Review: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church.

Catherine J. Wright does several things in this book I have not seen before. First, she focuses attention on what the scriptures, and specifically Luke’s gospel have to say about the spiritual practices of Jesus. She does so systematically, looking at all the passages around a particular practice.

Second, she asks the question of how Luke’s earliest readers in the first century would have thought about the particular practice in question. In particular, she keeps in mind the intention of first century biographies not only to inform but also transform the readers. Consideration is given to the regard given the practice in the wider culture and how this might shape their reception of Luke’s account.

Finally, Wright looks at the earliest church fathers and their interpretations and responses to Luke’s gospel. This offers tangible evidence of how the church understood and received these accounts in their setting.

Wright focuses on three practices, each which recur in numerous passages in Luke: simplicity, humility, and prayer. For each, she offers commentary on the text, then discussion of the practice in first century culture, and thirdly, she goes back to the specific texts from the first overview and discusses what the early church fathers had to say about the text. Through all this, she both summarizes the practice of Jesus and draws compelling contemporary applications for the church.

For example, she considers the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man who approaches Jesus., noting the lack of generosity with both, the unwillingness to be dispossessed of wealth for the care of others, and in the latter’s case, to pursue the kingdom. Wright notes the expectations in both Jewish and Greek literature for the rich to be benefactors. In learning from the fathers, we learn that Chrysostom considered the failure to give alms to the poor to be theft. Basil of Caesarea teaches that “the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in poverty.” Wright then concludes with this trenchant application in her summary:

Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today.

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

She offers challenges around humility as the mark of the early Christian but forgotten in the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence. She notes the practice of continual, fervent prayer by both Jesus and his early followers and the superficial practices that characterize most of our Western churches.

As we hear of the practices of simplicity, humility, and prayer in connection with our Lord, we say, “but of course.” What Wright’s close reading of Luke’s gospel, and consideration of Luke’s earliest readers does, is challenge us to see what this meant for those who called, and call themselves disciples. As Wright traces this out, it becomes apparent that many of us have not looked very closely at Luke’s narrative, not the Lord of whom it is written, if measured by the lack of correspondence between our lives and His. Wright does not bludgeon us with this truth but beckons us to join Luke’s early readers in the embrace of these practices out of love for the one who called us and models and teaches them for us to live into.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Is Humility a Virtue?

There is the old saw about the person who won an award for humility and had it withdrawn when the person attempted to accept it. Humility is a strange virtue. Some would not even consider it a virtue but rather a weakness–this was true in Greco-Roman culture. And, the truth is, the people I would consider most ‘humble’ probably wouldn’t consider themselves so, if they even give a thought to themselves.

benedict

 

I am currently reading The Rule of St Benedict and came across this chapter on “Humility”. He elaborates twelve steps toward humility–an interesting list to say the least:

1. Keep the fear of the Lord always before oneself.

2. Love not your own will nor the satisfaction of your own desires.

3. Submit to your superior (in the monastery) with all obedience.

4. Obey in difficult circumstances and embrace hardship or even unjust conditions.

5. Don’t conceal from your abbot the sinful thoughts that come into your heart!

6. Be content with the lowest and most menial condition.

7. Not only admit with your tongue but believe in your heart that you are inferior to all others.

8. Do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and follow the example of your superiors.

9. Control your tongue and do not speak unless asked a question.

10. Do not be given to ready laughter.

11. When you speak, do so briefly, without laughter, with modesty, brevity and reason.

12. Manifest humility in your bearing as well as your heart.

Some of these certainly reflect the context of the monastery, such as the rule of confessing sins, silence, following the common rules of the monastery. Yet even here I see some sense and am challenged–to whom do I admit my less commendable, yes even sinful, thoughts? How often have “too many words” gotten me into trouble (or at least bored my listeners!)? Haven’t some problems in organizational life simply come because I am too proud to submit to the direction of another–even though I do not mind giving direction?

There are some of these that do make sense–foremost, the fear of the Lord. Knowing that one is living one’s life before the God definitely keeps me honest about myself–I have no room for boasting. Obeying in difficult circumstances and being content with even what seems a menial place are actually freeing–freeing from the grasping and grumbling that come when I want to be somewhere else or don’t want to do what is required of me in a given place.

Perhaps the one on which I am most “stuck” is the considering of myself inferior to all others. I actually wonder if Benedict may have gotten this wrong. I actually wonder whether any comparisons to others are beside the point–even though we frequently do this. We are each unique creations of God and uniquely accountable to Him for our lives. How can I appraise the gifts of God “inferior”? Many times, such comparisons just come off to me as false humility. Yet I am also reminded of how St Paul spoke of himself as the “chief of sinners” and he really did mean it as far as I can tell.

Benedict’s words come from another time–and seem like it! I remember the acronym IALAC from my son’s elementary school years–“I am lovable and capable”. What Benedict says seems to be miles away from the culture of affirmation. Yet what I wonder, and I want to read Benedict more closely for this, is whether in fact knowing that one is deeply loved by God, not for what we have done, but “just because” is the most humbling thing of all and if in fact this releases us to embrace at least some of Benedict’s steps, not as rules, but as the joyful practices of God’s beloved.

What are your thoughts on Benedict’s list and on the virtue of humility?