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    PloughCast 64: Mary of Bethany and the Virtue of Magnificence

    Money, Part 4

    By Alastair Roberts, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    July 5, 2023

    About This Episode

    Alastair Roberts discusses Mary of Bethany’s magnificent generosity.

    Alastair, a biblical theologian and Susannah’s husband, examines the story of Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus’ feet before Holy Week as a powerful image of what our relationship with money in the Kingdom ought to be.

    It’s not that prudence and careful management are bad things. They are very good. But overflowing generosity, the Christian version of the Classical virtue of magnificence, is the most proper response to Christ’s own overflowing generosity.

    They then discuss the life of the late Tim Keller as an example of this generous investment of time, talent and treasure in the kingdom.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough, and today we’re going to be speaking with Alastair Roberts about Mary of Bethany and the role of magnificence in Christian economic life.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Alastair is a biblical theologian who teaches for the Theopolis and Davenant institutes and is one of the voices behind the Mere Fidelity podcast, as well as many other podcasts; you can find his work at He received his doctorate from the University of Durham, and he is also my husband.

    Wealth, therefore, is the possession of the valuable by the valiant. And in considering it as a power existing in a nation, the two elements, the value of the thing and the valor of its possessor must be estimated together. Once it appears that many of the persons commonly considered wealthy are in reality no more wealthy than the locks of their own strong boxes are. They being inherently and eternally incapable of wealth. And operating for the nation in an economical point of view, either as pools of dead water and eddy is in a stream which so long as the stream flows are useless, or serve only to drown people, but may become of importance in a state of stagnation should the stream dry. Or else as dams in a river of which the ultimate service depends not on the dam but the miller. Or else as mere accidental stays and impediments acting not as wealth, but for we ought to have a correspondent term as illth, causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions.

    Or lastly, act not at all, but are merely animated conditions of delay, no use being possible of anything they have until they’re dead, in which last condition they’re nevertheless often useful as delays and impedimenta.

    That was from John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, written in 1860. And we are welcoming my husband Alastair Roberts onto the pod today. Welcome Alastair.

    Alastair Roberts: Thank you.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You’ve written a piece for us for the money issue called “In Praise of Costly Magnificence: Mary of Bethany Shows the Beauty of Extravagance.” What is the nature of that piece and what is the connection to John Ruskin and what’s going on here? What are we talking about?

    Alastair Roberts: Yeah, so it was a piece prompted in part by the context of Holy Week where I was thinking very much about the story of the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, which really kicks off the events of the passion narrative in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. And it seemed to me that that particular event was given a prominence within the gospel accounts that it does not have in our understanding. And so I was trying to understand what was in the gospel writer’s minds as they presented this event as an event of great significance. And so the event is described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. It is presented in John’s gospel as the action of Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus. And it’s presented there as a response to the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11 of that book.

    In the other gospels, the woman is not mentioned by name but, and interestingly, Mary is not mentioned by name in Matthew or Mark, just in Luke, Mary, and Martha. But what we see is an action of great generosity and one that’s rebuked by the disciples. In John, the disciple who rebukes it is explicitly identified as Judas. Now within the context of the story, the action of this woman is contrasted with the action of Judas in betraying Christ for money. And in the Gospel of John, it’s presented as something that is paralleled with Christ’s own action of washing his disciples’ feet. And so it seemed to me that there was within this action, some illustration of how we should relate to Christ’s body first, and then also beyond that how we should relate to wealth. And so in that particular vein, I explored the context of the story within the gospels, the synoptic gospels and within John, and then thought about the way in which the theme of money is actually surprisingly prominent in the context of the gospel narratives.

    And we can see this in a number of respects. In the betrayal of Judas, it is done for pieces of silver. And he’s the one who has the purse and he’s the one who takes from the purse according to John’s account. And the resistance to the action of the woman is on account of the costliness of what she gives. And we have other costly gifts within the Passion accounts and following the crucifixion, for instance, the gift of the unused tomb and the filling of that tomb with costly spices, the sort of amount of spices that you’d have in the burial of a high priest or something. It’s a very extravagant gift of spices. And so that extravagant gift is juxtaposed with the mercenary betrayal of Judas, and also it’s paralleled with Christ’s costly gift of himself, which in John’s gospel is illustrated in the symbol of his washing his disciples’ feet.

