The Defects of Jesus, I: No Common Sense
I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. —Luke 12:18–19
Well, here we are, first Sunday in Lent. I love my Catholic friends, because they take Lent more seriously than Protestants do. My wife plays paddle tennis with this wonderful woman, and one of the reasons she’s so wonderful is that her character has been splendidly shaped by her serious, pious Roman Catholic faith.
On Ash Wednesday she showed up at the paddle courts with ashes on her forehead and Kathy remarked about that, and she said, “Oh, yes, ever since I was a student at the University of Iowa, Ash Wednesday has been my favorite day of the year.” When Kathy asked why Ash Wednesday was such a wonderful day at the University of Iowa, her friend said, “Because that was the only day we could tell which of the cute boys were Catholic.” Whatever.
Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận is, was, a serious Catholic you’ve probably never heard of, but you will someday, because he is in the process of beatification and will one day be a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He died in 2002 at the age of 74.
Cardinal Văn Thuận became archbishop of Saigon on April 24, 1975. Bad timing. Six days later, the city fell to the Communists, who, of course, are arch-enemies to the Roman Catholic Church, sometimes for good reasons. Over the decades the Catholic Church cuddled up to every evil strongman in Southeast Asia.
Cardinal Văn Thuận spent the next 13 years in a Vietnamese prison, nine of them in solitary confinement.
The guards in his reeducation camp were fond of him. They snuck in some scraps of wood and some wire so that he could fashion a crude crucifix, and a few drops of wine so that he could celebrate the sacrament, all by himself. The future Cardinal converted so many of his guards to Christianity that the warden kept quickly changing them out so that the archbishop wouldn’t have time to convince them that Jesus was better than Mao.
When someone asked him how he managed to convince so many Communists about the goodness of Jesus, the Cardinal replied that he would talk about Jesus’ defects rather than his virtues. For instance, Jesus had a terrible memory, he was bad at math, he took unnecessary risks, and he had no common sense.
Take this story, for instance. Jesus tells the story of a first-century tycoon who had had a very good year. “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” Jesus tells us in his prickly little story. To translate into a more familiar idiom: this guy rode the longest bull market in history, until the Dow reached almost 30,000, and then got out just in time to buy gold bars. This guy’s fields are so fecund his barns are bursting and his silos spilling rich kernels of golden wheat.
“What shall I do?” he asks himself. “This is what I will do,” he says to himself. “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones.” Which seems like the prudent thing to do, doesn’t it? I mean, what else would you do with an unexpected bumper crop, in your wheat fields or in your stock portfolio, but find a safe place for the surplus capital in bigger barns or in 401K’s or IRA’s, so that it’s there for you when your eldest child matriculates at a university which costs $70,000 a year, or both kids get married in the same year. Can you tell that I’m taking this story a little personally?
With this little story, Jesus has just eviscerated many of your livelihoods. Have you ever noticed how many people in this church spend their days building bigger barns? If you are a banker, or a trader, or an investment advisor, or a venture capitalist, your job is to build bigger barns. They’re paper barns, but they’re still barns.
Because a hundred shares of a FAANG Stock—Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google—a hundred shares of Amazon stock is a paper version of a grain silo. So is a mutual fund or a 401K or a savings account. It’s where we store our surplus capital, our sustenance for the future. They’re paper barns, but they’re still barns.
The rich guy says “I will build bigger barns, and Jesus says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” I have to be honest with you: “Fool” is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of this guy. I admire my friends whose job is building bigger barns: Roger Winship, and Bruce Linger, and Laura Linger, and Lester Knight, and Rick Waddell, and Hamish Forrest, and Mark Fuller. You see what the Cardinal means by the Defects of Jesus.
I like these lists of “Twisted Proverbs” you come across now and then. Twisted Proverbs:
The early worm, on the other hand, gets eaten.
A word to the wise is superfluous.
Give a man enough rope and he’ll hang you.
People who live in stone houses shouldn’t throw glasses.
He who hesitates is bossed.
And here’s my favorite: Counting your chickens before they’re hatched is sensible long-range planning.
Yes? This guy with the bigger barns is a sensible long-range planner and Jesus calls him a fool. Jesus scorns what the world values and values what the world scorns. He wants so many things–love, peace, justice for the poor, the kingdom, God–but they’re not what we want. And he disdains so many things–wealth, honor, security, respect–but those are just the things we want.
And Jesus has a point, doesn’t he? It’s all very well and good to plan for tomorrow, but all we have is today. So when it’s Parents’ Day in your child’s third-grade classroom, don’t send the nanny so you can close the deal at work. Stay out of the office on Saturday morning so you’ll be there when your son hits a two-run double in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. If your daughter earns the role of Maria in West Side Story or The Sound of Music, tell your boss you can’t go to Brussels that weekend. We spend so much time building bigger barns for tomorrow that we miss today.
Building bigger barns is all well and good but the time comes to stop and slash a gash in the silo so that the rich kernels of yellow gold come streaming out for the benefit of the poor and the hungry. Warren Buffett has given something like $35 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill and Melinda are using it to inoculate the world against common diseases that disappeared from America a hundred years ago. Warren has promised to give the rest of his $80 billion away on his last day on this earth.
Now, here’s a guy who spent his whole life building bigger barns and taller silos but he knows there comes a time to slash a gash in the silos so the yellow gold streams out. “The market system has not worked well for poor people,” says Warren Buffett.
You know what Bill Gates’ children called Warren Buffett when they were growing up? They call him The Man Who Works at Dairy Queen. Warren Buffett owns Dairy Queen, of course, but the Gates children take one look at him tooling around Omaha in his beat-up Taurus and decide he’s the guy who makes the sundaes at the local Whippy Dip store. The Man Who Works at Dairy Queen. You could do worse.
My puppy has brought a lot of joy into my life, but he sure has killed our travel schedule and our social life. My wife and I have been out on a date three evenings since we acquired that creature eight weeks ago. Fortunately, I live next door to these wonderful Minturn kids, so we call Tessa when we want to go out for more than two hours so she can take him out and so that he won’t die of loneliness when we’re gone for the evening, because that’s what he thinks will happen to him when we’re out of sight for more than 15 minutes. The Alshouse kids live across the street so one of these days I’m going to tap them.
Have you ever read the novel I Thought You Were Dead? That’s what Stella the dog says to her owner every day when he comes home from work after eight long hours. “I thought you were dead. You were gone so long I thought you were never coming back. I thought you were dead.”
This is a true story. A family was going out of town for the week and had to leave the dog behind. What to do? Well, they knew that their nine-year-old neighbor Jeremy adored dogs but didn’t have one of his own, so they walked next door and asked Jeremy if he would watch Dexter the dog for the week. They told Jeremy that the job involved feeding, grooming, and walking the dog. But most of all, what the dog needed was lots of play time and tender loving care.
When they’d explained all this to him, they said, “So, Jeremy, let’s negotiate. What do you think this job is worth to you?” The boy thought for a minute. He was calculating. Finally, he said, “I’ll give you ten bucks.”
Dumb kid. He’s not building bigger barns; he’s giving away the farm. He’s just never going to make it at William Blair. But he did know one thing: if you have a chance to play with a dog, or a kid, take it, even if it costs you ten bucks. Planning for tomorrow is a very good thing, but all we have is today, so live a balanced life.
Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Testimony of Hope, trans. Julia Mary Darrenkamp and Anne Eileen Heffernan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000).
Paul Dickson, The Official Explanations, (Delacorte Press, 1980), pp. 190-191.
Landon Thomas, Jr., “A $31 Billion Gift Between Friends,” The New York Times, June 27, 2006.