William Shakespeare wrote the five-act comedy As You Like It that was published in 1623. A few lines from that classic are found in a well-known speech that begins:
” All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…”William Shakespeare
No, I have not been reading Shakespeare of late, but his words came back to me as I was reading a portion of “the Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel of Matthew today in The Message contemporary rendering of Chapter 6 done by Eugene Peterson. He entitled the beginning of the chapter “The World is Not a Stage” and that set me to pondering the words penned by Shakespeare that sound so logical in contrast to Peterson’s heading to this chapter.
Most of us might agree that we play various roles on the earth after we are born and the word “roles” might suggest that we are truly actors on a stage, but that would diminish each of us and the biblical narrative we read throughout the pages of the Bible. In biblical text we are unique individuals created by God, called to a purpose with choices that influence the path we take as well as some of the roles we have along the way.
Actors on a stage do not speak words of their own choosing nor are they often representative of the person speaking them at all. Actors speak words written by one person, directed by another person who interprets and determines how each scene will be played out to the tiniest detail. They will determine our entrance and exit, what we will wear, how we will speak the lines written, and with what emphasis they will be accentuated. Actors will be tasked with making the character written by someone else as authentic as possible, but they themselves will not be authentic in their performance on stage or screen. It will be a performance, nothing more. And what is a performance?
A dictionary says this: “a rending of a role, song, or piece of music” as one of the definitions of performance.
Are we only living life as a performance? So much of what we do from childhood onward seems to focus on reaching some level of performance for every level of academic pursuit from early childhood onward. It is true in pursuing sports or music activities and later it is present in the career paths or jobs we pursue. Little wonder that we can get caught up in the way we do something and lose track of the more important things such as whether we are called to do them, how we do them, and if they represent our authentic selves and the character we are.
God’s story in the Bible tells us we are called to be salt and light, to live out the reality of loving Him and loving one another including our enemies – things that are impossible to imitate.
In the current era it seems harder to determine who is imitating and who is authentic. Insecurity and cultural norms drive us to be, say, and act in certain ways to be accepted by those around us. Instead of living out our unique path we can be drawn into seeking to be like others that someone somewhere has decided is the model that is the best choice. But if we are all the same, then why is any one of us needed for something since anyone can do what any one of us can do?
So what then is Peterson suggesting about the opening verses of Matthew 6 that points to why the world is not a stage and should not be? Here is the rending that follows his heading:
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.”
“When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.”Matthew 6:1-4 (MSG)
These are a rendering of the words of Jesus in the famous passage of his teaching describing how those who follow Him, and his teachings are to live. They paint a very different picture than what we might be given from the culture around us. Culture nudges us forward to do good things and then be celebrated for those things as is our reward. Consider how Charles Spurgeon looks at this:
“We must not copy the loud charity of certain vainglorious persons: their character is hypocritical, their manner is ostentatious, their aim is to be seen of men, their reward is in the present. That reward is a very poor one, and is soon over.”Charles H. Spurgeon
No, the world is not merely a stage with us as players of different roles, puppets being fed lines to speak and stage directions to follow. The applause of men, the acceptance of the culture by adopting cultural norms that vary over time, is not the purpose or goal of us as created humankind. If we were to look backward a short 50 to 100 years and seek to play out the norms, we would find ourselves contorted in multiple directions because they have changed in so many areas and so many ways. To suggest these changes have all been for our good or the betterment of humankind would be a hasty judgment.
Peter points the path to consider:
“So roll up your sleeves, get your head in the game, be totally ready to receive the gift that’s coming when Jesus arrives. Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy.”1 Peter 1:13-16 (MSG)