The Gospel of the Slow and Weak
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11
Can you think of an example where this proverb rings true? The Aggies, struggling behind their backup quarterback, take down Alabama. The USA hockey team took down the mighty Russians in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” 300 brave Spartans hold off the Persian hordes at Thermopylae. Based on appearances, those events turned out the opposite of how they were supposed to go. But, as the quoted passage states, sometimes the slow, weak, and out-of-favor find success.
This is a comforting passage for those who don’t have elite physical gifts or a superior intellect. We know who’s supposed to come out on top, but sometimes, despite all odds, the little guy wins. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? But instead of it being a comfort, this passage is a curse to those who do possess superior strength, intelligence, or power. To them, knowing that their advantage in life can be lost to something as fickle as “time and chance” is a source of frustration and constant worry.
While the above proverb may apply to things like sporting contests or battles, it applies especially to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this case, however, the upset isn’t caused by “time and chance” but rather by the truths contained in the simple gospel message. Social status doesn’t matter — whether Jew, Greek, slave, or free, we are all one in Christ Jesus. To the slow and weak, that message is a blessing, but to those who want to be swift and strong, it’s a curse.
It should come as no surprise that, on average, the gospel doesn’t appeal to the “highly educated.” If you look at statistics, the more educated a person is, the less likely that person is to be a Christian. This has led many to conclude that, since the gospel appeals to the uneducated, the gospel message must be pure foolishness. The gospel is indeed “foolish” in the sense that the message of a resurrected savior can be understood by simple folk. No college degree is necessary to understand that Jesus died to save us from our sins. Not only does this simple message offer no advantage to the intellectual, but it is also a stumbling block to the “wise.” Since the power of the gospel is not in words of human wisdom, many of our intellectual elite reject the gospel outright (1 Cor 1:26-2:5).
Some intellectuals, however, want to retain their elite status without giving up on the gospel. To accomplish this, they have to distort the simple gospel into a cryptic message full of hidden truths too profound for common folk. Only the smartest among us can discover these new insights on the Bible, which were unknown since its inception. The gospel of the intellectual is alluring because we, like the ancient Athenians in Paul’s day, love to hear new things. Even so, the message of the gospel has always been the same: Jesus rose from the dead to save us from our sins. Many will mock this “foolish” message, but some will keep an open mind (Acts 17:21-34).
Another group that is at a disadvantage in light of the Gospel are the self-righteous. Their power is in being more holy, more righteous, and just plain better than other people. Their status comes from an appearance of an unattainable righteous perfection. The problem with this, however, is that there are none who are righteous, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
How, then, could the self-righteous keep their status in the face of this plain truth? They, like the Pharisees, would have to convince folks that other sinners are beneath them. Sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors are unworthy to hear the gospel of the Pharisees, so they have no association with them, and they certainly don’t try to bring them to repentance. Those sinners have wasted their years on prodigal living, while the self-righteous have kept God’s commandments from their youth.
Matthew 20:1-16 contains a parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard” which explains the folly of this reasoning. The master hired laborers to work in his vineyard and agreed to pay them a denarius. Over the course of the day the master brought in more workers, agreeing to pay each a denarius, including those who came at the eleventh hour. This frustrated the laborers who had worked the whole day; they had no advantage over the latecomers. The point Jesus is making in the parable is that those who have been faithful to God over the years have no advantage over one who has been saved in the “eleventh hour.” Both groups will receive the same eternal reward.
Trying to find superiority in one’s personal righteousness is a wasted effort. We have all sinned, and we all aim for the same reward, no matter our personal history. For those of us who are life-long disciples, we need to take special care, that we don’t become like the self-righteous Pharisees. But for those of us who didn’t “grow up in the church,” or came to Christ only after hitting “rock bottom,” the gospel of Jesus is a great comfort. The reward is no less, and the victory is just as sweet.
It’s no wonder that the gospel has always appealed to the slow, weak, and downtrodden. If we’re honest with ourselves, our earthly advantages are illusory anyway. Despite the image that we may project, we’re all spiritually impoverished and in need of the grace of God. Fortunately, for the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:3).