In a suburban backyard a boy plays in a plastic pool along with his younger brother while mother looks on. They splash and scream and run around the yard, darting in and out of the water. By noon the pool is three parts water, one part grass. Summer is here and they’re having the time of their young lives.
Amidst the toy ships and sunscreen the excitement escalates. The elder brother fills a bucket of cold water to the brim. Caught up in the moment (fully aware that superior strength and intelligence affords him an advantage) he dumps the bucket’s chilly contents over the head of the second born. The younger brother, predictably, bursts into tears, and the elder brother is rather pleased with himself.
An evil has occurred and mother is not best pleased, having observed the entire incident from her garden chair. Enraged by the elder brother’s actions she fights the impulse to administer matriarchal retribution, but ultimately succumbs. This has happened before, in other forms, at other times. Punching, shoving, stealing, winding up. Mother’s had enough.
She’s crazy about her first-born and always will be, but this malicious libation ceremony puts bellows to the flame of love she carries for his younger brother. Her passion pushes her over the edge as she fills a bucket of cold water for herself and dashes after the perpetrator. He’s quick and bolts. She’s faster and he’s cornered, swiftly baptized in her icy vengeance. Both boys now wail and mother doesn’t know how to feel. Once the fury subsides she wonders if this was indeed a “parenting fail”. I’m not so sure. Motherly love is a fire not easily quenched.
This little escapade might remind us of the grander human story we find in scripture. Though parabolic, it mustn’t be over interpreted and might need some amending to suit our discussion. Our mother was right to burn with anger toward the elder brother – it was fuelled by her love for the younger. An eye for an eye kind of logic only seems appropriate at first glance. But the ancients tell us that God knew better.
Scripture would tweak this story significantly, concluding with our mother handing the bucket of water to her firstborn and allowing him to drench her also, in his place, personally absorbing the penalty for his actions. That is what the cross means. God was not interested in divine capital punishment for each and every human according to his or her deeds, exacted through a noose or needle or other means akin to cold buckets of water dumped on little boy’s heads. God sat in the electric chair himself and let us throw the switch. This, in part, is the Gospel.
Had the story ended with the mother acting as the scriptures say Jesus did we might be tempted to focus solely on the beauty of the Gospel in action. But the story, raw and passionate, better stands to show us something more. Going behind the scenes and illustrating sentiment with vivacity, it stands to show us how God might feel about our actions toward one another. And feeling matters. The tale betrays how passion might have begotten the Passion.
Wisdom for a young prince
Ecclesiastes is a multi-faceted book. Scholars categorize it as “wisdom literature” along with the book of James, the Proverbs and other texts. Wisdom, according to the Bible, is not just about knowledge. Wisdom is about action and is manifested by right living, not just right feeling or thinking. This is why Proverbs and James are so practical in nature, so life-applicable. The wisdom writers label one wise or foolish based on how one lives. “I don’t care how much you know”, says God, “How are you living?”
And so, with the mother and brothers in mind, we turn to this pithy thought in Ecclesiastes. It’s a carefully calculated proverb, balancing liberty and caution equally.
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. (Ecclesiastes 11)
Ecclesiastes, along with much of the Bible, tells us that God is for pleasure. God created the world to be enjoyed and James concurs; “whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from the Father of lights, in whom there is no shadow or change.” I recently witnessed this firsthand on a sailboat. A friend and I leaned over the bow to see dolphins playing in the onrushing wave generated by our vessel. God gave us the wind and the waves to ride on, the intelligence and dexterity to maneuver the boat, and marine life to enjoy the moment along with us. Amongst other purposes, God made us to enjoy sailboats, paddling pools and brotherly playfulness.
This is what the writer of Ecclesiastes notes. In the book’s broader message we hear about how life can be hard and full of toil, or sometimes feel meaningless and empty. Along with all this, thankfully, we’re also encouraged to enjoy life when we can: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved of what you do…enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of your fleeting life, for this is your portion along with your toil under the sun.”
It’s possible that a father wrote Ecclesiastes to be read by his son. From: the king. To: the young prince. The king is renowned for his wisdom and invites his son to enjoy his youth and live it up! “If you see something you like, go after it! Enjoy your youth and health while you have it, son.” But he doesn’t stop there. “Just remember that everything you do matters and God will hold you to account for how you live.”
These instructions raise a number of questions – one in particular stands out: why does God care about the young prince’s actions? He’s just one life in a million, after all. He may have more influence than the average subject in the kingdom, but surely a timeless God who made the sky and sea and space needn’t be bothered with a solitary life. What do my actions matter to God? Hasn’t he got bigger fish to fry, like world hunger, global warming and regional genocide?
A key nuance in the king’s statement must be noted to answer this question: the former portion of the instruction informs the latter. That God made us to enjoy the planet and one another tells us something about him. If he wants us to enjoy it, he must have concern for humanity. Beyond this, the Bible insists God has more than a general, ambiguous concern. He loves us. He loves us enough to face our denial and rejection. He loves us by way of crucifixion. That’s passion.
