A Cautionary Tale
Every morning when my father stepped inside his office he looked directly at a wall with six portraits and below the pictures was a mirror. When he was younger he had carefully picked six individuals with specific character traits he wanted to emulate and weave into his life. He added the mirror to help him determine if he was making progress.
I did not set out to do that but as I look around my own office I have pictures of several men whose character and examples I have admired and also been fortunate to have had as friends. There is Peter Drucker, Lyle Schaller, Dr. Ben Fisch, David Hubbard, Curtis Meadows, Bob Buford and others. I don’t have them arranged in any order nor do I have a mirror but I often remember something my father asked many people over the years. “Are you happy with who you are becoming?” There is something to be said for emulation and having flesh and blood examples of character against which we can measure ourselves and who we are becoming.
However, I have noticed in my giving I am motivated not so much by emulation as paying attention to people who fell short. I don’t know why I am not as challenged by aspiring to what others have done or become in this part of my life as I am by caution. When I read about individuals who give away 90% of their wealth or even those who ratchet up their giving every year it does not make me want to do the same. When I read about the Widow’s Mites I am not challenged to give it all. Even the account of little Zaccheus giving away half his wealth has scarce hold on my imagination. Yes, there are some examples of giving, like Barnabas, that do encourage me but, on the whole, I would say it is the warnings about the dangers of wealth that affect me most. It is more the prospect of allowing wealth to corrupt that has shaped me.
For centuries, children have been taught what is right by telling stories about what is wrong. We call these “cautionary tales” and we are all familiar with “Hansel and Gretel”, “Jack and the Beanstalk” or “Little Red Riding Hood.” These are not stories told to entertain only. They are stories for teaching children about morals and the certain dangers that come with living carelessly. They are stories that teach principles and wisdom about the world. They are not horror stories like we have today in “The Ring” or “Silence of the Lambs.” These are not tales with a lesson to teach. Unlike horror stories, main characters in cautionary tales are not moral monsters or deviants but people much like us who test the rules. Otherwise, it would be impossible to recognize ourselves in them and the purpose of the tale would be lost. I can see myself as Hansel or Jack not just as a child but even now.
In that sense, it is the cautionary tales in Scripture that have guided me most. I am more attracted to stories like the Rich Young Ruler than Solomon who built the Temple with his wealth. In fact, I have often thought if the young man had given up all he had and followed Jesus, we would have lost a cautionary tale that has stimulated the giving of millions of people over centuries. Perhaps, there was something redemptive in his lack of faith. I do know I have considered that story many, many times through the years. I think about the Rich Fool who lost his soul because of greed. I do not want to become that person. The story of the rich man and Lazarus has nudged me countless times. How can anyone forget the fate of Ananias and Sapphira or even the prospect of the final judgment where we are separated as sheep and goats according to what we have done for the poor?
Not only that but the cautions in James about how we treat the rich with special attention and privileges have made me especially sensitive about how The Gathering can easily fall prey to that. The cautionary tale told by Paul to Timothy of those who “desire to get rich and fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” is a true story. Or, how easily we make celebrities and models of those who are rich in this present world and, as a result, have become arrogant and put their hope in uncertain wealth. How many times have we seen that happen to people who began with the best intentions?
All of these have found a place as pictures in my mind and have their place alongside the others who have inspired and enriched my life. I need both.