The gospel ought to comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable. Good news—except that Jesus predicted we’d value one far more than the other. Not good news.
For the last few weeks we’ve been pondering leisure—but at a leisurely pace. Josef Pieper writes that leisure is the basis of culture. Leisure is contemplation, and contemplation is perceiving reality. It isn’t something we work at. It is something we receive. It’s God revealing himself, particularly to those called to the contemplative life.
Contemplatives are primarily writers, artists, pastors, prophets, and academicians. They’re uniquely gifted to perceive the gap between how the world ought to be and the way it is. This is the basis of culture since the gospel begins with ought and is.
The gospel in scripture is creation-fall-redemption-restoration. On the street, it’s heard as ought-is-can-will. Contemplatives are best at perceiving the gap between creational order (how the world ought to be) and the fall (how it is disordered). These are the first two “chapters” in the “four-chapter” gospel. They are the basis for making good cultures.
Those called to the active life focus more on the last two “chapters”—redemption-restoration, or can-will. They close the gap by working at 1) what can be done to reorder a disordered world, and 2) how their efforts will improve life.
This distinction between the contemplative and active life is often misunderstood. Contemplation is not idleness. It is not laziness. It is recognizing the nature of the beast. We are fallen people. We often mistakenly assume that God is someone we can grasp (Phil.2:6). No way. He is given to us. He is infinite. We are finite. Fallen people often forget that. The mystery of God is revealed to us. It is not observed, interpreted, and applied (an Enlightenment approach that invariably leads to trying to control God).
Contemplatives sense how deep this rabbit hole goes—the depths of our depravity. They sense how enculturated we all are, including Christians. They scratch their head when they hear Christians talk about “engaging culture,” as if it is something out there. Contemplatives know that we have to be still to know the One True God (Ps.46:10).
The Apostle Paul was called to the contemplative life. It’s daunting, evident in his question, “who is sufficient for these things?” (II Cor.2:16). No one. It’s a calling that requires great confidence, calm, and courage. You don’t choose it. You’re called to it.
It works the same for the active life. It too is a calling. But work can be monetized. Leisure cannot. Paul wrote that those called to the contemplative life “should make their living by the gospel” (1 Cor.9:14). Those called to the active life “must share all his good things” with their leaders (Gal.6:6). This is how we honor contemplatives. This idea of honor is as old as Exodus. “Honor thy father and mother.” This was given to adults, not children, to provide for their elderly parents’ financial wellbeing.
Those called to the active life are to work, for “workers are worthy of their wages” (Luke 10:7). Those called to the contemplative life “have a right to refrain from working” (I Cor.9:7) They are worthy of “double honor” (I Tim.5:17). Double honor is more than assuring the financial wellbeing of contemplatives. It is also valuing their role. We pay for things of value. Double honor is paying for the value we see in the contemplative life.
This is where we get our distinction between honorarium and wage. A wage is recompense for performing specific work. Honorarium, on the other hand, “implies an incommensurability exists between performance and recompense, and that the performance cannot ‘really’ be recompensed.” Incommensurable means you literally cannot put a number on the value of a contemplative’s work. It is of infinite value. You can’t monetize what contemplatives bring to the table. We instead doubly honor it.
This is a wonderful arrangement—except that Jesus said it rarely works. “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown” (Mt. 13:57). Ponder that for a moment. Jesus predicted that the local community would not financially support the prophetic voice. Funding might be found elsewhere, but not locally. Why not? I have a hunch.
Pastors comfort the afflicted. Prophets afflict the comfortable. We don’t like to have assumptions challenged. We’re fine when prophets think globally. We don’t like it when they act locally. John the Baptist faced this. Religious leaders put up with him when he pointed out national sins. They were peeved when he pointed them finger at them.
The Apostle Paul experienced this as well. The Corinthian church revered Paul as their founding pastor (“I am of Paul,” c.f. I Cor.3:4). But when he rebuked their worldly behavior, they rejected him as prophet. They withheld their promised financial gift (I Cor.9). Paul said he was a man “without honor” (I Cor.4:10).
Full disclosure: I am called to the contemplative life. But when I lack the courage of my convictions, I act like I’m some sort of an activist. Not good. But lack of funding can make you do strange things. Paul had to make tents, but it was probably only for three weeks—and he never recommended it. Tent-making is acknowledging that prophets are honored elsewhere—not locally—and sometimes they simply have to make do.
Contemplatives recognize this; activists rarely do. Malcolm Gladwell is a contemplative, a writer. He said this about prophetic voices: The market can’t make sense of them. We see this in how an honorarium is usually little more than a “tip.” A few prophets find a handful of patrons, even though “that word has a condescending edge to it,” Gladwell notes. “We think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace.” It won’t work. Jesus said prophets don’t fit in a market economy.
This is a deep rabbit hole. We’ll keep descending next week… but at a leisurely pace.
 Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1952), p. 60.
Mike I just came from a third world country where a well-known prophet is also a very good businessman. God has blessed him and he shares that blessing with other pastors and Prophets.
As you know, this has been a struggle I am also acquainted with. I appreciate your thoughts on this and will look forward to seeing where you take it next. . . .
Mike, I’ve enjoyed this series of posts where you unpack the idea of “leisure” in a different way than we usually think of it. I’m a little concerned that you’re drifting back toward a two-story view of vocation (per Guiness, Pearcey, et al) that places the contemplative life above the active life. Hope you’ll address that in a coming post.
You misunderstand the contemplative life.
Not above. First. Not better. Before. Not superior. Sequential (first).
Put simply, we cannot know what we can do (so that the world will be a better place) if we first do not know how things ought to be as well as recognize the world as it is.
other way to said, It’s not a “two-tiered” system. It is a never-ending spherical (circular) approach that starts with right-brain leaders. They better sense ought-is. Left-brain leaders better sense can-will.
Circular, drawing closer and closer to the truth without ever fully arriving (at least in this life). I Cor. 13.
Yet another way to say it. The “two-tier” frame is wrong. It’s parallel lines. Even Pieper notes how, in contemporary society, the contemplative “takes his place in the division of labor.” He is a “lower-tier functionary,” meaning “his function is not worth much (if anything).” Pieper is saying the very notion of tiers is incorrect. Wrong frame. The better frame is a sphere.