As I Was Saying

Brioche Loaves and Two Fish

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

On my way home, I often stop by Trader Joe’s. It has become a routine—broccoli, brioche, yogurt, fish, chicken, and a few stutter steps by the white cheddar corn puffs while I contemplate the pros and cons. One bag? Two? Two! Yesterday, the line moved quickly even though post-school pickup moms and dads packed the aisles. My cashier triple-bagged my groceries and was thoughtful about product placement. I was impressed. However, in the bustle of the moment, she forgot to charge me for the salmon. What should I do? It is amazing how quickly our minds work when there is self-interest. I thought—big box store, faithful patron, no harm, no foul play, no problem—in less than a tenth of a second. Then my better sense emerged: “Ma’am, I believe you forgot to charge me for the fish.” She checked, thanked me, smiled; my daughter and I trekked toward the bus.

Morality matters. Doing what is right matters either out of love for others or out of a sense of cultivating virtue. I don’t hear this point much in the church. Part of the reason is undoubtedly that we are saved by grace alone through the work of Christ. Another reason might be that an accent on morality seems, well, too moralistic. No one wants to be labeled moralistic. Still another reason is rooted in the fact that so many other aspects of Christianity may seem more exciting, such as the person and the work of the Holy Spirit or the tug of social justice. But morality is at the center of God’s heart; it always has been and always will be. If so, we need to rediscover its beauty and power.

A quick look at the biblical narrative underlines the sheer importance of morality. As early as Adam and Eve, morality grabs center stage. Their eating of the forbidden fruit is charged with cosmic significance; no minor peccadillo here. Adam and Eve fall into sin, and they bring the rest of humanity along for the ride. Likewise, when Cain kills Abel, exile follows. As the story of Genesis further unfolds, sin escalates until God sends a flood. And the reason for that flood is immorality. The words of Genesis cannot be clearer: “God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth’” (6:12-13).

This emphasis on the importance of morality continues in every epoch. In the postdiluvian world, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah for their lack of hospitality and arrogance (Ezek. 16:48-50). The same is true with the patriarchs; God chastises and disciplines them to work on their character. Jacob’s bout with God is an example of his purifying purpose. In the wilderness, God judges Israel’s lack of faith, grumbling, complaining, and collective stiff neck by allowing a whole generation to die—except for Joshua and Caleb (Num. 32:13).

Even after Israel enters into the Promised Land, morality plays the lead role. When Achan covets and takes a few devoted things from Jericho, the Israelites lose at Ai. After Joshua’s conquests, Israel enters into a spiraling cycle of sin where every man does what is right in his own eyes (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). During the time of the kings, David provides a much-needed bump, but he too falls, and his sins causes havoc—incestuous rape, fratricide, a divided kingdom two generations removed, and eventual exile.

When the lack of morality continues, Nebuchadnezzar besieges and takes over Jerusalem. According to Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar destroys Jerusalem because the kings of Judah lack justice, not because they lack wise politics or good economic policies (Jer. 22:3).Judah forgets that God cares about small things and small people; the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger.

In the New Testament, the message of grace seemingly changes the flow of morality, but not really. Jesus is clear that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. In the Sermon on the Mount, he highlights heart issues such as hate and lust. The believer must not only not murder but not hate; not commit adultery but also not lust. What we do, what we think, what we feel all matter.

Going down this rabbit hole can be dangerous. If we lose sight of the message of grace, then our failures would make life unlivable. Like Isaiah, we would cry: “Woe is me.” However, if we hedge too much and build a double fence and stay far away from the edge of morality lest we fall into a chasm of despair, then we will miss what God blesses and honors and what wins people over—our righteous actions.

When Paul works early mornings and late nights hunched over a bench so that he would not be a burden on people, God honors him and blesses others. Likewise, when the Philippians send Epaphroditus to Paul in prison, even in their difficult situation, it brings Paul new strength. God does not forget cups of cold water, copper coins, and paltry pieces of bread and fish. Deeds and actions do not gain our salvation, but these responses of love move God’s heart and gain his attention. We need to relearn a very basic truth: that we can please God by how we live. Amazing! When I paid for that fish, I felt God’s pleasure.

The words of Hanani, the seer, to King Asa remind him and us: “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron.16:9). Our actions today can move our hearts, those around us, our world, and God himself. Give, speak, carry, walk, support, help, encourage, and build in all situations, even in the smallest ways, even when no one is looking, even when it will cost you. In time, the harvest will be rich, and multitudes will be fed.

About the Author

John Lee is the head of the Upper School at The Geneva School of Manhattan, a Christian classical school. He also serves with Ben Spalink at City Grace Church in the East Village of New York City.

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