“Wheel . . . of . . . Fortune!”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
“I’d like to solve the puzzle Pat.” People have said that for forty years. Quite a run. Most of us here at some point have been wheel watchers. Part of the evening for a lot of America, 26 million each week, is Jeopardy and then the Wheel. You test your knowledge and then you test your luck.
Wheel of Fortune is egalitarian. Not many people know the state flower of South Dakota. What is the Pasque flower. I Googled it. But I don't need to Google the answer if you give me a few letters, "All Inclusive Resort" or "Strawberry Shortcake with whipped cream." Not all wheel puzzles are easy. But usually, they're easier than characters in Jane Austin novels for 200.
The distinctive quality of the Wheel of Fortune is the element of luck. People know the answer but will try their luck and spin the wheel for more money. People spin so to have a chance to guess. No matter the motivation, each contestant is at the mercy of the wheel. Will it land on bankrupt or 1,000? You don't know till you spin. There is also the moment where someone must wait for another contestant to have bad luck so to have a turn, a turn of the wheel.
For the last couple years, I have been doing research on fate and fortune, the Greek and Roman understanding. I was intrigued to find out that the Wheel of Fortune is not just a game show invented by Merv Griffith. The Wheel of Fortune is a part of Greek and Roman mythology. The goddess, Fortuna, has a wheel. And people are given the chance, if they so choose, to spin it. Like the show, the wheel can land on something good, or it can land on something bad. Fortuna is the goddess of good luck. Her shadow side is the lesser god, Nemesis, bad luck.
The Greeks and Romans had goddesses for fate as well, three to be exact. There is the goddess who spins the yarn of your life; there is the goddess who pulls the thread, the time of your life; and there is a goddess who cuts the thread, hence the phrase our time is "cut short." I mention these myths to improve your chances on Jeopardy, of course, but also because the Greeks and Romans looked at these gods in very helpful ways.
For the ancients, fate is what is beyond our control—something we must accept; it is given to us. Think: things you can't choose. Can't choose where and when you are born. You can't choose your genetic make-up. Well, at least not yet.
Jesus will talk about fate with images of natural disaster, with barns that fall, when things happen like a thief in the night. You don't know when and where and how the lightening will strike.
The opposite of fate is fortune, things you can choose. Your choice is not a guarantee of success. The wheel of fortune doesn't always land on something good. It doesn't have the same outcome for all people. You "try your hand" so to speak. And this is important, the outcome of fortune is not fate. You can always try again. "I'd like to spin again Pat."
I must be careful with ancient mythology, my love of it that is. Talk of lesser gods makes people nervous. People frown when I say, I pay homage to the lesser gods of travel. Frown or not, I do. Protestants like what is eternal to be concentrated to one deity, the Almighty, the one God. We are committed monotheists.
The Greeks and Romans, though, were not. Lots of gods. Crazy ones. In 2013, Kathy and I visited the ancient city of Corinth where the Apostle Paul lived for a time. What was striking in the excavated ruins was how the gods were everywhere. On every block, on every bend in the road, you find a temple to some god. Athena, Zeus, Hera, and on and on. The gods weren't over yonder, they had a nice house just down street, neighbors really.
To this end, the gods were woven into everyday life. They were how life worked. Having only one God in charge of everything, everywhere for all of eternity is great, no objections. But it can lead to a rather unimaginative world, a kind of God who is all things to all people in all places is a bit too big, too broad to really be defined. For the ancients, it was more of an organizational chart than an invisible force, or epicenter, from whence all things flow and return. The Almighty God in charge of everything suggests a lot of control and life isn't really all that controlled.
The idea that God is not in control of all things can get me into trouble from time to time. I sense this trouble when I tell people how lucky I am. I am lucky to have a job where I can listen to Mozart, read seventeenth century metaphysical poets, and drink coffee in a warm office. When I say this though, from time to time, someone will say, no. You are blessed. And then, quite often, they will say, I don't believe in luck.
To which I always want to say, boy you are unlucky. I tend to say nothing to the dismissal of luck because folks who don't believe in luck hold onto the world with a pretty tight grip. They need a God who is not only the Almighty, but very much in control of every detail, a kind of obsessive-compulsive way over the top God. I just don't have the time or energy to wade into such confusion. Life is very random and filled with chances. To make oneself blind to such ambiguity demands a strength of will, hard to contradict.
