The Third Way...Overrighteous or Overwicked?

Before we move to ground where angels fear to tread, I wanted to start with a verse that has messed with me for some time. It’s a verse that speaks of a concept that I feel is what Jesus called in the Gospels one of the “secrets of the Kingdom”. Jesus spoke of this phrase when he was explaining why he spoke in parables, which is entirely different than why we think he spoke in parables.

We think he told parables to make it easier to understand the gospel, little stories that served to explain hard things, making them clearer. But Jesus’ explanation of why he spoke in these riddles was the exact opposite. He described their purpose quite differently. They were actually spoken to turn people off that were interested in 3 easy steps to God, or 4 happy hops to Heaven. He quoted the prophet Isaiah who said that people were ever hearing but never perceiving, always looking upon but never seeing lest they should turn and be forgiven.

What? Isn’t that what you want--people to turn and be forgiven? Isn’t that the whole point? Well, yes and no. It depends on whether they are turning for the right reason. It hinges on more than just picking a side or choosing an answer on the multiple-choice quiz. This is where Jesus floats the “secrets of the kingdom” phrase for the first time, almost like there are obvious truths that are no-brainers, and then there is this deeper layer of spirituality that won’t be touched by anyone uninterested in grappling with truth in it’s wildest and rawest form. The kind of truth that can’t be absorbed while clipping coupons and watching “Say Yes to the Dress”. This truth is not for the faint of heart. This truth is embedded underneath the elementary and rudimentary thoughts and theologies of man. They are secrets. And they aren’t found in Christianity, they are found in the Kingdom. And the Kingdom is slowly becoming more central to me the longer I’m alive and the further I go in my God-expedition.

I say all this to say that I don’t think God is found in the easy extremes. I think if He is to be found, it will be in the place of tension somewhere in between all the polarities vying for our allegiance. Here is the aforementioned verse that has been a paradox and a detox all in one.

Ecclesiastes 7:16-18

16 Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself?

17 Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool— why die before your time?

18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.

I find this verse refreshing for some reason. In years gone by I would have felt confused saying something like “makeup my mind already”. I would imagine this to be something Oprah would say in an effort to unify humanity, playing both sides for the sake of mass appeal. The consummate view of “The View”. I would have called this shallow Christianity, the happy/crappy medium not wanting to offend or be offended. The compromising church complacently sitting in the fat middle of the road refusing to embrace absolute truth. Plurality. Relativism. Rubbish.

But these verses speak of a secret wisdom that few attain. A wisdom that finds a place that values both without dismissing either. “But if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything! This is riding the fence! Fish or cut bait!” All these generational quotes force us to one side or the other making it impossible for wisdom to speak her thoughts. She is gagged in the corner mumbling something about both, but we slap her face and tell her to shut up while we pit the one against the other in an epic war of world views.

It’s funny to me that three words in this text aren’t even words in the dictionary. Overrighteous. Overwise. Overwicked. These words don’t exist in our vocabulary. And there is a reason. We have a hard time comprehending how it could be possible to be overrighteous because God very clearly wants us to be holy as He is holy. We can’t think of how being overwise could lead us to “destroying ourselves”. It is a mystery to us. It’s a secret.

But I think if you could pull back from your theology for a second and watch life as it naturally emerges around you, you would see the forest for the trees. I’m sure you’ve met a person who is “too big for his britches”, “too smart for her own good”. You’ve met a person who thinks they’ve arrived, a veritable “know-it-all”. You’ve encountered a conversation, I’m sure, dripping with guarantees and “sure-things” when you know it’s not that “cut and dry”, “that easy”. Not even close. You’ve tried to reason with someone who isn’t budging, someone who won’t even entertain an idea or a perspective because they’ve “made up their mind” and don’t want to be confused with the facts.

You’ve, no doubt encountered, a zealous believer who, in their righteousness, hose people down anyone they get around with their over-the-top positions on a variety of issues. They don’t ask questions because they are so chuck-full of answers. A person with all the answers doesn’t have time for questions, asking or being asked. They have come to conclusions on everything, and if you have a different conclusion, you are in their crosshairs of their desire for your conversion. All roads lead back to disagreeable territories of varied opinions and preferences. They won’t let it go. They will fight to the death. They have found closure, and you should too. “God is not a God of confusion” they say as they lay out for you the path of clarity that they have embraced. You humor them by letting them monologue about their take on life or the Bible or God, but in your mind you’re thinking “get me out of here”. With a gesture of diplomacy you smile kindly, wish them well, and leave their presence feeling like you have to go and take a shower. It is violating, in my opinion. You’ve been raped by righteousness, so to speak. Which is not righteousness at all.

Overwise, overrighteous people are neither wise nor righteous because they are all too aware of their wisdom and rightness. But the overwicked, folly-filled person is just as polarizing. They live a philosophy of hedonistic humanism. Whatever feels good or right is embraced as gospel truth. Pragmatism guides them. “Having fun” is their litmus test of value. Is it something that will be “fun” or will it be boring. It’s “live and let live” in this extreme world or selfishness. Don’t bother me with truth or boundaries or virtues unless they lead to fun. If they take work or discipline or lead me to have to sacrifice or serve, I’m not interested.

I mean, there’s value in being around a fun and funny person, but this person always crosses the line into something more vain and vulgar. If the overrighteous are over the top, the overwicked are over the line. It’s almost like if life doesn’t have shock value, it isn’t titillating enough. They are, what the Bible calls, “inventing new ways of doing evil”. Why? Because evil doesn’t feel fun unless it’s crossing a new threshold of alarming extremity. It’s a drug.

But the secret is found in verse 18. It is “the third way”, the “peculiar way”, the “quirky way”.

18 It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.

We’ll talk about this sometime in the near future. Thanks for walking through my messy mind with me.


Lisa said…
I found this post very refreshing and though provoking! Just some thoughts: I, too, have thought of Jesus' use of parables. How he refrains from resorting to expository speech in the NT, from giving the pharasies the dictionary definitions or the hard and fast rules they desire... They try to initiate a theological debates to trap Him and He gives them a long sideways glance and begins to tell them a story (that most unreliable and seductive form of communication), as if they are children and its way past their bedtime. It astounds me and I love that about Him. But I've always wondered about the next part- about the part when He proceeds to explain the parables. Does that not defeat the purpose? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the elaboration but did He not choose to communicate His truth in story form for a reason? Perhaps the explanatory sections say more about his listeners and their demands than they do about Jesus, but still... By "imposing" or establishing one single intepretative framework, is He not backing away from the 'third way'?
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