The Hedgehog and the Fox

What good is it to do important things only to neglect the essential thing?

Don Quixote attacked windmills he thought were dragons. Too many Evangelicals do the same.  Just as people mocked the Man of La Mancha for his delusions, they scorn us for flailing at imaginary dragons.  Yes, there are wrongs to be righted and battles to be fought.  Like Don Quixote, we are quick to charge into the frays.  But, what if we end up fighting dragons that turn out to be windmills?

    There’s nothing sadder than to give our lives to important things while neglecting the one that matters most.  An ancient Greek proverb says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows the one thing.”  It comes from a parable about a cunning fox who exhausts many strategies to kill the hedgehog, who sneaks, pounces, races, and plays dead.  Yet the fox slinks away defeated, its tender nose perforated with spines.  The wily fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows only one thing: to roll into an impenetrable ball covered with sharp quills.  

     In a 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided people into two groups:  foxes and hedgehogs.  Foxes are multi-visionary, pursuing many goals and interests.  As a result, they are scattered, unfocused, and end up achieving very little.  Hedgehogs don’t overcomplicate things.  They focus on one overarching vision, which they then go out and accomplish. 

     Jesus had a hedgehog approach to life.  He knew the one thing: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” [Luke 19:10] Nothing illustrates this more than a familiar story in the fourth chapter of St. John’s gospel.  Jesus is ministering in the south of Judea when he decides to go north to Galilee. The shortest route is through Samaria.  It’s also the most dangerous.  Samaritans are inbred hillbillies, murderous thieves, heretics, and avowed enemies of their Jewish cousins. Smart Jews walk 30-50 miles out of their way to bypass Samaria.  But St. John writes that “Jesus had to go through Samaria.”  The original language has the sense that he is driven to take that unsafe route.  Call it a hedgehog singleness of purpose.

     He arrives outside a Samaritan village at high noon.  The hot Palestinian sun is overpowering.  He sits wearily beside one of the wells Jacob dug 1800 years before, while his disciples go into the village to buy food. As he wipes his brow, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water.  She’s the very reason he has taken this journey.  He asks her for a drink of water.  She can’t believe that this Jewish holy man would even speak to her.  She is a half-breed, heretical Samaritan.  Worse than that, a woman in a male-dominated society.  Even worse, a fallen woman.  She’s hit rock bottom—an outcaste, married five times, and now unmarried, living with a man.   

     Yet, this encounter at a well will change the trajectory of her life.  She meets the only man who will ever truly love her for who she is [or even in spite of who she is]. She has come for water, but Jesus knows that her raging thirst is beyond anything that the water of this well can ever quench.  She has plowed through five marriages and a live-in boyfriend, but Jesus knows that there is an emotional need that no man can ever meet.  She has lived the life of the fox—hoping, searching, scheming, conniving, and even begging for that which would heal her wounds and redeem her life.  But our Lord [ever the hedgehog] knows only the one thing:  a personal relationship with God the Father that only Jesus can satisfy through the indwelling Holy Spirit, can quench her thirst forever.  When she receives that from Jesus, she runs to the village to spread the good news about the Messiah at the well. 

     The woman no sooner leaves than his band of disciple foxes returns.  They have so many concerns: “It’s time to eat.”  We need to get out of this unsafe and unsavory place.” There’s still plenty of daylight to put some distance between us and them.” “Our families and friends are waiting for us in Galilee.”  But Jesus rebukes them.  Then he looks up to see the woman leading folks down from the village above.  As they spread across the hillside, their robes fluttering in the wind, Jesus imagines a field of grain, gleaming white in the sun.  As he points to them, he says to his little foxes, “…open your eyes and look at the fields.  They are ripe for harvest.”  [Jn. 4:36] 

     We are so often like those disciples: concerned about many things, missing the one thing.  But Jesus knows what the hedgehog knows—the one thing, and that is all that matters.  If we are to be in the world as Jesus was, we must pursue the only thing that matters:  to seek and offer salvation to those who are lost.   

     There are many wells in this world.  People come to them, wounded and weary, thirsty for something that will quench.  But those wells will always leave us thirsty for more.  So, like Jesus, we must go with hedgehog tenacity to these wells. We must sit patiently beside them.  When people come seeking the unattainable, we ought to care enough to listen to their heart concerns, and then offer the living water.  These wells are everywhere that people seek the thing they think will satisfy:  the country club, the golf course, the office, a political gathering, the beauty parlor, a coffee shop, or a million other places.  Ask God to show you your Samaria, to lead you to the well, and then pray for the opportunity to share.  

     There is no well closer than your home or family.  You may want many things for your children and grandchildren.  They all seem important:  good times, a quality education, a successful career, a happy marriage, security and peace, or your ideas of the right social, political, or moral views.  But none of those are the essential things. If your precious loved ones inherit the whole world, and all the water in all its wells, but don’t taste the Living Water, what eternal good have you done for them? 

     In the end, you are only flailing away at windmills.  There is a reason that the Bible describes hell as a place of swollen tongues and unending thirst.  No one can want that for themselves or anyone else—especially those they love most!    

Dr. Bob Petterson
Legacy Imperative