He was a canny businessman. He actually took real pleasure in knowing he had gotten the better of his business associates in deals, in negotiations, and in life. He seemed to know just when to strike and just the right words to say to get his way and get ahead.
And he was all alone. His great ability to shrewdly scheme his way to financial success didn’t translate into his relationships because everyone around him felt they were always being conned, manipulated, or cheated. And no one likes feeling that way! Eventually, his business associates figured this out as well, and his short-lived success crumbled.
He was shrewd but he wasn’t wise.
I bet you’ve known people like this; always calculating their words and actions to manipulate the situation to their advantage. To be sure, this is a wonderful ability in business and negotiations, but, untempered by love and wisdom, this ability feeds the deepest darkness of a person’s soul. AND it always leads to isolation and loneliness. No one enjoys feeling like they are always the object of a con or always being manipulated for selfish gain. I want to be in communion, not imprisoned by co-dependency!
In today’s Gospel Lesson our Lord Jesus graphically illustrates the difference between being shrewd and being wise. Look at Matthew 21:23-27:
At that time, when Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
The priests and the elders were shrewd in their questioning of the Lord. They used to dealing with the occupying army of the Romans and constantly having to negotiate the narrow existence of an occupied people. They were shaped by their years of a “survival” mentality that meant they had to always be looking for the “angle” to squeeze through a tight spot. And now, after all these years of twisting and turning just to survive, they confront the Lord. And because of their narrow focus on mere survival, they miss the very Abundant Life standing in front of them!
Jesus lovingly turns their shrewdness against them to offer them another narrow path out of that small, exclusive, and lonely existence they have created for themselves. They ask Him the right question, to be sure. It really matters by what Authority He does what He does, but they ask, not wanting the Answer, but to trap Him. And He avoids it all by exposing their true motivations. In doing this, He opens a door for them to escape the prison of their own self-centeredness if only they would!
Today, what have the circumstances of your life shaped in your own soul? Do you see others as potential “marks” to further your desires? Or, do you look at life every day as a minefield to be negotiated for your own self-interest? How’s that working out for you? You were meant to see others as the icons of God all around you. You were meant to have such internal grace and strength that outward circumstances were passed through with love, not seen as a maze to be conquered. You were meant for peace and love and contentment. But that doesn’t come when external circumstances are all “perfect.” It only comes when internal discipline and faith give you new eyes to see being wise is always better than merely being shrewd. It’s why we are called to be Orthodox on Purpose!