Day 18 (Tuesday) - Matthew 20:1-16

Artwork by George Courage

Artwork by George Courage

"For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is 'I didn't get enough sleep.' The next one is 'I don't have enough time.'  Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it.  We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives...worrying about what we don't have enough of...Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something.  And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day.  We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack...this internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life..." 

- Lynne Twist

A few months ago, I was driving to my home in Salem and when I turned the corner to get to my street, I saw a Little Old Lady in the middle of the road, shuffling along the biggest Bag of Salt I’d ever seen.

She was clearly struggling to get the salt from her car to her house. She’d drag an inch. Rest. Drag an inch. Rest. Drag an inch. Rest. 

This was a problem, because Little Old Lady and the Salt Bag were in my way. 

So I got out of my car in the frigid cold, hugged my coat a little tighter, smiled a little brighter, and asked if she needed some help.

“Aaahh yes!” she said, clearly relieved.

And together, we carried the Salt Bag - it was quite heavy - to her front door and set it down on her porch. 

“Thank you so much!” Little Old Lady called to me as I ran back to my car in the cold, smiling through chattering teeth. “That was your good deed for the week...no, the month!” 

I’m pretty sure Little Old Lady didn’t really believe that, that she was simply trying to express the grandness of her gratitude, even somewhat hyperbolically. I was glad I was able-bodied and kind enough to help instead of honk, and I’m glad that she was glad too. But all the same, her words struck a chord with me and I got to thinking. My good deed for the month, huh? That was all I had to do this month to be good? And for what? To get to heaven?  To balance out the score in the universe? To earn my worth or recognition, for my name to be writ on Santa’s “Nice List,” to be deemed a “good person” by some Old Man in the sky? 

Does the good deed with the Salt Bag cover all the bad deeds I’ve also done this month?  Does it balance out the fact that I’ve listened to gossip and passed it on, that I’ve purchased coffee that wasn’t fair trade and clothes that might have been made by forced laborers because I never bothered to check?  Does it cover that fact that I was too lazy to recycle an aluminum can this morning, that I avoided telling the truth when it was too hard to say without shaking, that I ignored injustice when I saw it or averted my gaze altogether, that I sometimes thought of myself too highly and sometimes too poorly to actually bother with serving others?

That’s some Salt Bag. 

What if I’d been a serial killer and Little Old Lady didn’t know it?  Would it count then? Maybe I’ve done horrible things to children this month or run a secret crime ring or embezzled money. Maybe I’m racist or bigoted or having an affair. My good deed for the month, huh? 

If that’s all it takes to cover my sins, that is one powerful Salt Bag.

Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wiccanism all share this idea of Karma, that the universe gives back to us what we earn. Most of the world’s major religions teach that at some point, after just enough Salt Bags, you’ve somehow done enough, that you’ve “arrived” at perfection or Nirvanah or the highest heaven. And if that’s the case, it must also be true that you can be bad enough too - because just like they say, what goes around comes around.

But does it?

The way that I see it, there are two issues with this tit for tat, Salt Bag System.

First, this is a System that always has us working. There’s always more to prove, always more to show, more to earn, more to stay on top of. There can be no moment at which we’ve “arrived” because inevitably, we’ll end up doing something else we have to make up to the universe - maybe something we didn’t even intend, like running over a Squirrel by accident. 

And in the Salt Bag System, at some point, we’ll all end up with a feeling that maybe what we’re doing isn’t enough, or hasn’t been enough, or can’t be enough. This feeling of not being or doing enough bleeds into our relationships, into our attitudes toward our work, into the way we see ourselves, and finally, at its worst, into the way we understand God’s love. And so often, the result is that we start to disengage from the world and from relationships in order to protect ourselves, because we all want to be perceived as good enough, and if people get too close, they might realize that we’re not and leave. 

That's the first issue I see.

The second issue is that life doesn’t always play along with the Salt Bag System. Sometimes really bad things happen to really “good” people, to children who’ve done nothing to earn ill fate, to women and men who spend their lives working sacrificially for the good of others and yet somehow end up with cancer, to faithful possible parents who try to get pregnant and can’t, while the irresponsible teenagers who weren’t trying, do. Sometimes really “good” things happen to really “bad” people, people who by anyone’s accounts should be locked up for life - or worse. In this world, we don’t always get what we deserve, good or bad, and it doesn’t take long before we look around and realize that we can’t control our lives’ outcomes, not by a long-shot. 