    He removes outer garments and he takes up this task of washing as a servant, his disciples’ feet. And that cleansing action is in the context of John, whereas in the synoptic gospels, there is the celebration of the Last Supper, and in the context of that, the symbolic action of breaking the bread and drinking the wine and that celebration and institution of the celebration of the Supper. In John’s gospel, it is the washing of the feet that provides the symbol of Christ’s action. And so it seems significant that that action is already anticipated by the action of Mary of Bethany upon Jesus himself. And that action, it seems to me, provides a symbol of the way that we should relate to wealth. There’s something about what Mary does that justifies the way that Jesus singles out that action and says that wherever the gospel is told, this will be told in memory of her, that she has done a beautiful thing, that something of what she did illustrates the way that we should act.

    And that seems to me is most seen in our relationship to money. We often relate to money either as something that is just to be accumulated, saved up, used prudently. That’s often a commonplace understanding, we’re supposed to treat our money carefully and to use it in a way that’s prudent and good. Yet in the gospel it seems to me there’s a far more radical understanding to be found alongside that. There are great warnings about wealth. Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth. The dangers of thieves breaking in and stealing and moths corrupting. And more importantly, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And so if you are laying up treasure on earth, your money is something that holds your heart. And so your investment is an investment of your strength, your energy, your attention, and most importantly your heart and your love.

    And so Christ’s counsel is to give to the work of the kingdom. His teaching, to his disciples, not just to the rich young ruler, is to sell and to give to the poor, to engage in extravagant acts of self-giving, giving of your substance in order to provide for others, and in that manner to raise up for yourself treasures in heaven. Now it’s very easy with that sort of teaching to have a sense of money as something of which we need to remove from us. That money itself is merely a dangerous object that we need to dispose of as quickly as possible. Christ talks about money as unrighteous mammon and other expressions that suggest that money is a very dangerous thing. In 1 Timothy 6, we are told that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and there are other such warnings that we find within the gospels and the epistles.

    And so something about this seems to suggest a different way of seeing money, not one in conflict with that presentation of the spiritual dangers of money, but also it gives us a sense of money as a means by which we can engage in extravagance for the sake of the kingdom. We can do beautiful and good things that express something of what Christ himself did in his self gift, because money is very much connected with our … The way we talk about money I think expresses the ways that we can relate to it. Resources, substance, assets are all these different expressions that show just how bound up with our powers, our existence, our ability to preserve ourselves, and to provide a foundation for our lives. Money provides all of these things. And so the attitude that we have to money can easily be one either of storing up and sort of wisely even approach to money, or it can be one of just trying to get it away from us because we know the spiritual dangers.

    But the vision of John 12 and Matthew 26 and the account in Mark 14, I think is one that goes beyond that, that presents us with money as a means of engaging in the work of the Kingdom, of doing things that are similar to what Christ himself did for us. And that passage I think from Ruskin captures something of it. Ruskin emphasizes the importance of life and wealth in the sense of that term etymologically - it’s weal-th, that it’s wellbeing, it’s something that’s supposed to convey the fullness of life. And in the story of John’s gospel in particular, that conveying of life is something that’s throughout the gospel. Christ is going to give life and he’s going to give it to the fullest, and he does that by laying down his own life. And our actions should be guided by that same Spirit, literally capital S Spirit, the Spirit by which we give up and give over in a way that shows love and magnificence, which is a key word that I use within the piece.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, let’s definitely talk more about Ruskin in a moment. That’s John Ruskin, the nineteenth-century British essayist, writer and social reformer, art critic. This question of Mary of Bethany’s magnificence and giving away this apparently pointless gift, right? She was criticized right away by the other disciples, as you say, for just dumping out money on Jesus’ feet. It seems like that is a form of freedom from money, a freedom from mammon, that goes beyond just giving it away. You’re really not allowing money to determine what is worthwhile. You’re not allowing money, mere money, to determine worth. I’m reminded of this anecdote I love about Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, who similarly was given a diamond ring, somewhat valuable, and she gave that ring to a woman who’s homeless, and she was criticized by her coworkers, “Why didn’t you sell the ring and distribute the proceeds effectively to more homeless women?” And her response was, “Poor people love beautiful things too.”

