Church Part 5: The Theology of Extra Baggage

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Part 3: Imperfect Understanding
Part 4: The Theology of Fear

When we think of Jewish history and the laws that God gave his people, most will only think of the ten commandments. The story is familiar; Moses ascended the mountain of God and came back down with two stone tablets inscribed with ten rules.

Worship no other gods.
Do not make idols.
Do not take the name of God in vain.
Observe the Sabbath.
Honor your parents.
Do not murder.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not lie about your neighbor.
Do not be jealous of your neighbor’s spouse, home, or possessions.

These laws are probably familiar to anyone growing up in the church and possibly taken for granted. These commandments are found in the middle of Exodus – the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt. The first half of the book is filled with well known stories, many of which have found their way into modern cinema. But the latter portion contains all of the rules not included in the famous list of ten.

The next three books – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – are a continuation of the laws for the people of Israel. (The ten commandments are even repeated early in Deuteronomy). These four books, along with the book of Genesis, compose the Jewish Torah (what the Christian church calls the Pentateuch).

A lot of Christians will read and/or skim through those five books for the historical narrative. First is the Garden of Eden, the flood, and Abraham’s biography. We read of struggles that Joseph endured and the enslavement of the Jewish people, followed by Moses’ burning bush and the plagues.

But when we get to the nitty gritty details of how they were supposed to live, many of us skip to the end. But those details were the source of passionate debate in Judaism. By the time Jesus showed up, the Jewish leaders had examined the Torah and compiled a definitive list of rules called the Mitzvot.

The Jewish Mitzvot is a fascinating study. But it isn’t a quick read.

We tend to think that those first five books of the Bible gives us ten solid rules followed by some instructions and general guidelines. But there is so much more. When the Jewish leaders and teachers compiled the Mitzvot, they interpreted those instructions and guidelines as rules. In all, the Mitzvot contains a total of 613 different rules or laws.

Somehow, we went from ten commandments to 613. Until some smart alec approached Jesus and asked, “What is the most important commandment?”

This was not a straightforward question. This wasn’t asking for a quick analysis of the ten rules delivered by Moses. This person was asking Jesus to filter through all 613 different laws and pick one that was the most important.

In essence, it was a trick question. If Jesus said that the most important law was to learn and teach the Torah, he’d have to justify why that was more important than celebrating the festivals. If Jesus’ answer focused on rituals of cleanliness, then his value of the Sabbath would be in doubt. There were so many rules that none could be singled out as the most important.

Jesus gave an answer that avoided the trap: Love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Then he added to love your neighbor as yourself. His reasoning was simple. The entirety of the law hung on those two commandments.

In other words, if you are acting in love – if your actions show love to God and your neighbor – then you are obeying Gods law. Not just part of it. All of it.

All ten commandments, all 613 rules in the Mitzvot, are fulfilled by two basic instructions. Love God. Love others.

It’s as if Jesus recognized the human proclivity to complicate things. We created 613 out of ten and we couldn’t handle it. Jesus told us it was all too much – we just needed two.

When I was volunteering as a youth leader, I had the privilege of travelling with the youth group to summer camps. Before leaving for the long drive into Canada, we’d review the expectations. Having grown up attending church camps all the way through my senior year of high school, I had become used to camp rules: show up to meals and chapel on time, must pass swimming test before you’re allowed to swim in the lake, no weapons, no drugs, no personal electronics, no making out in the woods.

The youth pastor I worked with simplified those rules down to one: don’t be an idiot.

When you’re a teenager, it can be difficult to remember all those dos and don’ts. But one rule? Don’t be an idiot? Now that should be easy to remember.

When it comes to the basis of Christian faith, the rules for salvation are equally simple. That whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. In the book of Acts, Paul and Silas tell their jailer that all he needed to do to be saved was to believe in Jesus. In Romans, Paul writes that we are saved if we proclaim with our mouths and believe with our hearts.

The formula is so simple, yet many churches want to complicate it. We think it’s too easy. We think there must be something more. Christians turn into amateur mathematicians because the equation belief = salvation isn’t logical. So we try to come up with other formulas that make more sense.

Belief + good works = Salvation
Belief + tithes = Salvation
Belief + speaking in tongues = Salvation.
Belief + specifically worded prayer = Salvation
Belief - science - education + a little bit of crazy = Salvation

None of it works. God only created one avenue to Salvation because it is simple. One way and that is through faith alone. Belief plus anything else discounts the power of Grace. Belief plus anything is extra baggage.

God’s Grace outweighs anything else that we could do, say, or give. Grace, if earned, would no longer be grace. It would be something else. If we could earn our salvation, we wouldn’t need saved.

Let’s look back at the real formula again. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The sad part about the modern church is that we profess a belief in the Bible as the true and inspired word of God, yet overlook certain sections.

The word ‘everyone’ is often over looked. We try too hard to make exceptions to that rule.

Everyone except addicts.
Everyone except bikers.
Everyone except ex-cons.
Everyone except the homeless.
Everyone except for single parents.
Everyone except anyone that might make us uncomfortable.

We also try to create value equations where some actions are greater than or lesser than other behaviors.

Missing church > working on Sundays
Abortion > child abuse
Alcoholism in private < alcoholism in public
Getting pregnant out of wedlock > premarital sex
Infidelity < homosexuality
This sin > that sin

This strategy fails because it bypasses the Grace of God. It assumes we have the power to decide who is worthy of God’s love.

All we accomplish by trying to rewrite God’s formula is creating extra baggage. We add burdens to bear. We set up hurdles to jump. We set ourselves up in the place of God.

We are not God. We are not the judge of all mankind.

When we try to take His place, all we are really doing is rejecting His Grace. If we’re not receiving Grace, how can we ever expect to show grace to others?

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