If there is one thing that modern American Christianity is good at, it would most certainly be the cliché. Whether in the sheer banality of most of our aesthetic choices (how many crosses and doves can we possibly use!), the four worn-out chords that carry the majority of our music (easy fix- just add more delay!), or the mind-numbing series of self-help bromides that plague sermon after sermon, we have achieved a high level of expertise in the prosaic.
This is probably nowhere more evident than in the platitudes we speak and which we, misfortune of misfortune, inflict upon others in our teaching. There are a number of cringe-inducing examples which far too often grace a church’s marquee in the same manner as a 7-Eleven advertising Slurpees, but one of the most egregious is one of the most common:
We can change the world!
The notion behind this is innocent and noble enough: we believe the gospel can transform one’s life, and thus by extension the world. And to some extent there is a great deal of truth to this. But every platitude bears some resemblance to the truth, which is why they issue forth so freely from the great maw of our intellectual barrenness.
Having heard this more times than I can stomach, I have started to wonder exactly what is so wrong with it, and why it tends to make me want to dispatch of my previous meal. After all, shouldn’t we want to change the world? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Didn’t Jesus tell us to go out and change the world?
Duh, Great Commission?
Well, let’s hold on a minute. In the text of the Great Commission itself there seems to be little about ‘changing the world.’ Rather, the charge is this:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20 NIV)
Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples is for them to make disciples and to baptize and to teach; he mentions nothing of them changing the world. While their mission has a fairly large scope (Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth), the actual task is more limited; they are not to change the world, but rather they are to be witnesses. Nothing more, nothing less. This should be fairly clear in that the commissioning is entirely related to something of which they have no part: Jesus holds all power and authority, and thus the commissioning revolves far more around him than it does around them.
In fact, as we look in Jesus’ previous statement, he has to correct their more grandiose notions before giving them their task. They had just asked him if he was going to at this time restore the kingdom of Israel; the idea being that they are going to have some important part to play in this new kingdom. As we saw earlier in the Gospels, the disciples were constantly quarreling over who was going to be the greatest, They wanted to be important, they wanted to be remembered. The Sons of Zebedee even made this type of power grab a family affair:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
“What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:20-23 NIV)
Jesus is trying to correct their understanding of the world. They understand the world as the world does, in a zero-sum game capacity. As in the miracle of the multiplying of the fish and loaves, they did not yet understand that from little God can make something great. They still continue to perceive power and authority as residing in the worldly importance attached to its duty; hence, they not only want in on it but they want to be at the forefront.
This mentality has even gotten them in trouble before. We are all sometimes prone to give ourselves rashly to something we feel is bigger than ourselves; hence, all of the disciples gave lip service to being willing to suffer for Jesus when he predicted his death. They were even willing to lay aside their occupations and follow him. But it was not all out of love of Jesus- Peter, for example, pledged that even if everyone else cowered away he would not; he would gladly die for Jesus. The bitter irony for him was that his pride was not only rebuffed when he tried to forestall Jesus’ death, but when it came down to it he found himself denying the man he had pledged his life to.
What Peter needed was not for the chance to change the world. He tried to do this and failed miserably. Rather, what he needed, and what he ultimately got, was for his world to be changed.
Builders are not the Building
In the modern world we face the same desires to be known and to be important and to be remembered. Even though we often say that we trust God and want what he wants for us, the truth is that we are too often entangled in the desires of the world, seeing things exactly as it does. We live in a society that is gripped by an intrinsic nihilism, and even those with a pious faith feel its secret tendrils wrapped around the heart.
Like the builders at Babel, we want to make a name for ourselves, and we will wrap it in any cloak we must to justify it, even if the Gospel makes a fitting wrapper. And to be sure, no one is a single motivation, and our efforts to change the world no doubt have their share of altruistic origins. But altruism is not Jesus’ charge, nor is transforming the world something we can do. Rather, as St. Paul says:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5-9 ESV)
We are God’s building, but not the ones who are doing the building. Just as the kingdom of God is not the work of our hands, so the transformation of the world is something that God accomplishes, not us. Like the disciples, we must learn the humility of being the least, of doing the small things, of having our renown be from God alone. We must learn to be content with a problem that is bigger than our ability to fix and a world that will always be screwed up. In this sense, the task of transforming our own world, of being converted from thinking like the world is the more difficult task, for the human heart is not easily changed.
Which nicely transitions to eunuchs.
In Isaiah there is an apropos section that strikes to the heart of our modern dilemma. We read this:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. (Isaiah 56:30-5 NIV)
Eunuchs, of course, were men who had been castrated for some reason, usually to be placed into some type of government service. This was frequently done before puberty so that they would not undergo the hormonal changes that accompany puberty and thus would be more disposed to be entrusted with certain tasks. Harems, for example, were often under the care of eunuchs for obvious reasons. However, eunuchs were also seen as reliable since they had fewer family ties and could not establish any sort of private subterfuge through succession as other men could. And since they would not have a family of their own, they could devote themselves completely to their duties. The other side of this is that they were also readily dispensable, since there would be fewer seeking revenge or compensation for their premature ‘retirement.’
