John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | July

Win, Lose or Draw? Jesus’ Way of Confounding the Trophy-centric Ways of this World

Jesus’ Way of Confounding the Trophy-centric

Ways of this World


[Print and/or read a pdf copy of this Commentary here.]

Last night, as I was sleeping,

I dreamt-marvelous error!

that I had a beehive here inside my heart.

And the golden bees were making white combs

and sweet honey from my old failures.

                                                Spanish poet Antonio Machado


At the Olympic trials recently held in Eugene, Oregon, sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh tied for third place in the women’s 100-meter race.  Even a high-speed camera that can capture 3,000 frames per second was unable to determine a conclusive winner.  It seems they were both winners and losers.

The racing world was totally flummoxed and had no provision amidst all their rules and regulations how to handle such a situation. Never before had they been unable to determine the difference between a winner and loser.  A draw simply wasn’t acceptable, since only one of them could go on to further compete with the American team. A tiebreaker would be required either by a run-off, or a capricious coin toss.

In the trophy-centric world in which we live there’s little alternative to either yet more competition, or allowing pure chance to decide the matter. Clearly it seems, winners win, losers lose, and there’s certainly no such thing as winning by losing.

The previous Words & Ways commentary explored a foolish kind of confounding wisdom once espoused by the Galilean sage through his teaching, through the parables he told, and even the absurdity that seemed inherently present in so many of the so-called miracles he wrought.  [See The Foolishness of Jesus] It is this same Jesus tradition that also proposes such counter-cultural notions that one can “win by losing,” (Mk 8:35, and five other variations in the canonical gospels), and the “first shall be last”  (Mt 19:30, 20:16).

Yet we seem to live in a time and place where we are repeatedly cajoled into believing it’s all a race of truly Olympic proportions; with the constant assurance we can all be winners if only we’re the one who – given the opportunity — just tries a little harder than everyone else to get ahead.

If you stop and think about it for just a moment, that’s a puzzling equation, at best. Yet even in religious matters, righteousness can often seem a sanctimonious competition sometimes, and even salvation a prize to be won. Jesus had something to say about such perceived winners who have already received their “rewards.” (Matt 6)

“I have finished the race,” says the writer of II Timothy (4:7). “I have kept the faith.”  Yet how much of it is about some crown of everlasting glory and victory in it all? How much of it is instead about a kind of humility that might slow you down in an other-centered kind of way; even if it costs you the race and the humiliation of losing?

Everyone knows the fabled race of the plodding tortoise, who perseveres and reaches the finish line ahead of the swift-footed, self-confident and prideful hare.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that cautionary tale alone should at least suffice to challenge our easy presumptions about how to tell a winner from a loser.  But what if there’s a little of each in each of us?  Winner and loser?

If we can’t all be winners all the time, then what is there to say about all of us occasional losers? For surely anyone who has lived long enough to number our days has known some very real, sometimes very painful loss.  What do we do with those other contestants we find in this human race that just happen to be among the “last and least” among us? (Mt. 28)

Is there anything, or anyone, for whom we might be willing to drop out of the race? And by doing so, how could we possibly come in first?


Winners and Losers

“Those who try to win their life will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”  Luke 17:33

My mate and I play games all the time. Not mental games, mind you. I know her well enough to usually know what she’s thinking, so I can usually fill in the blanks on her behalf if necessary. And she can read me like a book.

I mean board games, where I keep score, and she routinely questions my arithmetic skills. She’s fairly good-natured about losing; which is fortunate, since she loses more often than she wins.  But if there was a trophy for good sportsmanship, she’d win hands down.

At the same time, we both know that out there in what is often perceived as the real world, gamesmanship is serious business. The competition is fierce, winning or losing is the name of the game, and it’s a blood sport.

There are unwritten rules and commonly expected prizes when it comes to winning. They are the accepted norms and values by which we most often collectively measure who are the winners, and who are the losers: more money, the most toys, fame, fortune, success, etc.

And there are also established rules by which you’re allowed to win, as long as everyone plays by the same rules; which deludes the populace into believing it’s a level playing field. Mitt Romney is a howling success story when it comes to winning.  Bernie Madoff was once considered a big winner too. But now, as it turns out, he’s one of the biggest losers; serving a jail sentence so long it’d take him several lifetimes to even crawl his way back to the starting line.

