Deuteronomy 10-12, Psalm 56, Luke 14
How salty is your Christianity?
Deuteronomy 10 – 12
It is a grace in the midst of reading the Old Testament to arrive at a place where the author gives us the essence of God’s wisdom and will for us. In Deuteronomy 10:12-13 we discover such a teaching.
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.
Moments like this are like rays of sunlight filtering through a sky that had been filled with clouds. They illuminate everything, transform the landscape around us and brighten our hearts. This passage is reminiscent of Micah 6:8, one of the great verses of the Bible, where we read:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 focuses on loving God more than doing justice, but when we truly love God our hearts are always turned towards justice and kindness. The Deuteronomist has taken us through a myriad of laws and regulations, but in this passage he has found his way to the heart of God. In moments like this, all of the strange rituals and religious teachings melt away, and we are left with what truly matters – our relationship with God, which influences every relationship in our life.
Our God is not just one of many. Rather, Yahweh is “the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:17-18) When we worship and love such a god, we are propelled by love to care for the orphan and widow. It becomes easy to obey God when he says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) Everyone needs a narrative to follow in life. The story that we tell ourselves about who we are and what is expected of us shapes our actions and our outlook on life.
This narrative must be instilled in our children. Each parent must help his or her child develop a worldview and discover a narrative that gives coherence to the universe and how it operates. Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens when we die? Why were we created? Does God exist? What is expected of us? What is a good, moral life? What values are worth pursuing? What is evil? How are we to act and to whom are we accountable? These are just a few of the questions that we must help our children address as they develop a coherent worldview. The Deuteronomist writes,
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates… (Deut. 11:18-20)
The Bible is full of many teachings. Not all of them are healthy and good. Some of the sayings credited to God reflect human jealously, anger and wrath. It is not healthy or wise to follow or teach them to our children. Each of us must become a theologian capable of reading God’s Word and selecting and teaching life-giving passages from the Bible and instilling them in our children. These basic tenets of faith will guide them towards a meaningful, successful and compassionate life.
We can memorize a few key Bible verses and teach them to our children. I once met a mother who would teach her children Bible verses while driving them to school. They were simple, but powerful Bible verses that provided a spiritual compass for her children. We can write them down in various places in our house, tape an index card with a favorite Bible verse to our bathroom mirror so that we see it when we comb our hair, brush our teeth or wash our face. We can put these cards on the breakfast table and take time as a family each week to memorize a verse and strive to embody it.
In Deuteronomy 11:26-28, the author sets forth a theme that will be expanded upon in Deuteronomy 27:15 – 28:68 and 30:19. We read, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God…” (Deut. 11: 26-28) Yahweh does not want Israel to fall into harmful ways of living. He warms about not assimilating with the Canaanites, “because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deut. 12:31)
From time to time, Christian educators try to create a salvation timeline that shows the ways that God has tried to reach out to humans throughout history, love, forgive, reprimand and redeem us. This is helpful, but like memorizing the books of the Bible, it only carries us so far.
What is more helpful is to understand the message that God has been trying to communicate from the beginning of creation until now. God created the universe. It has an inherent moral order. In the story of the Garden of Eden, we learn that God establishes boundaries for our own sake, and if we violate them we will hurt ourselves and others. There will be a penalty to pay. God gives us enormous freedom and sets before us blessings and curses. We must take responsibility for our lives, and we must choose wisely so that we may discover the abundant life, which Jesus speaks about in John 10:10.
When the George Reynolds, the bishop of Tennessee, who ordained me, was consecrated, the preacher at his consecration told the congregation that we were already dead, and one day we would live and experience eternal life. That concept turned everything upside down. Indeed, Paul tells us that if we have died with Christ, we shall rise again in newness of life with Christ. We will die not just when death meets us, but in some ways we are already dead. We have succumbed to less than what God has in mind for us as followers of Jesus. As Christians, we are called not to indulge ourselves constantly in a world where more than a third of the population lives on less than $1 a day. She are invited to share!
We can enjoy pleasures and seek abundant life, but we do so with an ethic of servant hood. God created us not to serve ourselves, but to serve others and to leave the planet richer for our lived. In losing ourselves, we find ourselves. In dying to self, we live in Christ. Hence the psalmist writes,
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust: I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me? (Ps. 56:4)
The author knows deep within himself that “God is for me.” (Ps. 56:9) There is probably not a more profound truth to be discovered in the Bible. This is perhaps the most important theological question. Is God for or against us? Christians believe that God is for us. Hence, we join with the psalmist and say,
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid.
What can a mere mortal do to me? (Ps. 56:10-11)
Our parish is looking for a new Associate Rector. We had a wonderfully-gifted priest who recently left to become priest-in-charge of her own church. As I interview candidates, some are looking for a church where they can share their gifts and find a mentor who can help him or her develop his or her abilities as a priest and prepare to become a Rector of their own church. This is a fine thing to aspire to do.
One of a mentor’s jobs is to help an individual avoid sabotaging him or herself. If I were mentoring Jesus, I would have to ask, “Do you really want to go on healing people on the Sabbath? I greatly respect what you are doing, but you are creating a lot of enemies. At some point, this will impact your ministry. In fact, you may even end up on a cross!” Thankfully, Jesus did not have to listen to me!
