I often wonder if we’re very shrewd. Or if I am very shrewd.
By shrewd I don’t mean slick. I mean being discerning, as Jesus said he wants us to be. After 36 years of working as a church planter, pastor, and consultant, I’m not so sure we’re very shrewd. I know I haven’t been at times. The next five weeks are going to be a mea culpa as a way to consider what a shrewd faith looks like.
Shrewd has a shadowy side, so let’s get clear on what I mean. By shrewd, I mean being discerning. I like how Eugene Peterson translates Jesus, when he said “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. I want you to be smart in the same way” (Luke 16:8). In the immediate conversation, Christ is talking about handling money, but it seems to me that Jesus is looking for us to be wise in every walk of life. He wants us to be as wise as those who are savvy, even if their character is unseemly. The point is not to be like them, but to learn something from them in terms of being shrewd. What then does shrewd look like?
After 36 years of working as a church planter, pastor, and consultant, I’m learning that shrewd begins with a very familiar idea. It’s the implications from this idea that make me wonder whether we’re very shrewd. Being shrewd begins with understanding the times, a very familiar idea. The sons of Issachar “understood the times with knowledge of what Israel should do” (I Chr. 12:32). They were streetwise, in tune with the times. But what are the times we live in? Many cultural analysts, including Richard John Neuhaus, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Frost, and James Davison Hunter say the church faces a situation similar to what the Jews encountered in Babylon 2,500 years ago. In “To Change the World” Hunter writes, “Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile.”
These analysts are not referring to fallen humanity’s exile from God or how Christians are exiles on the earth (Heb. 11:13). They instead believe parallels exist between the Babylonian exile and the situation the church faces today. “Though it is quite possible that this portrayal from Jeremiah is not applicable to Christians in all times and all places,” Hunter writes, “I do believe this is a word for our time.” The parallels are there.
After Solomon’s death, Israel and Judah split. Over the next 200 years both nations became idolatrous. Exile was God’s judgment against idolatry (2 Chr. 36:17-20), beginning with the Assyrians sweeping away Israel in 722 and the Babylonians beginning to sweep away Judah in 597. In similar fashion, many see much of modern evangelicalism as idolatrous, mimicking American individualism and consumerism. Tim Keller describes it as “highly individualistic and consumerist.” Babylon was a polytheistic culture with 1,197 temples. The Jews were monotheistic, outsiders. Western culture embraces inclusive faiths. Christianity is an exclusive faith – an outsider in today’s world. I think shrewd Christians see these parallels. They understand the times, but what are the implications? I think there are at least four that shrewd Christians should consider:
• Whether we are often only whittling rotten wood
• Whether we operate in realistic time frames
• Whether we are measuring the most important thing
• Whether we have sufficient cultural capital
I’m not in the habit of writing a series, but every once in a while it might be beneficial. Next week I’ll examine the first implication. Are we often only whittling rotten wood? After we’ve considered these four implications of exile, see whether you are better able to assess whether we’re shrewd in the way Jesus wants his followers to be.