Truly, when we’re honest, we have to admit that there is nothing we can do, no formula we can follow, no fail-proof Salt Bag System we can set up, to save ourselves from tragedy or merit the good life, simply by doing enough. Life simply doesn’t work that way.  There is no enough, no number of Salt Bags that can even out the score. 

Even if I helped a hundred Little Old Ladies with a hundred sizable Salt Bags, would that erase the scars I’ve created when I’ve hurt people I love, when I’ve created a deeper footprint in the earth than is appropriate to my shoe size, when I’ve used anger as a weapon to get my way? And how does it help the dead Squirrel?

Or what if we flip the tables?  If the people in my life who have hurt me were to help a hundred Little Old Ladies with a hundred sizable Salt Bags, would that even the score? Would it make me feel better? Would it right the wrongs, heal the wounds, erase the damage caused by bad relationships or broken trust? If a person who’s hurt me were to help some random Old Lady on the side of the road, would it really make me feel any better about what they did to me

I’d have to say...probably not. The damage is still there. Even if we were to try really hard, even if we were to do a lot of good things, no amount of Salt Bags can undo the damage of our sin and no amount of hard work can merit God's love. And when we try, we’re left with so much guesswork as to what’s good enough, that we’re always left trying, working, earning, and proving. 

So how do we beat the Salt Bag System?

Only someone who’s never done something bad to make up for in the first place, someone who needs no Salt Bags to be proven good enough, can beat the System. That’s where Jesus comes in. God comes to earth in the form of a man, a human like us in every way except for sin, to overcome the System of “I owe you,” “You owe me,” of paybacks and pay it forwards, of working and working for something that was and is and will always be impossible for us to achieve on our own.

A writer named Parker Palmer wrote this:

“The cross says, ‘the pain stops here.’ The way of the cross is a way of absorbing pain, not passing it on, a way that transforms pain from destructive impulse into creative power. When Jesus accepted the cross, his death opened up the channel for the redeeming power of love.“

The shame and blame and I’ll-Make-It-Up-To-You Cycle, the idea that we can work hard enough to be deemed good enough, comes to an end. And in its place, we have forgiveness and freedom, and we can finally let go of the idea that it's all up to us. 

On the cross Jesus refused to make us pay the world back for what we did. Jesus refused to let us look down on others because they haven't done as much.  He refused to hold us to a standard that only he could meet. And on the cross, he piled all the sins, all the bad deeds, all the wounds we feel, all the the good things we do to make ourselves look better or feel better or maybe just to get home faster, and everything the world has done to hurt us too, and puts them all to death with him. He conquered the Salt Bag System and turned it on its head, taking on what he didn’t earn or deserve, the ultimate consequence of our cycle of sin - death - and giving us what we didn’t earn or deserve - new life - declaring to our never enough system, "My grace is enough for you..."

It's not always easy for us to accept, just like the earliest workers in the vineyard. We like to be in control of our destinies, in control of our relationships, in control of our gods.  We like to earn what we get, and we want those who aren’t working as hard as we are or who we see as worse sinners than we are, to end up with less. Any System that does not work this way is just not fair. 

And when we think this way, we're right. God's System isn't fair. No matter how good you are, no matter how bad you are, how much you've given, taken, received, or worked, God’s love is going to happen to you, and to them, either way.

Pastor Brynn Harrington

Consider:

What “Salt Bags” are you tempted to take too much confidence in?  Do you ever find yourself trying to make up for what you've done, or take too much pride in your own good works?  Why is this system hard for us to let go of? 

Pray:

Think through the different “Salt Bags” you’ve carried this week for other people. Give God thanks that you had the opportunity to express His loving kindness to those people and if pertinent, confess the ways you have put too much stock into the good deeds you have done.

Embody:

Salt. In moderation, salt preserves food. It seasons food. In Jesus’ day, salt was worth more than Gold. Our brain chemistry requires it. Salt can be a very good thing. Put a teaspoon of salt in your hand and lick up the whole thing in one lick. As you taste it (and make a funny face) remember that salt seasons, it doesn’t save. Such is our good works.

Pastor Aaron Engler


Endnotes: 

  1. Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly.
  2. 2 Cor. 12:9.