Discernment is a twenty-five-cent word that implies a process that tries to determine God’s preference regarding a particular situation in the pursuit of better decisions. In our tradition, discernment involves phrases like prayerful consideration and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Discernment involves decision-making that corresponds to what we believe God had in mind. Whether or not a decision is well discerned is a judgment call that attempts to utilize scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.
Our decisions reflect our priorities, privilege, perceptions, and experiences, to list just a few of the factors involved.
In this week’s chapters from our companion book, The Shepherd’s Wife, we witness several examples of decisions made by various characters that beg for debate, particularly concerning whether the character’s decisions are consistent with God’s intent.
For example, Damaris is shopping with four of her six children at the local market when a woman goes into labor. The husband cries out to all within earshot that his wife needs assistance from someone with experience in childbirth. Damaris had a lot of experience and could help. But despite the encouragement of one of her children, she chooses to walk away. Why?
It’s complicated. The woman was a Gentile, and Damaris was the wife of a candidate to join an elite group known as the Pharisees. As community leaders well versed in law, the Pharisees sought to be examples of keeping the finest details. Avoiding contact with Gentiles was high on their list. Should Damaris help the woman, there would be witnesses, and she might endanger her husband’s chances. But was her discernment consistent with God’s intention?
Meanwhile, Pheodora receives a letter from prison. A stranger, Uriah, visited Chiram and the other prisoners one day each week and brought him materials to write home. When asked why he chose to do what he did, Uriah told Chiram that he was motivated by something Yeshua said to a crowd. By visiting Chiram and the other prisoners, it was as though Uriah was visiting God in prison. And God would remember the decision Uriah made later.
Shimon could easily pay Chiram’s debt releasing him from prison and had good reason to do so. After all, Chiram was his wife’s brother. But he knew that many of the Pharisees had business dealings with lenders. And infringing on the profits a lender stood to gain from the usury charged could have negative consequences. Shimon’s mentor, Lavan, advised him not to get involved since it set a dangerous precedence. Instead of paying off the debt, Shimon suggests that Pheodora could sell one of her daughters to cover her husband’s debt.
Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help Me.
You and I are faced with decisions almost every day. Generally, the circumstances are less daunting than those faced by the characters mentioned above. Nevertheless, they’re our circumstances and our decision to make. And every discernment has consequences that affect everyone around us.
So what did Jesus say that motivated Uriah to visit strangers in prison?
Matthew shares the story in his book. If our bible has headings, we often see something like “Final Judgment” ahead of this story. Jesus uses sheep and goats to illustrate God’s intention when making decisions involving giving aid to others.
The details of the story are straightforward. At the final judgment, God will separate those chosen for eternal life in heaven like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. And God will say to the sheep that they decided to give aid when God was thirsty, hungry, naked, sick, or in prison. The goats chose not to offer clothing or something to drink or eat, nor did they tend to God’s illness or visit God in prison. Neither group recalled a situation where they were faced with such a decision. After all, when is God ever lacking?
That’s the catch. It was how we responded to situations when we were confronted with someone in need that mattered to God. And the story offers insight into the importance God places on aiding those in need. But it’s complicated, isn’t it?
Every decision we make has consequences. We can’t be in two places simultaneously, nor does God stretch the days because our to-do list isn’t finished as the sun goes down. The discernment we use to make decisions is essential and has eternal consequences.
Jesus also said that there will always be poverty of some sort. He knew the brokenness of human nature firsthand. We can’t control the decisions that others make. We can’t always help. But we always have a choice.
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Our series was inspired by and relies on content provided by Angela Hunt. The Shepherd’s Wife. Jerusalem Road Series. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2020.