This post-modern, high-stakes world in which we live still perpetuates the basic ways in which we’ve always defined and separated the winners from the losers. Everyone loves a winner. One of the most popular reality shows on television is The Biggest Loser, where the winner is the one who has lost the most. Poundage, that is. It seems to be the only way we seem to be able to get our heads around the idea of winning by losing.

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The Foolishness of Jesus

A pdf version of this commentary to print and read can be found here.

Mosaic of Jesus Christ from Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom, Istanbul, 6th C.   

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”  The apostle Paul, I Cor. 3.19a

 “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”  The 18 C. English poet, Alexander Pope

Wise men say only fools rush in.”  The King of Rock & Roll, Elvis Presley, 1964


Wisdom is often mistaken as knowledge, prudence or pragmatism; whereas foolishness is equally regarded sometimes to be the kind of fool-hearted thing Jesus would have characteristically espoused with many of his confounding ideas about God, God’s ways and how we ought to treat one another. Truth be told, there are plenty of people who consider themselves much too smart to take seriously some of the darn fool things Jesus actually said and meant.  But Jesus was no ordinary fool.

One of the modern misconceptions about Jesus, and the movement that arose as a result of his life and death, is the confusion with regard to both his uniqueness and ordinariness. Believers are often charmed with the idea Jesus fits conveniently into – and therefore concurs with — the normative conventions of our world; while simultaneously assuring us he is the one and only way to our own special place in the next.

In other words, for those who consider themselves a friend to the kind of Jesus who likes things just the way they are, an even better, exclusive offer awaits. Such is the so-called wisdom of much religious claptrap.

In contrast – and, while Jesus never made any allusions to being the one and only messiah of God — those who chose early on to follow his teaching certainly regarded him as the One for them. For them, Jesus uniquely represented the revelatory face of God. In this context, one might then ask in what way was either his extraordinary wisdom, or extraordinary foolishness, unlike others?


Send in the Clown

If he’d even bothered to look in the mirror, Jesus likely saw himself as simply a teacher or sage in a wisdom tradition with which he was clearly familiar; as evidenced by the way he usurped, adapted and modified a number of wisdom sayings that would have already been known to his listeners in one form or another.  He would have also seen himself as one in a long line of prophets or reformers, following John the Baptist and his own religious reformation tradition.

Through the gospel portrayals of him, Jesus was also seen to be a spirit person, or mystic, who was clearly in touch with the spiritual dimension of the divine with which he knew himself to be infused. This is depicted not only by those contemplative moments when he regularly withdrew from those who followed him “to a lonely place to pray.”  It was also reflected in the manner with which he encountered everyone with an indiscriminate openness and radically egalitarian point of view.

As such – and, albeit in his own unique way – he drew deeply from the common well of those universal truths and divine mysteries that can be found in all great religious traditions, from one age to the next. In this sense, he was truly both unique and authentically common or ordinary.  His wisdom was not only a familiar kind of wisdom (the Golden Rule of compassionate living, for example); but one that also characteristically confounded and confronted those crafty types who presumed to know what was still the wiser way to try to conform the world around them to their own self will.

In their eyes, Jesus would have been regarded as a clown. In light of such opposing views of wisdom and foolishness, what then is the importance of such an understanding of the man, Jesus?

When the Galilean sage is understood as neither a fool, nor a messianic miracle worker “not of this world,” one can begin to take seriously the risky business implied in the gospel collections of his fool-hearted teachings and adapted wisdom sayings, aphorisms and parables.

Furthermore, I would suggest, the foolish wisdom of Jesus can even be found in the gospel’s miracle stories; where those supernatural feats attributed to him are typically presumed to be the point of the story, and faith is made synonymous with simply believing what any sane person would be a fool to believe. Where awe and amazement typically overshadow situations that on the surface appear to be imprudent, improbable, reckless or ludicrous, the greater miracle and message in those stories might well be understood as the exchange of one kind of folly for another.

Where awe and amazement typically overshadow situations that on the surface appear to be … foolish, the greater miracle and message … might well be understood as the exchange of one kind of folly for another.

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