    Alastair Roberts: So yeah. So I think what we see within the story is the contrast between Judas who is in the thrall of money and the whole value system of money. And so many of us are as well. Money is something that dictates our actions just about every day in various ways. The pursuit of money, the love of money, the values that it embodies. And Mary’s action is one that expresses just an overflow of love. And that is something that I think is seen in part by John’s use of Old Testament scripture where he very subtly alludes to passages in the Song of Songs in his description of Mary’s action. So if we go back to Song of Songs, chapter 1, verse 12, we read, “While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.” And so the description of Mary’s action is one that draws our minds back to the actions of the woman in the Song of Songs and her expression of her love for her beloved.

    And in that action we also see the house filled with the fragrance. And the idea of a house being filled with some fragrance or incense or something like that, or smoke, these are images that are very powerful in scripture and they’re found almost invariably in relation to the temple being filled with God’s presence. We can think of the description in Isaiah chapter 6. So at the end of chapter 40 or at the end of 1 Kings chapter 8, all of these passages describe God’s presence filling his temple. And here, the filling of the house with the scent of this beautiful perfume, this costly gift, is the filling of a house with the scent of love, which draws our mind back to the Song of Songs and this great theme that John is working with throughout his gospel and in Revelation. And also with the idea of God’s presence being filled, filling that place, and it’s filled in that expression of love, that answers the love that Christ showed.

    And so if we think about John and his account of this action, it’s very clearly contextualized by Christ’s raising of Mary’s brother Lazarus. And so his action in raising Lazarus from the grave is paralleled with Mary’s action in anointing Christ. And as Christ responds, in “anointing him for his burial,” which seems very strange in the light of the fact that it’s a response to him raising someone from a grave, he’s being anointed in preparation for his grave.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping – Don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Alastair after the break.


    Susannah Black Roberts: As you were talking about Mary’s gift, I hadn’t thought about this before, but obviously Christ’s life is kind of bookended by two incredibly extravagant gifts. There’s also the gift of the Magi at the beginning of his life, the gold, frankincense and myrrh, which is again kind of over the top, slightly ridiculous way of showing love and honor and joy at this kind of royal appearance. And the idea of showing . . . this is very specifically showing a kind of intense passionate love for Christ as the bridegroom, and as the one who’s finally arrived, and the sheer joy that’s sort of embedded in both the gifts of the Magi and of Mary’s gift I think is really one of the things that we’re supposed to take out of this, the kind of giving that we should do, the way that we can give to Christ’s body now to the work of the kingdom and to even just to the joy of the kingdom should be something that’s delighted in.

    It’s not a should thing, it’s a can thing. And we’ve talked about this a lot recently, just the idea of one of the ways that we can understand ourselves as adopted children of God is that we’re adopted into a royal family and that comes with a kind of almost insouciance, sort of an appropriate carelessness with the things of the world, not being anti-Book of Proverbs careless, but a certain kind of openhandedness and calmness, a sense of security that leads you to be able to be generous. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about, am I wrong to see that as the gift of the Magi as that kind of same spirit?

    Alastair Roberts: I think it’s very much the same sort of spirit. And again, that’s drawing upon Old Testament prophecy of the nations bringing in their treasures to the Son of David who comes. I think you see something similar in Jesus’ parables where for instance in Matthew chapter 13, verse 44 to 46, he describes the kingdom of heaven in two related, a pair of parables. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls who on finding one pearl of great value went and sold all that he had and bought it. And this is something that I think has also expressed in the teaching of the apostles where for instance, Paul talks about counting everything as loss for the surpassing worth of Christ, and the way that the surpassing glory that we are looking forward to outweighs everything, every single one of the treasures of this age. And Christ teaches about this in terms of our lives.

    What can a man give in exchange for his life? If you gain the whole world and lose your soul, that’s a loss that cannot be compensated for no matter how much you gain. And so that sense of true value, of recognizing this absolutely surpassing value of the Kingdom of Heaven and of the King at the heart of it all, is something that dictates or that drives the action of Mary of Bethany, and drives her very much in joy and love. Her action is not merely one of prudence or one of these virtues that is anything less than . . . there is nothing about the virtue of prudence I think. It’s not a strong enough virtue to lead to the overflowing of the heart and love that we see in this action. There’s something about her encounter with Jesus and what Jesus has done for her, what he has done in raising her brother, what he has done in the life of her family that leads to this is the very natural response.