Imagine you gave someone you loved a costly gift. You might have made it, you might have bought it, but it cost you quite a bit, whatever it was. Imagine, if after you handed it over to your beloved, they proceeded to drop it on the ground, step on it, perhaps even spit on it, and walk away. How would you feel? You might feel sad or angry that they had ruined the gift and wasted your time or money. But on another level, in a more intimate and vulnerable place, you’d feel deeply hurt by what their actions said about the relationship you thought you shared. If this was how they acted, is this how they truly feel about you? They’re either unaware of your love for them or they simply don’t care. Perhaps they might dislike you entirely. The gift you gave displayed your feelings toward them, and their response displayed their feelings toward you. On top of the pain they’ve caused you they’ve also diminished their own experience of life by rejecting your gift and love. They have hurt themselves.
Back to the bucket
Think back to the mother and the brothers and the water bucket. Why did she get so upset? She wasn’t angered because an arbitrary rule was broken, but because she cares for her sons since she gifted them life. She cares about the younger brother, whom she prayed for, carried for nine months, nursed, and loves with all her heart. When he cries, she cries. When he hurts, she hurts. But she also loves the elder brother, just as much as the younger. I imagine her disapproval, and corresponding retribution, was heightened based on their familial proximity and her hope that he would make better choices. This was her son, after all. She had prayed for him too. She had carried him, nursed him and loves him with all her heart also. He is free to make choices, and she must let him do so if her love is genuine, but it likely pains her just as much to see him administer such evil as it does to witness his younger brother receive it. Poured out, brother to brother, that watery wickedness is a two edged dagger to her heart.
Perhaps God cares about how we live because of how much he loves. Perhaps God’s instruction to live wisely is more about passion and deep affection than it is about rules, regulations and order. This might be especially true when it comes to how we treat one another. Are buckets of water on the heads of toddlers that far removed from gas chambers and race riots?
Consider this logic applied to more relatable situations. Not to put too fine a point on Ecclesiastes 11 and our story of the two brothers, but this is why the avoidance of substance abuse and sexual immorality is not only prudent, but loving. In fact, according to the wisdom writers, it is prudent because it is loving.
Substance abuse is warned against in the Bible for a number of reasons; two are poignant here.
First, when we abuse our bodies in this manner we disrespect ourselves and God’s image in us. We aren’t ourselves when we’re inebriated, altering our mood and senses to the point of losing control. The scriptures teach that God gives us bodies out of love, to treasure and use to love in return. Toying with a lack of bodily control (and I’m including the mind within the body) is a misuse of the gift he gives. Along with this, many of us tend toward intoxication to dull pain and escape from reality. What shelter or distraction bests God’s wing and company? What promise of pleasure lures us from our Good Father’s house when we know full well we’ll end up with the pigs?
Second, intoxication is deemed “folly” by the wisdom writers, and taught against in many of the New Testament letters, because a lack of control carries the potential to harm another human. But, we might think, some people are “happy” drunks. Doesn’t this make them better to be around, possibly more loving? Perhaps, but this is debatable, speculative, uncertain and based on individual appraisal. The results are still produced by a lack of control and judgment via intoxication. Along with this, I’m fully aware of my ability to harm another on my best of days, whether in word or deed. Why raise my chances of abusing another, also made in God’s image, based purely on a selfish desire to cut loose? Is wanting to have a good time worth that risk? The apostle Paul thought it better to avoid intoxication all together and opt for another root: “Don’t get drunk on wine, which leads down all kinds of dark roads, but be filled with God’s Spirit.” A Spirit filled person bests a happy drunk any day of the week – full of hope, encouragement, purpose and love.
When it comes to sexual immorality we must first face our current context head-on. Secular humanism has taught us that we are the masters of our own destiny. In the privileged West this has been coupled with a societal obsession with material wealth, personal happiness and a wanton pursuit of pleasure. Chief amongst life’s pleasures (arguably) is sex. In a world that instructs us to “go for what we want” it becomes increasingly challenging to remember that we are an interconnected human family. The pursuit of personal pleasure can easily infringe on honouring and caring for the other. Selfishness is put before selflessness. We were made for the latter, however, and find ourselves out of sorts, to put it mildly, when we go the wrong direction.
And so sex can become about me and not about we, about getting and not giving. “Get some” is an overtly backwards statement when it comes to understanding the nature of sex and how its designed to work. In our pursuit to “get” we end up taking, and therefor harming. Selfish sex is bad sex. Generous, selfless sex is best practiced within a committed, loving marriage. The scriptures place it there, and there alone, because its such a sacred and good thing. Selfishly used outside of the marriage bed sex can be twisted to achieve other purposes found in opposition to its true design and intent. Sex is about loving and serving the other, the climax (literally) of marital bliss, as God’s generous nature is bodily demonstrated between husband and wife. But all of this is only in consideration of marriage and the other. What of our individual selves?
Many Christians strive to avoid sexual immorality based on how it might impact others, and this is a good motivation. But we often forget our side of the story. God wants us to love him with our bodies for our sake also. If sex is so important, and I am “the other” to everyone around me, surely I have value and am worthy to be handled with care also! Should I not see the inherent worthiness of my own sexual nature, and aim to honour myself as much as my neighbour?
Consider the two brothers one last time and their mother’s hope that they will live and learn and play in harmony. Consider the words from the king to his son in Ecclesiastes, a young prince with run of the kingdom. Imagine the food, the wine, the wealth and the women.
Enjoy life, says the king, live it up – that’s the divine invitation! But be mindful of God’s concern for those caught up in your freewheeling revelry. Remember, little prince, he’ll be asking you about all those buckets of water one day.