Jesus is still holding that child.
You have to see that, understand that’s where we are when we start this lesson today to make sense of the kind of hyperbole and “racheting up” of illustrations that Jesus does.
Jesus sounds a little bit angry here, heaping one illustration on top of another, and rather violent ones, millstones around people’s necks, chopping off hands, feet, plucking out eyes. Salted with fire and condemnation.
What makes Jesus go off like this into a series of exaggerated statements?
Well it helps to see that he’s still holding the child when John comes up and brings up this concern he has about someone they saw casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but not being “one of us” and so we told him to “knock it off.”
That child, which was the focal point of the illustration Jesus just got done using, about how whoever welcomes one such little one as this, welcomes not only Jesus, but also the Father.
Jesus has just made an important point about welcome and inclusion and about not seeking to the be greatest. He’s just put forth an illustration about being trusting and child-like in one’s faith, open to wonder as only a child can be.
Jesus is still holding the visual aid that was supposed to make clear the teaching… and now John comes in and we are right back off topic again worrying about the credentials for demon casters, and who is in and who is out.
This is what makes Jesus go off on this tumble of hyperbolic illustrations.
If you’ve ever tried to teach children, you can appreciate this.
The lesson plans are in place, the illustration is solid, there should be no question about what the students are supposed to learn and retain, it’s all perfectly clear.
Except it doesn’t come off as planned.
Someone hiccups in the back of the room, or another bodily function happens, and what was a perfectly planned and executed illustration to drive home the main point becomes a muddled message.
If you’ve watched me do a children’s sermon, you get this.
I ask the question.
I show the prop.
I have in my mind exactly what point I want to make, how this will all be crystal clear to them, but as Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darnedest things!”
Suddenly what I thought my words or prop would prompt in their inquisitive little minds is miles away from where I had planned this would go, and I’m off to the races!
I’m trying to make comments that I hope will eventually bring this conversation back around to where I thought it would go, and sometimes the lesson you want to drive home is not the one they take away from it all.
That’s Jesus here, with the child still in his hands that was meant to drive home welcome, inclusivity, child-like trust and faith. He has not connected with John at all.
And so, Jesus is off to the races, heaping up one illustration after another trying to get his disciples to finally see what he’s been talking about all along. How this discipleship thing is not about holding on to power but rather bringing in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ own ministry has been questioned to death by those in authority and in power, reacting against a God who Jesus makes out to be far too gracious and inclusive.
The Pharisees could not quite believe that Jesus was “from God” because what he does is so far out of the norm of the expected practice, of the recognized lines of authority.
“Who can forgive sins but God?” They ask.
“It must be by Beezebal that he casts out demons.” They reason.
“Why do your disciples not wash their hands and observe the traditions of the elders?” They inquire.
“Why do you heal on the Sabbath?” They inquisit.
Much of Jesus’ ministry has been marked by God coloring outside the lines.
The healing of the Gerasene demoniac, in Gentile territory.
The healing of the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter, again outside the boundaries of Judea.
The healing of the blind man in the Decapolis.
God as been at work in a lot of places that were unexpected, and out of the norm, and Jesus continues to talk about the Kingdom of God is breaking in… and how those who are not against us are for us.
“No one who does a deed of power in my name will soon be able to speak against me.” Jesus tells them.
But here, even those who follow him closely, his own disciples seem to have a hard time getting the central point.
All bets are off now that God is loose in the world, and Jesus seems to be just fine with that by the way, which is just as galling to us perhaps as it was to John and the other disciples.
We’d like a little more orderliness, as well please.
We’d like to hold on to a few distinctions, and few cherished ways of doing things, or we’d like to think that we have more direct access to Jesus and therefore know better how and what to do than outsiders would.
We’re all for God being at work in the world, but we’d like that work to take place through us, and through our institutions, and through our time honored and cherished ways of doing things, and with our approval.
We can, in fact, get so consumed with doing things the right way that we miss what God may be up to in our very midst.
There he stands with the child in his hands, trying to show us something and we are distracted by other things happening around us.
We can also get so worked up about those other things that ultimately do not matter, that we miss the teaching of Jesus, the center of his concern, the child in his hands.
“Everyone will be salted with fire….” Jesus says here. Passions will be stirred, and that’s a good thing!
Salt is good!
Passion is good!
“But,” Jesus goes on to say, “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”
I’ve quizzed over that little teaching. Salt is an element, it can’t “lose” its essential nature. It can’t get “unsalty.”
I’ve heard various explanations about what Jesus might be referring to here, about the purity of a salt mixture, or what it’s good for, or the various ways salt might have been used in ancient times.
None of those arguments really are helpful in the end.
I think what Jesus is talking about more than salt, is passion. Passion that is mis-placed or mis-directed.
“Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” He concludes.
Have passion about things, but have passion about the right things, and get along!
John is clearly passionate about who should be casting out demons. So much so that he’s lost sight of the fact that demons are being cast out! He’s more concerned about in who ought to be authorized to do that than to see it’s happening!
The Disciples were clearly passionate about who should be in positions of authority in their midst, so much so that they were arguing amongst themselves instead of listening to Jesus!
The Pharisees were passionate about the Law, and about keeping things in good running order in the community and the Synagogue, so much so that they confronted Jesus at every turn and dismissed the signs of the Kingdom coming in their midst, the lame walking, the blind seeing, and the hungry being fed.
The Sadducees were passionate about the operation of the Temple, so much so that they conspired to have Jesus crucified rather than let him upset the rhythm of Temple life and the delicate balance of power with Empire with his announced Kingdom.
Pilate is passionate about keeping the peace in Jerusalem and Judea, so much so that he’s willing to wash justice from his hands and to let mob violence have its way.
Herod is passionate about holding on to the vestige of the identity of Judah as a nation, so much so that he kills the prophets John and dismisses Jesus.
There is passion all over in this story, but the passions are pitted against one another. No one is at peace with one another, or even attempting to be.
Jesus acknowledges that you will be passionate, “salted with fire”, but that passion is to be tempered by compassion, and put in the service of loving and caring and being about the work of the Kingdom, and not hindering it.
Whatever gets in the way of such compassion is to be cut off.
If your passion about something causes others to stumble, well better that you go down than that others be harmed.
Jesus is still standing there with this child in his arms today, reminding all of his disciples, (us included) where God’s heart and desire resides.
God’s heart is in caring for the little ones.
God’s heart is in having regard for the forgotten ones.
God’s heart is in the actions of cups of cold water given to the thirsty, and simple acts of kindness that lead to living in peace.
God’s heart is found in working for health, hope and healing amongst those who suffer.
God’s passion is with those who mourn, or who are vulnerable, or who cannot fend for themselves, like this child!
God’s heart is in the things that make for the Kingdom, and to enter the Kingdom, you must first become like one of these, like the child he holds in his arms, for the child he holds in his arms is really you.