A coffee shop employee, late for work, careens through a school zone at 60 miles per hour in his 1998 Toyota Corolla. You, a conscientious driver doing 25mph, hear the whine of his engine well before before you see the passing red blur of the compact sedan through your passenger side window. That’s when the blue lights start to flash. You watch with satisfaction as this reckless driver is pulled over and slapped with a hefty fine.
Recklessness. It’s the quality of an action that is so single-minded, it disregards all other legitimate concerns in pursuit of one purpose. Recklessness is associated with the thoughtless endangerment of others for the sake of one’s own self-absorbed quest.
Foolishness is a related concept. Foolishness is the lack of judgment and wisdom, something that might just lead to recklessness. Recklessness is foolish. Fools are reckless.
It would be out of line to use these words to describe the character of God, wouldn’t it? God is incapable of foolishness. God cannot disregard the collateral damage of selfish choices; he certainly can’t make such choices himself. And yet, foolishness is exactly the word Paul the apostle uses to describe God’s ways in his first letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man, and the weakness of God is stronger than man” (1 Corinthians 1:25). What exactly is going on here?
This statement is part of the opening section of Paul’s letter – one in which he will challenge the Corinthians, in a lot of ways, to become wiser than they are. He begins by saying he himself didn’t come to them with impressive and wise-sounding rhetoric, and that to those who think they are wise, God’s wisdom looks foolish. He’s talking about the “word of the cross” (1:18), the message he brought of a crucified messiah. It looks like stupidity and weakness when your hero dies in a gruesome and shameful public execution. It looks even more foolish if you sign up to follow in his footsteps.
What kind of God would intentionally do such a thing? What kind of King wins his throne by losing his life? Couldn’t he have done more, taught more, been a better leader, if he had stayed safe? Isn’t it horrible that Paul would endanger people by inviting them to imitate this kind of… recklessness?
Of course, Paul isn’t saying that God is actually foolish. He’s using a rhetorical device. God looks foolish to the unbelieving world, but in seeing him as foolish they actually demonstrate that they are the fools. Paul feels quite free to talk about God’s foolish message of salvation, because he knows that it’s actually the greatest wisdom in the universe.
In Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciples ask him who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. He calls a small child up in front of his followers, and declares, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Compared to the shrewd wisdom of an adult, a child’s credulity and naiveté might be seen as foolish. But the kind of trust that a child displays is exactly what makes a person fit for the Kingdom. The disciples’ interest in being the greatest is the real foolishness.
Jesus goes on to talk about how much he and his Father value these “little ones,” those who trust in him like children. If you cause one of them to stumble, he says, it would be better for you to be drowned in the sea than to face the consequences. And then he illustrates his love with this story: Imagine a shepherd with 100 sheep, and one goes missing. He’ll leave the 99 to go search out the lost one – and when he find it, he’ll be happier about its return than he is about the 99 who never strayed in the first place! Seems a little irresponsible from one point of view, doesn’t it? What if something happens to the other 99 sheep while he’s out searching? While that’s probably taking the details of this little parable a bit too literally, I can personally feel a little cringe at the thought of leaving the 99 to go after the one.
There’s a song – we’re singing it this Sunday, in fact – that rejoices in the fact that God loves his little ones in this way. And like Paul’s “foolishness of God,” it uses language that appears contradictory on first glance. The chorus gets right to the point:
Oh, it chases me down, fights till I’m found, leaves the 99
I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still you give yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
If you cringe at calling God’s love “reckless,” you’re not going crazy. Just like our school-zone speeder, true recklessness is a bad thing that endangers the vulnerable – and God is never like that. But from the point of view of the human and broken desire for self-preservation, personal greatness, and pride, it looks pretty reckless to love like God loves. Just like it looks pretty foolish to die on a cross when you’re trying to get a world-changing movement going. And yet in both cases, the foolishness of God is wiser than man, and the recklessness of God is more careful than man. He defies our concepts of what is wise and careful, he looks like he’s throwing caution to the wind (even though he truly can’t) in pursuit of the ones he loves.
When we sing this song together, consider the insanity (from the world’s point of view) of living a life that imitates this kind of love. God can’t truly take risks, but we can – and the parable of the lost sheep is meant to invite us to imitate the same “reckless” love as we redefine greatness by becoming the least – and perhaps losing things the world values – in order to pursue discipleship through radical love. When we are foolish like this, we are wise. When we are reckless like this, we show the greatest care.