Get your Chinese philosophy knock-offs!

Hebrews 13:1-8 (CEB)

Our acts of service and sacrifice

Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place. Marriage must be honoured in every respect, with no cheating on the relationship, because God will judge the sexually immoral person and the person who commits adultery. Your way of life should be free from the love of money, and you should be content with what you have. After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you. This is why we can confidently say,
The Lord is my helper,
    and I won’t be afraid.
What can people do to me?

Remember your leaders who spoke God’s word to you. Imitate their faith as you consider the way their lives turned out. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!
And we’re back in Hebrews – but not, this time, a load of impenetrable theological scribble, but some seriously challenging and thought-provoking ideas.

I’m going to have to pick one, but I can’t resist pointing out another in passing.
“Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them,
and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place.”

A couple of throwaway lines about prayer and how prayer should feel.  It almost sounds as if the author of Hebrews is saying that you cannot have prayers for those who are in prison or being tortured within a calm, quiet and comfortable space – the kind of meditative, reflective, peaceful (often candle-lit) worship services where prayers for those being tortured and those who are in prison are spoken softly with the backing of a lovely flautist and the voices of  a Taize chant…
Maybe I overstate it – I might have a weakness for exaggerating for effect – but the point remains.  It’s a challenging thought – you cannot really pray for these people unless it feels like you are living their pain with them.  hmmmm…

but that’s not the only thing my mind will dwell on today…

Your way of life should be free from the love of money, 
and you should be content with what you have. 
After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you.

Be content with what you have…

That might sound familiar.  It might sound familiar because you are rooted and grounded in a daily reflection on the words of Hebrews.  More likely, it might sound familiar because you have seen it pop up in your facebook feed on one of those countless internet quote-memes:

Of course, Lau-Tzu predates Hebrews (and Jesus) by several hundred years.  He was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism, and as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions.  He wrote some absolutely fantastic things – and seems to have anticipated the internet in that he wrote loads of short, pithy, deep and meaningful snippets that are easily tweeted or pasted onto a nice picture and shared on facebook.  (Maybe this is where the author of Hebrews went wrong!)

Here are some of the things Lau Tzu said (lots of stuff is now attributed to him, but I am fairly confident that these are things that he actually DID say!)

“When goodness is lost, it is replaced by morality.”

“Without Darkness, there can be no Light.”

“When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad.”

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”

“A journey of a thousand miles starts under one’s feet.”

“The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

I particularly like the first one – it puts into words my uneasiness with so much of what we often see on the news about the right-wing church in North America and elsewhere – where Christianity becomes a very narrow morality-movement, where “morality” is defined in a very particular way…

You could put lots of what Lau-Tzu said in the mouth of Jesus or in the Bible and it would not be out of place.  (Incidentally, the same is true of the Qu’ran.)

Does that mean that Jesus or the author of Hebrews was copying Lau Tzu?  It’s possible – and I don’t think it would matter if they were.  What is MORE LIKELY, I think is that if something is true it is going to be noticed and described all over the world and in every generation.  Jesus and Lau Tzu were people who thought deeply and recognised truth – truth that is fundamental and universal – and were then able to communicate it well to others.

So – whoever first said it (and I genuinely don’t care who did!):
 Your way of life should be free from the love of money, 
and you should be content with what you have. 
After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you.
 Something to ponder…

We often think that “be content with what you have” is directed towards people who have little, as if people who have lots don’t need to hear this.  But I am not so sure.  Could it be that this applies to everyone?  Those who have lots (but who are also free from the love of money) – could it be that they are also being told to be content with what they have?

It sounds wrong to suggest it, doesn’t it, but stick with me.  Could it be that those who have lots (which – let’s face it is just about everyone – if not everyone – reading this blog (relatively speaking).  affording the phone you are holding or the tablet or the PC (ok – or Mac!) you are looking at – and being able to live in the house you are living with ALREADY puts you in the haves rather than the have-nots.)

Could it be that with the CRUCIAL precursor “if you are free from the love of money”, then we are being told to be content – in the sense that we are not to be constantly wracked with guilt and remorse and shame that we happen to be comfortable?  If we are free from the love of money then we are not going to be grasping and acquisitive and we are going to be generous and sharing – could it be that when we are those things we can give ourselves a break from beating ourselves up?

I realise this is subtle and potentially dangerous.  I am not attempting to recreate the long-ago ditched and now missing verse of All things Bright and Beautiful:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

I am not suggesting everyone stay in their “divinely ordered” station I am merely thinking out loud about what it might mean for a comfortably-off person to be free from the love of money and content with what s/he has…

Of course it means living simply and generously and not wastefully, but I don’t think it means that we should be saddled and burdened with guilt and remorse until we have achieved the state of abject poverty and only then can we be deeply joyful!

I suspect my thinking on this will continue for some time…  If being comfortably off is a spiritually  undesirable place to be – then surely it would be a bad thing to raise up those in poverty to the state of being comfortably off…  but to argue such would mean that you had argued yourself into a massive cul-de-sack and your leg would probably fall off.  (or summat!)

Meanwhile – here’s Lao-Tzu getting the internet right, and the author of Hebrews getting the internet badly wrong…

Lau-Tzu gets the internet right! (spot the similar thing Jesus said!)


 Hebrews gets the internet badly wrong! (spot the similar thing Lau-Tzu didn’t say!)

(notice Lau-Tzu’s whimsical font and Hebrews’ serious font!)

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