Several m0nths ago, I purchased a Kindle edition of the type of book I don’t normally read. The book was entitled SHREWD: DARING TO LIVE THE STARTLING COMMAND OF JESUS by Rick Lawrence. On the surface, it seemed like the sort of book that probably sells well on the shelves of the typical “semi”-Christian bookstore, yet another tome dedicated to the Christian life from the classic “me first…but don’t forget that Christ died for you”-school of Christian living espoused in so many mega churches. Christian living where the actual Gospel is assumed and little more than an afterthought. At least, you might conclude that if you read only the subtitle.
It’s the title itself, however, which really caught my eye. “Shrewd.” Over the years, I have struggled mightily with the fact that Jesus does teach the value of a certain righteous shrewdness. Consider the following “tough quotes” of Jesus from the English Standard Version:
Luke 16 8 For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
Matt. 10 16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
These two quotes of Jesus serve as an interesting contrast. In one, the term “shrewd” is the direct translation of the Greek term phronimos. In the second, it’s the same Greek term translated with the different English word, “wise.”
(Other translations do translate the phrase “shrewd as serpents”).
The change in English translation is, to me, illustrative of my greater problem. I don’t want to believe that Jesus endorsed being “shrewd.” It sounds like an endorsement of dishonesty.
To one of Lawrence’s main points in the book. Ask a modern American Christian if the term “shrewd” is a good term and he/she will likely say No. Ask a modern American business person if the term shrews is a good term and they will likely say Yes. Yet Jesus uses the term…with a qualified endorsement (!).
But is the term “shrewd” really to be equated with dishonesty? Why do modern Christians defer on the idea of being “Christian” and “shrewd” at the same time? Why do we view the term as “not being nice?”
The substitute English term used for phronimos –“wise”–normally would come from the family of the Greek term sophia. While sophia is the term for all real Biblical wisdom, it would seem that the term phronimos would consider the term “shrewd” not as dishonesty, but as simple worldly wisdom, a smart understanding of how people operate. Perhaps being “shrewd” is being firmly “in the world?”
If that is so, the challenge is how does one remain not “of the world?” It looks to me like Jesus is something of a pattern to follow as you read the Gospels in answering this question. Of course, the challenge here is not to let certain presuppositions about Jesus obscure the real Jesus of the Gospels. The “doe-eyed Jesus” of a lot of 19th century Christian artwork is not always the Jesus who emerges from the pages of Scripture. Let me float a question that you can run that keeps Jesus real while giving us eyes to see a Biblical shrewdness at work.
When you are reading a Gospel text where Jesus interacts with someone or some group, ask yourself: Is Jesus being nice to this person or group? If not, how does He deal with them?
Let me make a couple of observations from several years of preaching through and studying the Synoptic Gospels. I am no expert, but I’ve worked this soil as diligently as I can. To me, Jesus is rarely nice in His interactions with people in the Gospels. This does not mean that He is belligerent or nasty or anything else that we would deem “not nice.” Jesus runs the full range of human emotions, which is to say that Jesus is, if not always nice, always real with people.
To that end, He comes off as quite shrewd in His dealings with people. In fact, it’s startling to see how often He proves to be so. He may not use the term “shrewd” much, but the concept is in nearly every interaction He has with another person. He understands people, the way they think, and their motivations. In interacting with them, He always deals with them where they are. A fairly well-known illustration of this in the Gospels is the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Approached by an “expert in the Law” who asks Jesus a law-based question about eternal life in order to test Him, Jesus doesn’t engage the man in a debate. He simply counters with another question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” Already the test of Jesus is becoming a test of the expert in the Law, a turning of the tables.
But as the narrative moves into the parable, in answer to the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?,” Jesus spins a yarn which we all know and love but do not appreciate at the level of the text. The rich irony of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that an expert in the Law is being told a story in which the hero is from Samaria, a good-for-nothing place to a Judean. AND Jesus even included a contrast by having a priest and a Levite (Temple worker) walk on by without helping the man who had fallen into the hands of the robbers. Then, Jesus caps it off with a question asking which man was a neighbor to the man who had fallen into the hands of robbers? This forced a truthful, but probably regrettable, answer from the law expert. Then Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do likewise. Cut off at the knees, the lawyer must have walked away wondering whatever happened to the test he intended to put to Jesus.
Nice? I don’t think the lawyer would have thought so. Real? Absolutely. Truthful? Even more so. Had Jesus been nice, He might have told the lawyer what he wanted to hear. Of course, that would have probably kept Jesus from telling him what he needed to hear. Jesus dealt with the man in a very real, truthful, and shrewd way; all of which serves the man better than any other approach Jesus could have taken. The man got what He needed. If he wasn’t rejoicing over the lesson, it says less about Jesus and more about the lawyer himself.
By contrast, the Jesus of the next verses in Luke 10 seems quite different, maybe even nice. But even here there is an undercurrent of the Jesus who is more real, more truthful, and more shrewd than most of us realize. At the home of Mary and Martha, Jesus makes Himself comfortable and starts teaching. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, soaking in the privilege of hearing His words. Martha is busy trying to get the house in order, a house she shares with Mary. Martha reproves Jesus by encouraging Him to tell Mary to quit sitting around and get busy. Jesus’ response, however, reveals a Jesus who understands Martha and deals with her where she is. Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41b-42).
Jesus’ repetition of Martha’s name reveals a more gentle handling of matters than we observe in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He knows that in Mary and Martha He has two people who are not out to test Him. Both are good and faithful women. Nevertheless, Jesus’ point to Martha, although spoken gently, still has the edge of suggesting that it was not Mary who needed to get up and start working, but Martha who needed to sit down and start listening. Jesus does not chide Martha for laboring, but praises Mary’s listening as a higher value by contrast to Martha and many modern Christians who emphasize their works to the same detriment of suggesting they do not need to continue to hear God’s Word. The principle Jesus espouses is the opposite of Martha’s principle. Martha’s principle is good, common, worldly sense. “Work first, play later.” Jesus understands the worldly wisdom, but counters it with the wisdom that comes down from above. “Rest in Jesus first, work later.”
Again I ask, Nice? It’s not hard at all to imagine a Martha who is a little dispirited by Jesus’ comment. After all, she was already frustrated with Mary. Jesus’ failure to agree with what truly must have been common sense to Martha was unlikely to elicit an agreeable response from her. (Let’s not forget that it was Martha who was the faithful one at her brother Lazarus’ tomb in John 11. It’s just that here she is clearly in the wrong).
Real? Jesus totally understands where Martha is coming from, even if He gently admonishes her and disagrees. Truthful? Absolutely. Martha’s need for the Word is more important than her service around the house.
True of all Christians, no? But would we ever let Jesus correct our false notions like He corrected Martha’s? Or would we let another shrewd Christian do the same for us?
So what conclusions can we draw for modern day Christians from all this? Stay tuned…