The Bridge to Life

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(c) EMI Films

Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

What will it be like at the moment of death when we step into the next world?

More than a few people imagine a kind of pop quiz.  If you know the right answers – if you’re “in” on the secret password – they have to let you into heaven.  If not, eternity’s going to be tough sledding.

That notion brings to mind the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur and his knights approach the Bridge of Death – a rickety span that is guarded by an old man who recites the same words to everyone who approaches:  “Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.”

And if you get one of those three questions wrong?  You’re hurled immediately into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.

Sir Lancelot bravely goes first.  “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper.  I am not afraid.” 

“What is your name?” the old man asks.  “Lancelot of Camelot.”  “What is your quest?”  “To seek the Holy Grail.”  “What is your favorite color?”  “Blue.”  “Right,” says the Bridgekeeper, “off you go.”  And Lancelot crosses the bridge. 

Sir Robin, who has been listening in, is enormously relieved.  “This is easy!” he says.  He rushes up to the old man, who asks, “What is your name?” “Sir Robin of Camelot.”  “What is your quest?”  “To seek the Holy Grail.”  “What is the capital of Assyria?”  Robin cries, “I don’t know that!”  He is immediately catapulted into the abyss.

Sir Galahad comes next, noticeably anxious.  “What is your name?” “Sir Galahad of Camelot.”  “What is your quest?” “I seek the Grail.”  “What is your favorite color?”  “Blue – no, yellow!”  With that he, too, is hurled into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

The Bridgekeeper chuckles, then turns to the next person in line.  “What is your name?” “It is ‘Arthur,’ King of the Britons.”  “What is your quest?” “To seek the Grail.”  “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”  Without hesitation Arthur replies, “What do you mean?  An African or European swallow?”  The Bridgekeeper grunts, “Huh? I…I don’t know that!” And he himself is immediately hurled into the gorge.

If crossing the Bridge to Heaven comes down to a Pass/Fail exam, you had better be studying right now to learn the right answers.  That’s the approach of countless churches.  If you know the right doctrines, hang around the right people, and embrace the right political perspectives, you can avoid the abyss.

Moving from the comedic to the tragic, how did things ever come to this?  Where did we ever get the idea that something as crucial as Real Life comes down to “knowing the right answers”?

Certainly not from Jesus.   

Somewhere along the line, American preachers and teachers took the spotlight off Jesus’ preoccupation with marginalized people – those who are religiously excluded, morally disgraced, and materially impoverished.  Real Life comes down to love:  loving God and loving others.  Anyone who decides this summer to read through the Bible’s four biographies of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – will come away convinced that serving those most in need of our love is at the very heart of his Good News. 

Doctrines may be important.  But they are not supremely important.

After noting that Jesus’ own version of qualifying for Real Life involves how we treat the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor (Matthew 25:31-45), Pastor James Forbes memorably said, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor.” 

There are more than 2,000 verses in the Old and New Testaments that address the subject of poverty.  But all too often Christians have chosen to quarrel with each other over the “right answers” concerning how much water it takes to be properly baptized and how often we should share the Lord’s Supper, even though each of those topics is addressed by just a handful of verses.

What do we learn from the book of Proverbs?

Proverbs has a surprisingly nuanced “take” on the subjects of poverty and wealth.  For instance:  Why are poor people poor?  Some proverbs say, “It’s because they are lazy.”  Other proverbs proclaim, “It’s because they are victims of a corrupt system.”  Advocates for both “sides” are eager to quote their favorite verses.  But it’s clear that social realities were just as complex 3,000 years ago as they are today.

Some proverbs report the brutal truth about reality.  Bribes actually work, giving the wealthy an upper hand (17:8).  Systemic injustice can sweep away the hopes of the poor (13:23).  Money can buy you friends and a degree of happiness, but it also brings a truckload of worries and troubles. 

Chapter 28 alone is a veritable goldmine showcasing diverse perspectives:  “A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.” (verse 3)  “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse.” (verse 6)  “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him.” (verse 13)  “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.” (verse 19)  “He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.” (verse 27)

So what does Proverbs say to the person who is impoverished and the person who is well off?

Significantly, both receive exactly the same counsel:  Work hard, fight against injustice, and never surrender your trust in God. 

Affluent people receive one additional command:  Be lavishly generous.  Has God blessed you with money?  Then use the favored position you’re in (which is also God’s gift) to help build a better world – starting with the next needy person you see. 

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (19:17)

Memorizing that last verse may not help you pass the pop quiz of some future Bridgekeeper. 

But living it out will change your heart and change your life.  And that’s the real name of the game.