    And we can see the way that Christ’s action is of the same character. Christ’s grace is described by Paul as, “though he was rich, for our sake, he became poor so that we by his poverty might become rich.” And the actions that correspond to that are extravagant and not calculated in the same way as we might think about the sort of prudent use of wealth. Now there is a place for the prudent management of our finances, but this suggests that if that is all that we’re going to talk about, if that’s all that’s going to dictate our use of our resources, we’ve really missed the point. There is something that eclipses all values of this age. There is a treasure in this field that everything that we have can be sold for and it still would not be valued at its true value. And so recognizing the true value of Christ in our midst, recognizing the true value of what he has given to us in the kingdom of heaven, recognizing the true value of his body.

    And I think this is significant, that the action is performed upon his body. And we don’t have Christ’s body physically with us anymore. Christ’s body has ascended. He’s at God’s right hand. And yet we do have his body. And so the action of they, you described earlier, I think captures something of that. This extravagant love towards the body of Christ, not now his physical body, but the body of his church and his people is a way that we can express I think, a fitting response to Christ’s extravagant gift to us.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So sort of getting a little bit back to the Ruskin passage, but also braiding in something else that we’ve talked about in the past, which is . . . all right, this might be a little bit of a stretch, but the thing that happens with the widows of Jerusalem are clamoring because the way that alms are being distributed to them is inefficient. In response, the leaders of the church appoint Stephen as a deacon. Stephen starts distributing alms more efficiently, but also starts preaching more kind of boldly. This leads to him getting stoned and killed, which Saint Paul, then Saul, approves of. Saul then gets converted and eventually heads to . . . is it Corinth? Is it the Corinthians who then . . .? Alastair, what am I talking about? Help.

    Alastair Roberts: Antioch.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Antioch, sorry. Paul then eventually goes to Antioch and takes up a collection to send back to the church in Jerusalem. This is very weird, but there’s something weird going on with the flow of resources within the church and the way that people spend their lives for the sake of Christ and the way that people spend their money for the sake of Christ. That I think that story illustrates that is something like what Ruskin is getting at in his quote. Am I crazy, and can you explain to me what I’m thinking about?

    Alastair Roberts: I don’t think you’re crazy about this. I think that we have something of an illustration of this in Paul’s teaching in verse Corinthians 12 and elsewhere about the body of Christ. The body of Christ is the recipient of the Gift of the Spirit, the Gift singular, capital G, the Spirit that’s given at Pentecost. But each member of the body has spiritual gifts. Now the strange thing about this is how do you receive a spiritual gift? You receive a spiritual gift almost in the process of giving it. And it’s in giving our spiritual gifts to others as a representation of the one Gift of the Spirit that all have received, that we truly enter into the reception of this one gift that we have received at Pentecost. And so that communion in the Gift of the Spirit is known as we receive in the act of giving.

    And I think there’s something about the action or the movement that you described there that illustrates this, that actions are through the Spirit and in the economy of the Spirit are constantly outgoing. It’s flowing out and it’s flowing on to others. There’s a sort of amplification effect. And we can see this in for instance, Paul’s expression of thanksgiving at the start of his letters. There’s constantly this sort of redounding of praise to God as God’s gifts prove fruitful in new places. And then the news of that spreads back to other places and they give thanks to God and they want to express their thankfulness in sending out more, whatever it is. There’s this constant amplification process. And the liberality of God’s gift to us I think leads to a corresponding liberality in our actions towards others. Now that can be seen in part in financial gifts.

    It’s also seen in things like the way that we respond to slight, the way that we respond to people who have wronged us. We forgive, and we don’t keep . . . we’re not people who are penny pinchers in the act of forgiveness. We are forgiving without keeping track of those things that we are forgiving. We’re giving without keeping track of what one hand is doing. The other hand isn’t keeping track of it. There is this more general characteristic of Christian action that is lordly and liberal and courageous and it’s benevolent. It’s expressed in a lack of resentment in nobility and in this constant outflowing of love and in great acts. Now we can often think about good works, very much as private personal obedience, not doing the wrong thing, this very personal process of being upstanding and moral and not doing things that we ought not to do.

    And yet in Scripture it seems that there’s a fuller understanding of what good works are. Maybe an understanding of good works that is more aligned with the ancient understanding, the classical understanding of good works as these civic acts. Christians are those who are not merely avoiding sin and acting in ways that are personally upright with those who are positively engaging in spreading the work that we have been the recipients of. God’s great gift in Christ is something that we are spreading out through our great acts towards others. And great acts that we’re not doing to earn praise for ourselves, we’re doing them out of a delight in Christ and desire to see his name on it as a return gift as it were to what he has given us. And as we do that, we’ll find that there is this natural dynamic to the work of Christ and by his Spirit. It is like this outflow of water that just becomes deeper and deeper and fuller and it gives life wherever it goes.

