Once upon a time, a new shoemaker and his apprentices came to a village and set up a booth at the edge of the marketplace. The other more established shoemakers looked at them with contempt and told each other, “Surely, he will fail.” After all, shoemaking is a difficult trade and this shoemaker was not known by any of them.
But the new shoemaker spoke of how his shoes would make the people feel renewed. Slowly, people came and tried on the new shoemaker’s footwear. And each time, they were astounded! They had never felt this way before.
Word of the new shoemaker spread quickly and soon everyone wanted his new shoes. And the shoemaker made shoes for all of them— old, young, men, women, and those for whom it was difficult to walk. He even made shoes for all those whom the villagers had shunned. And they were all amazed at how their new shoes made them feel.
An influential businessman and owner of some of the oldest and most popular shoemaker booths came to the marketplace. He was respected but known in the village for being grumpy. The grumpy businessman said, “Why are you here? We don’t need any new shoemakers.” The shoemaker gave him a new pair of his shoes and asked only that he try them. The grumpy businessman put them on, walked around, and then exclaimed, “I don’t understand. How can this be? I feel like a new man!” The businessman left and told everyone about his new shoes and how much better they made him feel. And no one called him grumpy anymore.
The shoemaker quickly grew popular (except with the other shoemakers, of course). The villagers said he could be the most successful shoemaker ever and become very rich. Businessmen offered him better booth spaces in the market place. The shoemaker’s apprentices were very happy to stay there.
The next morning the village people came early to the shoemaker’s booth at the marketplace to see what he was making. They were excited about the possibility of new shoes and people’s reactions to wearing them for the first time. But when the people came to the marketplace, the shoemaker’s booth had been taken down. They began to hunt for him. When they found the shoemaker, everyone cried, “Everyone is looking for you to see what new shoes you are making!” The shoemaker looked at them and simply said, “I cannot stay here. I must go make shoes for other villages.”
My (weak) attempt at a medieval-setting parable has a thinly veiled parallel to Jesus. But that is part of the point of this tale. Because just as it is not difficult to see that the shoemaker did not operate on the typical business model, neither was Jesus any typical teacher or prophet. The shoemaker was not driven to embrace success but instead was committed to a different standard. This is also the heart of how Jesus lived as revealed in the Gospels. Yet many Christians have never connected with how Jesus was not guided to live for God by seeking success. It is this trait that needs to be the foundation of how we should follow Jesus— adopting discipleship based in being faithful, not successful.
My first exposure to this concept came from a quote: “God doesn’t call us to be successful, but to be faithful.” I do not recall when I first heard it, but I have teaching notes dated 1989 referencing it so I know it has resonated within me for decades. At some point I heard the quote was attributed to Nobel Peace Prize winner and Catholic Church saint Mother Teresa. Trying to source the quote, I found an online article by former White House staffer Jim Towey who had worked with her for 12 years. His article included the following:
Mother Teresa was asked at the end of her life if she didn’t get a little discouraged. After all, for every person that she picked up in the gutter, there were still 10 people dying all alone out there in India. Didn’t she get discouraged by this? “No,” she said. “God doesn’t call me to be successful, but to be faithful.”
It is the kind of quote that immediately rings out as the purest of spiritual truth while at the same time can be challenging to make an argument as to how that is so. But over the years as I studied the Bible, the origin of this truth became very apparent. The Old Testament is full of stories of a people who God called to be faithful but instead time and again sought success in God’s name, leaving them perpetually distant from what God intended. Similarly, Jesus’ life did not reflect seeking success of his own endeavors, but a life of faithfulness to the calling made of Him.
It is counter-intuitive for most people in Western society not to think in terms of success and failure. Today, seeking success and avoiding failure is at the heart of both individual and corporate achievement in businesses, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and all levels of education. It is not an evil practice, simply a cultural one that has the capacity to bring about much good. But it also can be misused in Christianity to claim things in God’s name when it blinds us from how Jesus lived his life. Spiritually discerning between successfulness and faithfulness while living in a success/failure culture is a difficult discipline.
In the next post we’ll further define and contrast following Jesus successfully versus faithfully.
Reflection: Do you think of Jesus as being successful or faithful?
Next post: Successful versus faithful