July 10 – Living with Failure

A teacher of mine once wrote a memorable, pithy sentence in a book on the Beatitudes that has stuck.  He said that the Beatitudes are a toolkit allowing a disciple of Jesus to become a Jesus theologian.

Over the years I have understood this idea in a broad sense — applicable not just to the Beatitudes but to the words and deeds of Jesus more generally.  If I do not want to be a literalist as I deal with these stories of Jesus, and I don’t, then I have to have a plan for how to read them. This idea works.

Common sense suggests that the people who recorded these stories did so because the stories made a difference to them.  This common sense is supported by historical critical research on the gospels.  It is also pretty apparent that Jesus did not consider most of his teachings to be maxims that needed to be memorized.  His stories were instead presented as different ways of getting at the same thing.  Many parables begin with the phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . ”  Several parables end with, “Those with ears to hear . .”
He didn’t offer what we might consider plain exposition, but offered instead fluid sometimes even confusing stories, because what Jesus wanted to teach, and how he taught it had to work together.

For Jesus, the question that matters, the only question that matters, is the question of the meaning and purpose of life. By that I do not mean grand philosophical theories, I mean basic self-understanding or self-awareness. The kinds of questions Jesus seems to be asking are not the same for any two people in any two circumstances. How do I live my life most truly, most honestly most openly? That’s the kind of issue Jesus takes up in the parables before us in these next few weeks.

What about these kinds of questions does our parable have to do this morning?  Here’s an idea.  Jesus tells this parable at the end of a long and difficult day.  He’s talked to people who are only interested in trapping him.  Scribes and Pharisees who doggedly chase him, challenging his legitimacy, questioning his authority and trying to turn the crowds against him. His work with these guys has been a failure.

As if these were not enough, who should appear but his mother and brothers, who want a word with him.  He’s just making some headway with the crowds — can’t he be left alone?

In frustration, Jesus tells the messenger to relate to his mom and his brothers, that, as far as family matters go, the disciples had become his genuine family. He has no time for them now.

(As someone leery about the grand proclamation by some Christians about family values, I find this an amusing moment!)

Perhaps the parable is a response to the failures and frustrations of that particular day for Jesus. After all, how we live with failure is just as important as how we deal with success. Why shouldn’t Jesus address it?

Basic to our human condition, basic to the questions we continually ask and answer for ourselves, is the fact that we are never smart enough, never wise enough, never far-sighted enough.  Circle II got into a conversation Thursday about the end of the Lord’s prayer — “Thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever.” “Is the doxology at the end, part of the original prayer?”  When asked, I offered that not only did Jesus apparently not say those words, the bible did not either, that the doxology was a non-biblical addition, and therefore would not show up in the King James Version.  I was wrong.  It is not likely to have been said by Jesus, and it was a later addition, but the King James translators did not just make it up to support their notion of church, as I had mistakenly argued.

This kind of failure is  pretty basic — and apart from the importance of having the humility enough to recognize errors in oneself and admit them, not terribly interesting or important.  It is a presupposition for everything we do as a church.

We should preface everything with the comment, “We could be wrong about this.”  This does not imply flabbiness or non-committedness.  On the contrary, it implies seriousness.  To presuppose infallibility for everything we do as a church implies just the opposite — we are not serious about what we claim, because seriousness  entails willingness to have conversation, to hear other stories and weigh facts.  To merely assert answers is not serious thinking.   In this way, a parable is the height of serious thinking.

There’s another kind of failure that is even more basic, and less understood.  That’s the idea that we are not and cannot be the solitary individual that has been at the center of western thinking.  It is impossible for us to attain to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideal of rugged individualism.  This kind of “failure” is even more important to deal with if we are to be serious about becoming disciples.

It was probably Aristotle, in 350 BC, and then, even more his student Plato, who first floated the idea that to be a human meant, literally to be — to be in possession of a range of qualities or essences that are you and will always be you.  Those essences could be added to over time which is what it meant, they assumed, to mature.

A good case can be made that this is too strict a view of identity.  I could argue, as the Spanish philosopher Julian Marias has, among others, that “A person is the same person through change, but not the same thing.”   This last point may seem niggling, but it has an important effect.  If indeed personal identity is strict, meaning that the present person I am is the same as the person I was and always have been, then Jesus’ great commandment that I should love God  with all my being, and my neighbor as myself, is impossible to understand, unless I translate it to read, “Love my neighbor nearly as myself.”  In other words, love for neighbor and self are to be on the same footing — the ideal is their equality.


I’m not much a psychologist, so I went to Google, for help, and typed that into the search bar “qutotations on failure.”  I found articles of two types: one kind counseled denial of loss.  These articles suggest that we ought to think of loss as incomplete success, or that  every loss teaches us something about succeeding.  The problem with that, and Jesus is pretty clear in this parable — loss happens.   Plain, ordinary non-redemptive loss happens — the loss of a son or a daughter,  the loss of a parent or spouse, these we shall not easily or healthily brush aside.

The other set of quotes I found were the quotes out of the “me generation. ” One I particularly liked is a Japanese proverb that says “Fall down 7 times; stand up 8.”  Again — this is not bad advice, persistence pays off in the parable of the sower. My point here is that it is not simply all about you feeling good.

Both of these approaches, the “denial approach” and the “make-me-feel-good” approach, betray  the Gospel ideal that we are “members one of another,” and that this community of mutual membership lives and moves and has its being in God.


Let me end with  another parable — it comes from the Buddhist tradition — a tradition much less weighed down with the rugged individualism of Protestant Christianity and the feel good-ism of the me generation.

An ocean wave is made of other waves. You can discover the relationship between that wave and all the other waves with the principle of cause and effect.  But there is another level of relationship, and that is the relationship between the wave and the water.  The wave is aware that she is made of the other waves, and at the same time she realizes that she is made of water too.  It is very important for her to touch the water, the foundation of her being.  She realizes that all the other waves are also made of water and that the wave in front of her is there only because there is no distinct difference between her and the trough that separates her from her neighboring wave — there is no distinct difference between her success as a wave and her failure as a wave.

It is tempting to allegorize the parable of the sower and argue that the seed represents the word of God and the soils represent the different kinds of people who have differing abilities to receive the word.  It’s tempting because it’s easy and because it makes us feel good, us who are clearly the receivers of the word, and hence the good soil.  But it does not help us live with loss or with failure.

Might we instead, read this parable as a parable for us?  Might we see from it, that to fail in discipleship is not only a very real possibility, it is required if we are to be serious about it.  And then, might we see that to succeed in discipleship, like succeeding in being a wave depends on something beyond our own waveness?

Here, Jesus speaks of the continual, and non-judgmental blessings of God, so that we might run with them, without fear of failure.  The sower sows and the waves roll on and we are part of a something far greater than we can imagine.  Amen.


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