    It’s the vision of the end of Ezekiel, the water flowing out the temple or the vision at the end of Revelation with the river of life flowing out. This is always what the act of Christ was. It’s the gift of living water, which we see in the Gospel of John, flowing out, becoming this full source and spring within every single heart of every single believer that in turn flows out to give life to those around them. And so there’s an inherent liberality to the work of the Spirit that is not just this penny-pinching obedience or avoidance of sin. It’s a positive outflow of goodness and God’s healing act. And we can see this in the way that Christians are committed to acts of love, of restoration, of justice, of healing, of reconciliation. And so that response I think is again seen in Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

    How do you truly keep something like the command not to murder? Well, if you recognize that within your heart, there are the seeds of murder within your hatred for your brother within the resentments that you hold against people. And the response to that is not merely avoiding some sin. Rather, it’s this positive act of being reconciled with your brother. And this positive act is the act that is characteristic of the kingdom, characteristic of Christ himself. Christ came to fulfill the law, not merely in avoiding all the sins that it prohibits, but in enacting in its fullness the reality of love by which it is fulfilled. And that I think is the calling that we have and I think is expressed in the sorts of ways that you described.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What you’re describing is something like the political economy of the kingdom, I think. And it has to do not just with money, but also with the sort of … You hear people talking about time, talent, and treasure. So the treasure part would be the money, but the time and talent are also very important. What we give to the work of the kingdom with an unstinting hand is adding into that sort of multiplied and amplified effect. The other thing to talk about is, well, I guess just to mention, is that this is kind of very spontaneous sounding and can be very spontaneous, but also organization and hard work and the sort of gifts of administration aspect of it should not be underplayed as well. Those are also parts of that kind of diligent, organized, disciplined application of good work is also important.

    And we had talked about winding up with this. We’re recording this a couple of days after Tim Keller died. Tim Keller, obviously pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in my city, in New York. I really feel exemplified a life that looked like this. He was incredibly generous with his money, but he was also generous with his energy and with his time and with his intelligence. And what he did in this city in my opinion, was to kind of create something like a civilization of Christian magnificence that draws on many of the themes that we’ve been talking about today. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the way that our work as well as just our money can go into doing this kind of kingdom building civilizational magnificent project?

    Alastair Roberts: I think it begins very much with a sense of what we have received in Christ and who we are as sons and daughters of the king. We can very easily fall into this very contemporary attitude, I think, of seeing ourselves as playing this zero-sum game with everyone else as our rivals, and lose a sense of the fact that we have received life beyond measure. We have received the Holy Spirit, we have been given Christ himself in whom is life eternal. And out of that confidence in that receipt of Christ’s gift, I think we can act in ways that are not calculated as we would be if we’re thinking of our souls in a zero-sum game. We’re looking for outlets to express our thanks to God. And one of the things that I think happens as a result of that is as we’re just looking for outlets to express a return of thankfulness to the God who has given to us without measure, we will find those things just amplify and they return back to us.

    We cast our bread on the waters and it returns to us after many days even though we had not planned anything. But the Spirit blows where he wishes and we hear the sound of him, but we do not know where he comes from or where he goes. But there’s this constant work of the spread by which he’s building up the kingdom in this strange, bizarre, topsy-turvy economy by which we become richer through giving. And the actions that you described of Tim Keller, I think were very much born out of this confidence in our standing in the gospel, confidence that we are sons and daughters of the king, that Christ is on the throne, that sin, death, and Satan have been defeated definitively. And we are those who are living out the reality of God’s gift, and doing so in ways that are not calculated, that are not according to the logic of this world.

    And one of the things that I find very powerful to reflect upon is that the lives of saints inform us in large part because they reflect those things that they’re looking at. And in looking at things that are in the realm of faith, beyond the realm of sight, they can draw our attention upwards to those realities. And I think we see in those who act in these uncalculated ways, in the action of Mary of Bethany that is memorialized in the gospel. And we are told that this is told in fame of her, that her reputation continues. And I think the reputation of people like Tim Keller will continue for the same reason, because in looking towards something beyond the reality of a competitive realm of rivalry, of a zero-sum game, of a context where we must grasp and fight and struggle and be at war with each other, the reality of the flesh that Paul describes in various places in his letters, we see an image of how things could be, of how things ought to be.

