Paradoxes are one of my favourite things. Working them out - how two things that cannot coexist do. When I was in year 12, my physics class accidentally got energy from nowhere during an experiment. We sat, utterly confused and trying not to burn holes in the magic Styrofoam cup.
Turns out our teacher had confused the exchange rate between calories and kilojoules.
So, usually when there's a paradox, it's because we're missing part of the puzzle. I love paradoxes because they remind me that there is always going to be things out there that I don't understand. They prove that my mind isn't the greatest that exists, and that there's a limit to human knowledge in a world that was built by hands without limits.
With that in mind, let's jump in to something I've chatted with a few friends over last year about.
Corban is this weird word that turns up in the New Testament - I'm pretty sure it's a thing that was invented by the Pharisees (teachers of Jewish law). Rather than try and explain it, I'll just upchuck the relevant block of scripture and we'll go from there.
Obligation > Gospel
"The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled - that is - unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
It's worth paying attention any time Jesus gets stuck into someone about a thing, because it'll usually reveal something about the human heart. We encounter the paradox when we also look at another command of Jesus.
Gospel > Obligation
"Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
Luke 14: 25-27
The first conversation I had about Corban last year was with a friend. We were discussing the scenario of choosing the obligations of ministry life over, say, taking care of a chronically ill family member. He pointed out the Luke verse - that we as Christians are called to forsake everything for the gospel.
I asked what he thought about Corban, and how that was supposed to fit. And he stopped. And we thought some more.
Jesus wants us to love him and the gospel more than anything. To be willing to give up everything for the gospel.
He also feels pretty strongly about caring for the needy. About caring for people who are supposed to be under our care. The reason why he'd gotten so stuck into the Pharisees was that they were inventing rules that at face value were for serving God, but were really just for serving their own ends.
I'd posit that these two things aren't opposites, but that they work together. Let's run through what happens to someone who clings to one concept and abandons the other.
The person who only follows through with the obligation to care for the physical needs of those around will forget the urgency and gravity of the gospel. They would prioritise physical care over spiritual need. Eventually, that need to care would consume their faith, and altruism would become their god.
The person who only follows through with the obligation to preach the gospel at the cost of all else rows out into the endless sea in a tiny lifeboat. They would sacrifice all ties that exist, abandon anything that would slow them down, and eventually burn out, their gospel burning out with them, never taking root because those preached to were never cared for properly.
You can't have one of these things without the other.
Gospel = Obligation
Here's what I want to posit.
We show that the gospel matters most when we care for those God has placed under our care. How we care shows that what we believe is alive in us, and not just merely lip service.
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds."
Sometimes caring for those we are obligated to is teaching them the gospel. Sometimes it is feeding them, washing them, dressing them, and teaching them the gospel, whatever their age or capacity might be.
Two things to Consider
Firstly, the matters of the physical realm will always play second fiddle to the matters of the spiritual realm. I'm occupying meatspace for the next fifty-sixty years, tops. I've already taken up tenancy in the New Creation, and I'm gonna be there for a lot longer. Consequently, I should keep the needs of each realm in proportion. Eating each day is still important, and it's more important now, but it pales in comparison to where I plan on spending eternity. If that sandwich keeps you alive long enough to hear the gospel, or to preach it to someone else, then it is the best sandwich you'll ever eat. But it's a sandwich with a purpose. So watch it.
Secondly, it's a wise move to keep a wary eye on the parts of our lives where we might be tempted to call Corban, and who we might call Corban on. The reason why Jesus was so mad about the concept was not only because the Pharisees were gaming the system to not help out their parents, but also because they'd use the income they declared Corban however they wanted.
That'd be like taking on extra ministry responsibilities at church so you didn't have to help out your family with important things, and then bailing on said responsibilities to do your own thing.
Let's face it, we've probably all done this once or twice. I remember doing something similar when I was seventeen and skipping out on bible study to study for school, and then doing fat nothing during that time. But it's not a wise move. It's certainly not a mature thing to do.
Things I'm Thinking About This Week
Who am I obligated to love? How am I obligated to love them?
How is the gospel evident in how I love them?
Is this an easy or a hard thing for me to do?
Am I trying to get out of it?
How am I doing that? By justifying? Ignoring? Claiming that I'm too busy with things?
How can I change to be more like Jesus in how I practically love people?
"Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."
(I have few hard and fasts here. I find that thinking about the how and why tends to have a deeper impact. Happy to chat about it - I'm far from a closed case on the riddle of the-thing-that-sounds-like-Cornbread)