Most eunuchs were made so involuntarily, while some did so voluntarily since it could sometimes mean greater access to those with power or means. But whatever the reason for the castration, it meant one thing: the eunuch could not pass on his name through a son. While in the modern world we are somewhat buffered from the societal consequences of such things, in the ancient world this was a really big deal. Family was as important as life, and to not be able to pass on one’s name meant many things: some measure of shame, no familial support, and probably the loss of one’s ancestral home and possessions.
Thus, a eunuch did not have any hope for renown as the world construes it, except perhaps in the service of his duties. In Isaiah we find God telling his people that there is a renown that eclipses anything the world can offer- an everlasting name. If the eunuch will have a conversion in his heart, and will allow his world to be changed by God, then the existential crisis is finally quelled, for he will be remembered in the eyes of God.
On the surface of things a eunuch is a dry tree, good for nothing but to be used and discarded. His life ends and nothing remains, life chaff blowing away in the wind. But God’s response to what the world sees is to turn it upside down- the eunuch will actually be more fruitful for his faithfulness. The more he allows his own world to be changed, the greater his share in God’s kingdom is.
Live Like a Eunuch
The disciples once again provide the foil for Jesus’ more pithy statements. He has been laid a trap by the Pharisees regarding marriage; they pose a thorny question that not only tries to pit him against the Law of Moses, but also one that tries to get him to take sides in a bubbling theological dispute between other prominent rabbis. Instead of taking sides or disparaging the Law, he runs an end-around the question by quoting the same Moses who is in the question; the nature of marriage is not to be dissolved (as the question puts it) but to be unifying. Unless one understands it as such, the zero-sum game that everyone has in mind and which the question presupposes will prevail.
The disciples realize Jesus’ meaning, and in their zero-sum thinking begin to calculate all the scenarios in which they would want to put away their wives but can’t. The numbers apparently don’t look good, and thus we get the worldly response which has lined up all the numbers in the spreadsheet and performed all the requisite calculations:
“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10 NIV)
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t necessarily disagree. Rather, he again distances himself from their zero-sum game thinking and acknowledges that his teaching is difficult- let the one who can accept it do so. In other words, there is great risk involved in the act of marriage, for it carries with it the potential for great trouble and suffering. After all, the disciples have played out all the scenarios- an evil wife, a run of financial hardship, children to feed; all these things were the tacit justification for divorce but are precluded in the kingdom of heaven, where marriage musty be conceived of in terms of its union alone rather than in terms of its dissolution.
But Jesus goes even further, and brings the eunuchs into it. He begins by noting that in some situations men are eunuchs either naturally or because of it being done to them. The implication is that they can more easily accept Jesus’ word because they do not have the potential for marriage, since their bodies can no longer speak the language of union. But Jesus brings up a third class- those who live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. In other words, they have forsworn marriage so as to give themselves totally to God.
Like actual eunuchs they will face the same sorts of consequences; that is, they will not have the joys (and hardships) of family life nor will they pass on their name.
We have already seen how the disciples had the tendency to seek after being the greatest, to make a name for themselves. And Jesus here leaves them in a fairly large dilemma- they can certainly marry, but in doing so they cannot approach it as a thing to be dissolved but a union to maintain. The way in which the world thinks about marriage must be upended. But if they cannot accept this state of affairs, they must become like eunuchs, forgoing marriage for the sake of God and the kingdom of heaven. In another way all worldly thinking must be overturned, for it is in this state of seeming barrenness that there is actually a breaking forth of fruitfulness. Those who have become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven eschatologically signify the end of human nature in its final consummation; as Jesus elsewhere states, we will neither remarry nor be given in marriage. Yet from their lives streams forth the ‘living water’ that Jesus offers.
We can see this later in the Acts of the Apostles where Philip proclaims the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch. Like other eunuchs, this man’s life is one of barrenness, but upon his baptism his finds absolute fecundity, for now he is filled with the Holy Spirit. He would never have children or have anyone to carry on his name, yet in that encounter with Philip his world has been changed, and now he lives for the kingdom of heaven.
Too often we fall into the world’s way of thinking, and even begin to perceive the kingdom of God as operating according to its metrics and methods. While wanting to ‘change the world’ is perhaps a laudable goal, it is only so in a sentimentalistic sense, for there is nothing actually laudable in trying to do something that one does not have the capability for, especially when such work ultimately (if not intentionally) pre-empts that which only God can do, substituting a poor and languid idol in his place. We are ultimately merely sowers or waterers, but the power of fecundity is not within our ken. The call of the eunuch is finally the call to all of us, whether literally or analogously, for only in communion with the vine can we blossom and flourish, and only the source of all life and being can make things grow and give birth to something new.
Only God can change the world, and his eunuchs find their joy in having their names emblazoned on his walls.