    And that I think is an image that’s really grounded in this. It can’t be grounded anywhere else. It’s grounded in the confidence of Christ’s gift to us and of his grace and his continued gift. This is not a gift that is just once off. It’s something that continues. We experience his grace every single day. And if we truly experience that grace, the thing that we’ll want to do is to spread it onto others because there is a natural sort of restlessness, a good restlessness that comes from the receipt of Christ’s gift, because it is so immense that we are just longing to find some way to express it to others and to part it on to others and to return our answering gift to the one who gave it to us.

    And in the actions of people like Tim Keller, I think we see what this looks like in practice and the immense fruit that can be born as the fruit of the spirit. The actions of the spirit have a logic to them. When we read about the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5, that fruit has a logic to it. It’s the logic of this topsy-turvy kingdom, where values are trans-valuated, where there is this reversal of the way of the world, and the actions of the flesh that contrast, they have their own logic, but the logic of the fruit, the spirit is very much the logic of this gift where we become richer in the giving rather than merely in the receiving.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think one of the things that Keller in particular helped explain to me and one of the things that’s like embedded in the way that I think now that I think his life really exemplified and that links into this is the sense that the work that we do now, the actual sort of the good work that we do in our lives, the books we write, the plays that we produce, the homeless ministries that we support, whatever we attempt, whatever we attempt, every good endeavor, as his book was titled about work, is not going to be lost. He had a very kind of concrete vision of the New Jerusalem as a city, as a real city like New York. And he had a sense, or at least I have a sense through him of everything that I do in this city of New York that’s good, and for the kingdom that is in the spirit, is not going to be erased. None of it’s going to be lost. And I think that that allows you to just do what you can and do it wholeheartedly and maybe not worry entirely.

    You can be so worried about whether or not something is going to work that you never start. And the attitude that Keller exhibited I think allows you to start and allows you to wholeheartedly throw yourself into something because you know that whatever happens, it’s going to be worthwhile. One of the last things he tweeted before he died, or at least his account tweeted, was a quote from … Or a sort of reflection on Tolkien’s story Leaf by Niggle, about a man who spends his whole life dreaming of or having a vision of painting a tree. And by the end of his life, he’s only painted one leaf, but that is enough. That sort of effort towards the vision that he had kind of contains the vision itself and is enough. And it seems to me that a life like Tim’s kind of inspires us to at least start, at least start doing something good for each other and for the kingdom and see what happens. And just rest in the assurance that nothing we do that is good will be lost.

    Alastair Roberts: We could maybe see this in terms of the teaching of the book of Ecclesiastes, which compares life to vapor, vapor which cannot be seen through very clearly. There’s no opaqueness to it. It’s something that doesn’t leave any … Can’t get any purchase on it. You can’t grasp it and hold onto it. You can’t control it and move it in the directions that you want. It leaves no residue in the earth. It just passes away. And that description of life I think is a very powerful one. And the book of Ecclesiastes has often been read in a very pessimistic way. “This is what life is like if God does not act.” And there’s some element of truth to that. But I think the deeper message is a very positive and life-affirming one, that you’re supposed to eat, drink, and rejoice in God’s good gifts to you, to do your work partly to the Lord, to act in a way that takes the moment that God has given to you as a gift and acts accordingly, to cast your bread on the waters.

    There is this uncalculating and generous way of living that’s made possible by the fact that we are not in control, but also that we serve the God who is able to shepherd the wind, who is able to return those things that we cast on the waters to us, that we believe that things won’t be finally lost. Anything good will not be finally lost. And so we can act in ways that are not calculating. We can act in ways even when we’re not in control, we can do things that are good and appropriate and right and courageous and adventurous, because we believe that ultimately it’s the economy of the spirit that will win out. And so small actions done in faith can have long-term lasting impact. And we want to be those who perform those sorts of deeds as a response to Christ’s deed, great deed for us in his gift of himself.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, Alastair, I know you have to go and teach, so I’ll let you go, but thank you so much for coming on the podcast, and I’ll see you later.

    Alastair Roberts: Thank you for having me.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, Susannah will be speaking with Clare Coffey and Dan Walden about multilevel marketing.

    Contributed By portrait of Alistair Roberts Alastair Roberts

    Alastair Roberts received his PhD from Durham University, and teaches for both the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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