There were some folks who were very proud of who they were—their family heritage, their place in society, their ability to influence things—and who looked down on people who weren’t as “good” as them. And Jesus told them a story: “Two people went into the church to pray. One was a leader in the church who held much sway in the community. The other was an addict who tricked people into giving him their money to buy drugs. The first one stood at the middle of the altar, lifted his hands to the sky, and said, ‘Thank you, God, that you have made me so prosperous and so powerful, and that I’m not like these other low-lifes. I attend all the church council meetings and I put a tenth of my salary into the offering plate.’ But the addict stood in the back, ashamed to approach the altar or even to lift his eyes. He buried his head in his hands and said, ‘God, have mercy on me for the wrong that I do to people.’ I tell you, this person went home justified in God’s eyes rather than the one of influence. Everyone who thinks they’re more important than others will be brought low, and everyone who humbles themselves will be lifted up.” –Luke 18:9-14 (my paraphrase)
A friend of mine posted something on social media this morning that went something like this:
“I woke up this morning in a dry bed, had hot water in my shower, food in my fridge, and working air conditioning. God is so good!”
Actually, I hear this kind of thing a lot from my Christian friends.
“I can’t believe how awesome God is to make my life so comfortable. Yay God!”
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I like to be comfortable. I like having a memory foam mattress and a full fridge and fresh fair-trade coffee. I like my iPhone and AirPods, my 60” TV, and my collection of expensive fly rods and backpacking gear. I like it when my car runs, and I like a good parking place close to the door as much as anyone.
And I think God is in that. God is in my comfort.
But my comfort is not God’s agenda.
If my comfort, or anyone’s comfort for that matter, is God’s agenda, then that means that God’s agenda is also someone else’s discomfort. Because I know that a lot of the things that make me comfortable come at someone else’s expense.
And I think that’s something God unambiguously stands against.
Privilege or purpose?
One of the theological premises I’ve been exploring in my current season of spiritual reconstruction is the theme of purpose vs. privilege. I’m going to unpack that a lot more in the days and weeks to come, but at its heart it’s a subtext I see running throughout the biblical narrative…God imbues God’s creation with purpose from the very beginning, but the tendency of humanity is to turn the gifts of purpose into a claim for privilege.
In fact, I think a pretty substantial theological stance can be taken that privilege is really the essence of what we might call “original sin.” Again, I’ll dive into that a little deeper in some future writings. For now I’ll let you sit with that concept and consider its implications.
The point, though, is that privilege always comes at the expense of the other. By its very nature, it creates ins and outs, haves and have-nots, worthies and unworthies.
Because I can’t have privilege without someone else losing it.
Did you hear the one about the golden calf?
And so when I experience comfort in my life, and credit that comfort as a gift from God, I have to be very, very careful. Again, it’s not that comfort is not from God, but that comfort is something that can very quickly become something we fight really hard to protect.
You might even call it an idol.
And this doesn’t just happen on an individual level, but also a cultural and societal one. One of the most glaring examples, but certainly not the only one, can be seen in systemic racism or classism.
It’s a symptom of people using their privilege—which they often believe to be God-given—to protect what they believe to be their God-given comfort.
When the Israelites in the Exodus story decided to build a golden calf to worship, the problem wasn’t that they were representing a god other than Yahweh. It was that they were misrepresenting Yahweh. They were making God into something God was not.
When we begin to worship our privilege over our purpose, we are replacing God as God is with who we want God to be…a God that exists for our benefit at the expense of others.
The Superiority Complex
Now, a legitimate question to ask at this point might be why we can’t just all have comfort. Why does my comfort necessitate someone else’s discomfort?
Think about it for a moment. Privilege, by definition, is exclusivist. It means having something that others don’t. It means being something others aren’t. It carries with it—either implicitly or explicitly—a sense of superiority.
And while that often gets played out in the realm of consumerism and materialism, it reveals itself more deeply in economics and politics.
But however it manifests, it is, at its root, a theological problem.
When we believe God gifts certain people with certain comforts/privileges that God does not gift to others, we have created a false God.
Worse, we create theologies and doctrines that defend the view of an exclusivist God that cares more about propositional acquiescence to a conception of God than an actual, lived, relational experience of God.
All for one and one for all
So yes, please, thank God for your dry bed and your hot shower and the roof over your head. Thank God for a life with more comfort than discomfort. If you must, even thank God for that great parking spot.
But don’t lift your privilege above your purpose. Remember that whatever gifts God gives you, God gives you not just for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.
Welcome to the reboot of joewebbwrites.com. After an extended dry season where my writing has been limited to a few sermons and work projects, I’m re-launching this week with a series of articles on the theology of purpose vs. privilege. I welcome your feedback and conversation over the concepts I present here…just keep it civil and keep it classy.
The kingdom is coming, y’all.
5 thoughts on “A Parable of Purpose and Privilege”
Thank you, brother Joe. We so seldom have op for face-to-face. Blessed with the gift of communication and faith to be a blessing, you are. Your insight and perspective will bless me (and many others) in the time to come. Looking forward to spiritual formation with you in this venue!
Joe, thank you for this. I enjoyed the reboot opener. Looking forward to more. This theme of Purpose and Privilege fits well with First Pres Marietta’s focus this month on creation. I may lift a couple of your statements with attribution. David
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