Friday, July 20, 2007

Discipline for Disciples?

I was thinking a bit more on the meaning of the term “pastoral” this morning, particularly in relation to a passage I chose for lectio divina this morning, Isaiah 57: 18–19:

I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will lead him and requite him with comfort, creating for his mourners the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the Lord.


I was puzzled over these verses because of the verse preceding them: “I smote him, I hid my face and was angry; but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.” To me, the passage in its immediate context seemed to go against what I posted yesterday, at least in the sense that a pastor’s role is not solely in comforting sinners. The gist of Isaiah 57 seemed to be that wrath didn’t work, so consolation would.

But was that really the message? Yes, God desires mercy, not sacrifice, but is mercy
only given by way of soft words and “there theres?”

Then Psalm 23 popped into my mind:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


Of course, this psalm reiterates almost everything I wrote yesterday, but I remembered something that struck some time ago and that makes sense of the passage in Isaiah: “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

The meaning here is easy to miss, particularly if you don’t know how shepherds use the rod and staff. These tools are used to guide sheep to the right or left, to prompt them to move forward, and when necessary, to get them back into line. They’re tools of guidance and discipline. What does one use the crook of the staff for? To drag a straying sheep back into the flock. What do you do with the rod when a sheep isn’t moving in the direction he or she should? You whack it on the rump with the rod to prompt compliance. A good shepherd would never beat the sheep with these tools (not that some of us couldn’t use a good beating now and then), but he knows when discipline is necessary to get us back on track.

Proverbs 13:1 underscores both the responsibility of the good child, and the foolishness of those who will not be led: “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to a rebuke.” In the same chapter, we see that it is indeed discipline that demonstrates ones love for a child: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13: 24). Paul reminds us again in Hebrews 12: 5–8 that discipline is a sign of love, not wrath or antipathy:

And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? –“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.


The very word disciple comes from the same root as discipline. How can one call oneself a disciple if one will not heed discipline?
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