story is that Joash never lost interest, as so often happens when modern initiatives kind of peter out. He didn’t put something into action, then get busy and forget all about it. He must’ve had some kind of periodic assessment scheduled, or maybe the project just meant a great deal to him. Either way, he checked back to ensure his plan was working, only to find it wasn’t. Happily, that didn’t stop him. He didn’t say, “Oh well, I guess we’re just living in Laodicea and we can’t expect much out of today’s sorry crop of listless evangelical slackers,” not least because he wasn’t a Christian and Laodicea didn’t even exist at that point. But you get the point. If one strategy doesn’t work, try another. The temple, whether physical or spiritual, matters enough not to let things slide.

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