If I were, though, to wade in, I would offer the numerous instances where Jesus speaks of the chances of life, the randomness or life, the lucky or unlucky events. You can say blessed are the poor. But it is much more provocative to say, lucky are the poor. In other words, this was a good spin of the wheel of fortune even if you can't see it.
But of all the instances where Jesus speaks of the chances of life, and how we can be fortunate or unfortunate, our reading today is the most important. Jesus speaks of what is fate and what is fortune, but he doesn't choose one over the other. The Messiah is God's action, God's choosing, God's choice. This is fate. The choices of God are not ours to control or determine. But David, David is the opposite. David is the image of fortune.
I can hear my unlucky friends say, but God choose David to be king. God did. I believe that. Yes. That was David's fate. What David did with that, the choices he made, they were not the stuff of fate. If you read the events of his life in the scrolls of Samuel, you will find a man of both fortune and fate. You will find instances of good fortune and unfortunate acts and outcomes. He spun the wheel. When he did, things don't always work out well. Sometimes they did. True. But in David you will find a lot of failure, a lot of squandering, that sound the wheel makes when it lands on bankrupt [beeeerrrrrruuuu].
The heart of our teaching, and why the pharisees couldn't answer the riddle, is this: they needed life to be all about fate. There could be no fortune. Only fate.
These folks needed God to be the sort of deity who finds pleasure in the control of all things, the tithing of mint, the rituals and requirements and incredible precision of a completely contained life. And the Pharisees needed a messiah who was in control of all things. That was the whole point of having a messiah!
If you read the gospels, Jesus was not in control. He broke the rules and waded into the ambiguity of life without trying to explain it.
You can take this too far and see Jesus as a renegade. To be fair, he seems ready to upset all the apple carts. But this too is a false image.
The true picture is in the teaching today. Life is not just random and beyond control; not all things are a matter of luck. But neither is everything determined. By bringing David and the Messiah together we see: life is both fortune and fate. The great challenge is to see the difference, how fate and fortune coexist, compliment and balance one another. There is both fortune and fate ever and always at the same time.
Fortune is easy to see in the roll of the dice. Just as fate is easy to see in the circumstances of birth. Our eldest said to me once when I was being critical of him, “Hey I am doing the best I can with the genes you gave me.” Fair enough.
Some things in life are sure. They are our fate. But fate is rather limited. Most of life is ambiguous, open to chance, a matter of luck. For those who need a god controlling all things, an almighty God who not only counts the hair on your head, but ensures your barber is in the right place and right time, in a good mood and ready to give you the right haircut, to have such a god you need to close your eyes a lot. All orthopedic surgeons know every bone in your body. Even knowing this, though, some are good surgeons, some are not. Pray you get a good one. I'd like to spin Pat.
The question of fate is not what will happen in your life, if there will be good fortune or if your life will be unfortunate. Fate is best understood as what God has chosen. What is God's intent for us? With Greeks and Romans, this was quite a complicated question. Which God are we talking about?
We see the choice of God in Jesus Christ; his life and death and resurrection say to us, God has chosen to free us, to make of our world what is good and true and beautiful. God chose to come to us; to take on our darkness, to abide in our ambiguity.
After this fateful decision of God, it is up to us. God has decided to offer freedom, to liberate us. What do we choose? Will we choose to live in freedom? God spoke the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. Do these things; don't do these things. After that, it was up to the Israelites. Sometimes they did well. Sometimes they did poorly. It was not a matter of fate alone. Their life was not determined; people made real choices.
To have a God where all things are controlled, to have an image of God where all things are determined, where luck and chance and ambiguity are a sign of weakness, lack of faith, this belief in God can easily become an idol. Idols are made when we want to remove possibility, to ensure success, to replace fortune with fate.
And the traditions that flow from a God of such complete control where chaos has no hand, well, those traditions are gods as well, our sacred cows. How much of the Protestant tradition has been shaped by making the bible our God. “The bible says so” is somehow a matter of fate, an answer beyond dispute. That is a very selective way of reading the bible.
Our fate as made clear in Jesus Christ is that God has chosen to redeem our sorry lot, to lift what has fallen, to offer compassion to the unfortunate. Hence, we pray, thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is God's doing, God’s choice. How we live that freedom, offer it in kind, how we muster the courage to love instead of hate, well, that is not fate; that is fortune— where we say, "I'd like to spin again, Pat." Amen.
Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
February 12, 2023
Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Senior Pastor & Head of Staff
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