At one level or another each of us is trying to figure out this ‘life’ thing. We want to know why we are here and what we are supposed to do. Every now and then a clue comes our way. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw provides this valuable insight:
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Do you have a mighty purpose in life?
I think Jesus would like this question. He raises it in today’s gospel reading when he makes three statements about salt. The first is “everyone will be salted with fire,” which scholars say is one of the most enigmatic things Jesus ever uttered. And while not entirely clear, it seems to be related to animal sacrifice. Prior to being offered on a fire, an animal carcass was rubbed with salt to draw out the blood. Once this was accomplished, it was roasted over a fire and offered in sacrifice or served for human consumption. The salt was useful in this process, but once used, it lost the properties that made it useful. Hence, the second statement: “How can saltiness be restored?” The final expression, “Have saltiness in yourselves, and be at peace with one another,” hints at the work we need to do to be in proper, healthy relationship with one another.
Do you have a mighty purpose in life, something at least as useful as what salt does when rubbed on meat and exposed to fire?
On his blogsite, Brandon Phillips offers ten signs you don’t have a mighty purpose, but simply are living life as a feverish selfish little clod:
1. You mostly talk about yourself and every conversation focuses mainly on you.
2. You litter. It is a way of saying the world is your trash can and someone else will take care of it.
3. You don’t consider the impact of your actions on others or, if you do, you don’t care. (I call this the “Shopping Cart Blocking the Aisle Principle”)
4. You see the world through “you-colored” glasses and consider only how something affects you personally.
5. You have an entitlement mentality and expect to reap without sowing. For example, if you are somehow inconvenienced, your first thought is how you can sue and win money.
6. You don’t fulfill the responsibilities and commitments you’ve made.
7. You only see extremes in every idea, person, or organization.
8. You think anything causing you discomfort is bad and therefore you’re entitled to complain, worry, and moan.
9. You think people who are different from you are the problem with the world.
10. You give only when you expect to get.
Now, I am confident none of us here this morning can say to any one of these, “Oh, that is me.” I am also confident each of us knows at least one person who, by this definition, is a feverish selfish little clod. And sadly, for most of them, once their saltiness is gone it can never be restored.
Today’s gospel reading begins with what surely is not one of the Apostle John’s shining moments. He complains to Jesus about a person not in the group who evokes Jesus’ name to cast out demons. He and the other disciples try to stop the person because “he is not following us.” The disciples, in fact, are on a roll. In last week’s reading we learn they are debating amongst themselves who is the greatest.
For Jesus, who has largely completed his ministry and has set a course for Jerusalem where he knows he will die, this must be very disheartening. He has invested three years of his life in this group, and now, in the last weeks of his life, they just don’t get it. He has offered them an expansive vision of what life can be, which he calls the Kingdom of God, but they are still trapped in small, me-centered, provincial thinking.
Their mindset manifests itself as a competitive spirit, asking who is the most important and fretting over who is getting credit. No wonder Jesus reactions as strongly as he does, recommending you cut off any body part that causes you to stumble. The graphic imagery and startling teaching tells us Jesus will have nothing to do with the pettiness of his followers. He is not interested in cultivating feverish selfish little clods. He wants salty followers who know how to give themselves to others for the betterment of all.
There is more to George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote. He offers this as well:
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
A mighty purpose. A splendid torch. Salting all you touch and do. Had Brandon Phillips focused on what this looks like rather than on the clod side, perhaps it would have written something like this:
1. In every conversation strive to learn at least one thing you did not know about the other person.
2. Make it your goal to leave no wake and no foul residue as you move through life.
3. As you tend to your business consider how your actions might make life a little easier for others. (I call this the “Honor the Turn Signal of the Other Car Principle”)
4. Imagine how the world looks though the eyes of another person. Ask “What blesses this person?” and “What challenges does this person face?”
5. Learn how to let go of privilege.
6. Keep your word and honor your commitments, especially when it is difficult, costly, or inconvenient.
7. When encountering a new or different idea, person, or organization discern what you have in common and decipher where connections are possible.
8. Embrace hardship and struggle with good cheer, being grateful for the opportunities it brings for growth, resiliency, and strength.
9. Aim to understand how people different from you add richness to the tapestry of life.
10. Give and give and give of yourself, expecting nothing in return except for a larger, more generous soul... and then be open to seeing what happens.
Jesus said, “Have salt in yourself.” Me might take this to mean we should add flavor and zest to the taste of life. This may not sound like much, but it is indeed a mighty purpose. Focusing not on what you get but on what you give, not on how you are treated but on how you behave, not on what you are owed but on what you can offer is the essence of a salty life, a mighty purpose, and a splendid torch.