Sharks in the Water: In the Event of a Failure (on Good Friday)

I come from a pretty competitive family, so it should have been no surprise to […]

CJ Green / 4.14.17

I come from a pretty competitive family, so it should have been no surprise to find them enjoying the latest season of Shark Tank. Of this show’s many seductions (edge-of-your-seat deliberations, outlandish pitches—looking at you, Pinot Meow), the biggest hook may be the sense of judgment hovering in each episode. A trembling entrepreneur stands and pitches his or her idea before a squad of potential investors—the sharks!—who decide whether or not the business is worth their money.

The show’s producer, Mark Burnett, recently made an appearance at Unpolished, an entrepreneurship conference described by Mya Frazier in her article, “What Would Jesus Disrupt?” Held by Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, this conference aims to get entrepreneurs on their feet:

There are smoke machines and LED screens, harnessed climbers scaling a scaffold “mountain” and raising their arms in symbolic victory over the startup world’s arduous climb. There’s talk of destiny-defining “exits.” Of Jesus and his disciples: “The most successful startup in history!” Of the parable of the talents, in which two servants are lauded by their master for turning a profit with money he staked them: “The first recorded instance of venture capital and investment banking in history!” Of ancient business elites: “A church is the oldest marketplace in the history of the world.” Of the promised land of angel investing, where divinely inspired entrepreneurs dwell: “Because God creates things, too!” Mark Burnett, the producer of The Apprentice and Shark Tank, shows up to remind everyone that “the Bible is full of merchants and people doing work.”

It’s a compelling story not just for entrepreneurs but for anyone taking a daily dip in the shark tank of self-sales. Is there a more promising basket to put your Easter eggs in than the cosmic one of Jesus Christ? Flaunting a sculpted beard and rope sandals, he enters the shark tank, and let’s face it: you’re impressed. Effective preaching? Check. Lots of followers? Check. Convenient miracles? Big check. Overall good news? Don’t think too hard about the Sermon on the Mount, but generally speaking, yeah. Check.

Entrepreneurial Jesus is opportunistic. He’s excited to share God’s gifts with the people. He’s very concerned with love, and despite a few setbacks (a public flogging, an execution), he’s eternally successful. Frazier’s article follows budding entrepreneur, Lyden Foust, who explains why Jesus is his champion:

“The kingdom of God was Jesus’ startup,” he says. “A new future he was selling to people. And that’s the same thing I’m saying as a startup founder—a moment of time has come, and there’s a new future for us.”

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the Gospel of John, a cadre of jealous Pharisees gawk at the procession, saying, “Look, the world has gone after him!” And it has. Jesus enters through a jungle of fanning palms and a chorus of melodic hosannas. But that very same day, things begin to go awry. He acts in increasingly frustrating ways, not just for the crowds, but for his own disciples, too, the very men who gave up their lives, everything they had, to follow him.

He throws a tantrum in the temple, then runs away to the neighboring town. He returns the following morning, seething with a series of cryptic parables. He denounces the Religious Right and hosts a dinner where he invites his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He accuses them of imminent betrayal. He prays for far too long and gets himself arrested. He acts cagey on trial. Finally, he is killed.

This, to me, is probably not the best way to start a business.

I think the crowds following Jesus, at this time, may have felt unsettled. The floor is falling out beneath them. The sturdy ground of their expectations is dissolving. Perhaps Jesus isn’t the lucrative investment they had anticipated. Moreover, they missed the clues suggesting this was so. “People…learn selectively,” Julie Beck wrote in The Atlantic last month. “They’re better at learning facts that confirm their worldview than facts that challenge it.” Three times Jesus predicted his death, but who could have believed it? Galloping to victory on a steed was never his intention. It was a donkey all along. “The most successful startup in history”? “Crucify him!”

It was L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of scientology, who allegedly said, “If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” On Good Friday, however, Jesus has no interest in selling anything. His gaze is set far beyond what money, or religion, could buy.

Of course the point of Good Friday isn’t to suppress the entrepreneurial spirit. To the contrary, Good Friday has no judgments, nothing to say whatsoever, about the careers of entrepreneurs, real estate agents, clerics, or anyone. Its one judgment is on Jesus, the verdict of crucifixion.

For us, though, the question remains: Does God speak up in the event of a failure? When your startup flops—or whatever it is that you’ve put all your time, money, and hope in—does God look away?

There is a Renaissance-era altarpiece called the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by Matthias Grunewald for a monastery that treated patients with deadly skin diseases. Depicting the brutality of the crucifixion, the painting also shows Christ with sores on his skin. I have often wondered what it might have been like to be a patient in that monastery, to sit before that altarpiece, to see God sharing the wounds of my own personal suffering.

I don’t have to wonder long. In the crucifixion, one thing God shares with us is failure, and the waters around us are murky with it. Another breakup, maybe, or another rejection, another funeral, another miscarriage. These are the things that clue me in. Even the most carnivorous sharks among us are not safe in the tank.

Entrepreneurial Christians often reference the parable of the talents. But if we scrutinized that particular parable on Good Friday, could we possibly read it as a cautionary tale about making wise investments? Standing trial before the masses, Jesus was told to fight back, to prove himself, “but he never said a mumbling word,” refused to play the game. Maybe, then, Jesus was the lazy servant in the story, and we were the angry masters. Maybe Jesus was the one who failed to invest, who buried our money and was thrown into hell, the “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

When ventures fail, it is this condemned servant, this failed investment, who becomes our hope. When we find ourselves to be not just the sharks but the bait as well, the problem becomes the solution; his crucifixion is the place to look. St. Paul describes the experience beautifully: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” Robert Farrar Capon, in Between Noon and Three, explains it this way:

We are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God. Dead. Out of the causal nexus for good. Dead. Not on trial. Dead. Out of the judicial process altogether. Not indicted, not prosecuted, not bound over, not found guilty. Just dead. And the lovely thing of it is that we were dead even before they came to get us. We have beaten the system. In Christ we have cheated the cosmos and slipped the bonds of every necessity the Old Party will ever wave in front of us. There is therefore now no condemnation. It doesn’t matter what the universe thinks. It doesn’t matter what other people think. It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t even matter what God thinks, because God has said he isn’t going to think about it anymore. All he thinks now is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; and Jesus now is all your life. You are, therefore, free…