Jesus was clearly comfortable with conflict. He stood his ground. Our Lord did the right thing. In churches, however, this is more challenging. When clergy do what they believe to be the right thing and generate a constituency firmly opposed to them which eventually forces them to leave the church, the church pays a heavy price. Churchgoers do not like conflict. The pews start to empty. Newcomers can sense tension and go elsewhere. The parish can face years of turmoil and sometimes enter a death spiral all because someone stood their ground while infuriating others. As Christian leaders, we must choose our battles carefully, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of our parish.
Jesus then addressed humility. He urged us to take the lowest seat at the table, unless invited to move up higher. Three years ago, I was invited to a major Bible conference. We had just launched The Bible Challenge. I asked the person who invited me “Would you like me to speak at the conference?” The Bible Challenge was growing. We had over 180 parishioners and more than 90 friends outside our parish reading the Bible in a year. More churches were joining us. “We don’t need you to speak this year,” my host said kindly. When I arrived at the conference, I realized that they had people speaking with massive churches and enormous programs. Ours was but a speck in comparison.
Today, more than 2,500 churches in 40 countries and over 100,000 people are participating in The Bible Challenge, but it is still a small movement compared to some major global Bible initiatives. Jesus said, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” (Luke 14:10) Humility will rarely fail us.
Jesus offers some counter-intuitive teaching. It is not what most of our parents teach. Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 15:12-14)
This is the bread and butter of Christianity, yet I do not know anyone who actually practices it. We do not need someone with a Ph.D. in New Testament studies or a commentary on Luke’s Gospel to explain this to us. We need to just do it. This is the heart and soul of Christianity. This passage mirrors Matthew 25, where Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)
The closest that I think I have come to witnessing this is when mission teams from the three churches that I have been privileged to serve have taken scores of girls rescued from impoverished and abusive situations and now living in a wonderful home and school in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, called Our Little Roses, out to lunch. There sitting around a table with smiles stretching across their faces, girls born into poverty and abuse experience a great banquet.
Likewise, St. Thomas Church, where I have been privileged to serve for almost 19 years, hosts inner-city families each year for a wonderful Christmas celebration in our parish hall with food, music, presents and a visit with Santa. Events like this offer us opportunities to make a difference and feel good about it. We have to be careful, however, that we do not use the poor to make ourselves feel happy or significant. But what would it look like, if we actually spent our own money to host a luncheon and invited the elderly widow, who can no longer drive, the mentally-challenged teenager, who will not attend college, and the person at work, whom no one likes, and the lady who delivers our newspaper in a car barely fit to pass inspection, and took them to lunch and told no one about it. What if we did it merely to follow Jesus?
Jesus then tells the Parable of the Great Dinner or Banquet. “Someone gave a dinner and invited many,” says Jesus. (Luke 14:16) Every invitee had an excuse not to come. This parable speaks to churchgoers today. It is one thing to be go to church or belong to a church. It is another thing to take our Christian responsibility with great seriousness. The Episcopal Church throws a banquet every Sunday. We call it the Eucharist. By my reckoning less than one out of four invitees shows up at our banquet. More than 75% of those invited find something else more important to do. The average Episcopalian now attends the banquet once a month. You cannot do anything once a month and hope to make headway.
The question that we must ask ourselves is, “Are we ‘churchgoers’ or ‘Christians?’” There is a huge difference. Churchgoers attend church, at least from time to time. A Christian is committed to a life of discipleship and gives more of him or herself with every passing year to follow Jesus faithfully.
My wife is on the board of our daughter’s school. Our daughters have all graduated or moved on to other schools, but my wife is the most faithful board member that I could imagine a school could find. If the school head asks board members to attend an event, my wife attends, despite having an incredibly busy legal practice. If Episcopal churches could engender such devotion from our members, we would be a powerhouse of Christian spirituality and mission. We need to shift our focus from cultivating “churchgoers” to creating disciples who follow Jesus – a leader who laid down his life for us.
Jesus closes this chapter by saying two things that we do not have to take literally, and one that we do. When our Lord says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:25-26) you do not have to emulate this. This is hyperbole. What we need to do is not put other things in front of God. We love our family best by loving God first and letting God’s love help us love others in the best way possible. If we love our family first and try to squeeze God in, we will strive to have our family serve as God for us.
Likewise, when Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” (Luke 14:33) he is using hyperbole. Even monks have had considerable possessions. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) under Henry VIII, monks owned one third of all arable lands in England. The truth is that we can probably follow Jesus more fully if we are not weighed down by many possessions or the need to earn a lot of money. But we can also use our possessions and our wealth to help others in enormous ways. Look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nevertheless the temptation for most people with wealth is to overindulge, feel less dependent on God and give away a smaller percentage of their assets.
The saying to take to heart is, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Luke 14:34) If we lose the qualities that make us a dynamic Christian, Jesus cannot use us effectively to heal, comfort, love, forgive, teach, inspire and serve others. How salty is your Christianity?
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. (Deut. 10:12-13)
For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. (Deut. 10:17-18)
Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates… (Deut. 11:18-20)
In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me? (Ps. 56:10-11)
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 15:12-14)
Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? (Luke 14:34)
What does God require of us? How great is your image of God? What are you actively doing to instill the Christian faith in your children and grandchildren? Do you reach out to those who cannot repay you and love them? Do you believe that Jesus sometimes speaks in hyperbole? Do you have possessions that you should give away? What is stopping you from doing so? How salty is your Christianity?
Holy, holy, holy God, you have created us to be salt and light to the world around us. Help restore the saltiness to our Christian journey so that we might add spice and life and value to every relationship and every situation we enter. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania