When he was only two, Jean-Paul’s father died. His bereaved mother returned to her family’s home, where she raised her son with the cheerful help of her sisters.
The women fussed over little Jean-Paul and dressed him in the toddler fashions of fin de siecle France. Think Little Lord Fauntleroy. Knee breeches. Shirts with large, embroidered linen collars. Long hair elaborately curled, draped over his shoulders, and flowing onto his brow.
His grandfather watched on with silent disdain for what these women were making of his grandson. So, when his daughters asked him to stay with the boy while they enjoyed a day-trip together, the old man readily agreed.
Once the women were well on their way, Jean-Paul’s grandfather sheared off those heavy locks and cropped the boy’s hair close to his scalp.
As evening approached the women returned. Jean-Paul ran eagerly to meet them and was stunned by their reaction to him. At the sight of him, they gasped in horror, burst into tears, and fled from the room.
Puzzled, the toddler gazed at himself in a mirror hanging on the wall. Years later, Jean-Paul recalled, “It was at that moment that I realized that I was ugly.”
His mother and aunts had grown his hair long to hide his exotropia or misaligned eye. A condition that some call walleye. He had been born with one eye that always turned sharply to the right. The medical science of the time provided no effective treatment.
That little boy grew up to be the famous twentieth century Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. My teacher and friend Tom used to tell this story to illustrate how Sartre understood human freedom.
We are all free to make choices at every instant of our lives. And yet, none of us is free to choose the circumstances under which we will make those choices. As some people put it these days, “It is what it is.” What remains for us is, “So what are you willing to do?”
Talented writer that he was, Sartre nevertheless used an unfortunate term to describe this: facticity. As for me, I like the term that his German contemporary Martin Heidegger used: thrownness.
Each of us is thrown into a world not of our own making. We did not choose our parents, our DNA, or the nation of our birth. We did not choose the economic class or the political system into which we were born.
For centuries others have been shaping the world’s economies, political systems, social structures, and climate. Apparently, those people never considered consulting us, but we’re left to muddle through the world that they’ve left for us. It is what it is. We’re thrown into injustices, absurdities, and messes not of our own making.
As for me, I think this is how Christian tradition might fruitfully talk about the Fall. The story about Adam and Eve does not need to point to real primordial parents who made lousy choices. Neither do we have to follow Augustine’s odd notion that original sin passes from parents to children because the parents had sex.
Nope. The Fall is the idea that we are free to make choices in a shattered world not of our own making. A world that is at once breathtakingly beautiful and a heaping mess. Our spiritual challenge—or as my colleague Bishop Carlye Hughes recently put it an electrifying sermon—our destiny is to be right here. Right now.
It is what it is. Now what are we going to do about?
And that, I think, is precisely what Jesus was getting at in the most puzzling of his stories: the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
I’m going to briefly recount it here. But before I do, a word of caution. Parables are not allegories. Don’t go looking for some character to be an analogy for Jesus or for God the Creator. Most parables are meant to stop you in your tracks. To make you stand on your hands and see the world from a different perspective.
So, here goes:
People have reported to a rich man that his portfolio-manager is ripping him off. So, the rich man calls his manager in and gives him a pink slip. Scrambling to soften his own landing, the manager runs around town to all the people who owe this rich guy a debt, letting them know that he has cooked the books in their favor. He has shaved the amount of their debts, figuring they’ll owe him one later. The rich guy finds this out. Instead of getting angry, he splits a gut laughing and takes the manager out for a drink. The manager’s his kind of guy. That sort of shrewdness is how you get ahead in this world. (Luke 16:1-13)
Jesus flatly acknowledges that we live in a world in which unscrupulous, self-serving people frequently exercise immense influence, reach celebrity status, and accumulate heaps of cash. Exploitation, manipulation, and coercion actually get results with distressing frequency.
Observing the success, prestige, and comfort achieved by the world’s most cunning people, it can be tempting to be what some call realistic. To play the world’s game by the rules of the shadiest and most ruthless among us.
And yet, Jesus urges a different course. Don’t be naive, he says. Acknowledge how this world so often works. But don’t merely accept it. On the contrary, resist it. Resist it with love.
When we recognize the inherent and infinite worth of everyone on this planet, we experience the value of our own lives. Regardless of the circumstances we may face. That’s what love does.
But there’s more. Our daily practices of love—no matter how modest they may seem in the grand scheme of things—prevent this world from tumbling into a free-for-all of self-interest and sharp elbows right now. We serve as the leaven that keeps the loaf from collapsing in on itself. That’s what love does.
Jesus never said that living a life of love would be easy or would result in earthly rewards. But it’s the only kind of life that gives us a foretaste of eternity now and extends beyond the grave. That’s what love does.
A Note to My Readers
Hi friends! I need a favor. Would you consider writing a brief review (just a couple of sentences) for A Resurrection Shaped Life? So many of you have commented to me personally that the book meant a lot to you, and I’m very grateful. Amazon reviews are a big help in getting the word out. Seriously, just “This book meant a lot to me” or “Loved this book” or “Well done Jake” will encourage folks to get a copy and crack it open. Thanks for considering this. Here’s a link to help you get started: Amazon Review