They told Amelia Bedelia to "hit the road" and she took a stick and started punishing the asphalt. They told her to make "chocolate chip cookies" and she got out the Hershey's and the potato chips. Now, for a children's book character, when she doesn't "get it," that's funny. But when we realize that all too often we do that same thing with religion, the chuckles cease.
If you've got a Bible at home, look up Luke 13. If you don't have one, come to church and I'd be happy to give you one. But, once you find Luke 13, you'll see Jesus on his way toward Jerusalem for his death, taking the time and the love to reach out to all those in the towns on the way - teaching them. Look especially at the question he's asked in verse 23: "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"
It's a question I get all the time. It's a question that comes from love and concern and wrestling with the truths of God's word. But Jesus' answer shows that while it is important, it misses an even more important point. In his answer, basically, Jesus says, "Before you worry about everyone else - what about you?" You see, it's so easy to talk about others and their problems and faults. We can see when they don't "get it," but we're hesitant to do the same things with ourselves.
You see, Jesus' world did not get it, even though they thought they did. He told them that the crippled woman they figured must have been a worthless sinner was actually a child of Abraham. And then he showed that the synagogue ruler they thought had it all together didn't get at all what religion was all about! What? Their minds were spinning.
Looking at Jesus' reaction here - the key word in this person's question was not what he saw as the key to his question. It's the word "saved." Looking at how Jesus answers, they must not have understood what that word means. Sadly, all too many today don't get it either - which is why we need to speak precisely. Look at that answer. Jesus says there will be those in the judgment saying, "We're yours, Jesus. We've always been yours. We talked about you. We hung out with you. Your teaching was right there." And Jesus twice has to tell them "I never knew you." He calls what they had been doing "evil" saying they never had a relationship with him.
In Jesus' day, it was the Pharisees and the ones like them who went through all the religious motions but didn't have to "trust" in God because they figured they had taken care of what they needed to. In our day, we clearly see both extremes, with the disciples of Oprah who are "spiritual but not religious" saying that they have inner spirituality and don't need to really spend time in God's word or worship like God's word says because it's all about a feeling they have. And then there are those that are "religious but not spiritual" - the ones going through the motions and doing what appears to be good and following all the rules, even sometimes making up some more - but they don't get that word "saved" either, because they don't really see their need for it.
It's as if they are thinking that they are enjoying life lying on the beach, not realizing that it is quicksand swallowing them. They tell themselves that they are out for a calm swim, not realizing that they are under water and their lungs are beginning to fill.
It's like those life rings that you see on the wall at the hotel pool or on the deck of a ship. You think nothing of them until you are gasping for air, realizing that you are about to die, drowning in the water, as your arms are flailing and you can't do anything to keep the sea from filling your lungs and taking your life. Then, all of a sudden, you would rather have that life ring and someone pulling you up by it than all the money or popularity or religiosity in the world. That's when you clearly understand that word "saved." It's not about a decision you made on a certain day when you "got saved." It's simply the total reliance on that life ring, on your Savior, Jesus. He is the on who helps.
And thank God that Jesus slaps us in the face today with our reading and speaks precisely about that - "You, enter through the narrow door." Because that same Pharisaical problem can overtake us as our religion gets caught up in building projects, bylaws and budgets instead of the narrow door efforts. And so easily that life ring of Christ simply becomes decoration by the side of the pool, or a piece of jewelry around our neck or art on our wall.
All the while, it is only Christ and his cross that we so desperately need for a relationship with God. Thank God that Jesus spoke precisely to point out where we sometimes don't get it. Next week, we'll focus on precisely what he said is the whole point.
Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington. Full sermons and more information can be found at www.abidinggrace.com.