I remember, a few years back, a young man with whom I was acquainted (my son) disclosing to me that he had taken on some pretty-significant debt in order to buy a new laptop computer. It was an investment, he explained. You see, he was just beginning to break into the world of online computer gaming, where he could join a fantasy role-playing contest in cyberspace, and have people tune in and pay to watch him play: exploring exotic worlds, recovering long-lost treasure, and smiting all manner of evil creatures… all the while growing in knowledge, wisdom and strength so that, one day, he could become King of the World. Woohoo! He had already started to attract a following, and the nickels, dimes and quarters were beginning to add up. Sweet! It reminded me a little bit of the time my nineteen-year-old self had had to explain to my father why I had taken out a rather-sizeable bank loan to pay for a brand-new PA system (“sound reinforcement,” they called it back in the early 1980s) to help me launch my music career. It was an investment, I assured him. He just looked at me. Because my father understood something that was beyond my experience at the time: investments are purchases that increase in value—show a good rate of return—over time. Stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals or even intellectual property, like movies, publications and patents, can be investments… but things like PA systems and computers don’t qualify as such, in and of themselves. Like the brand-new car you buy for $35K… and the second you drive it off the lot, it’s suddenly worth $5-7K less… not an investment! That always kills me. And I never really made it in the music business either, but I sure did end up having the biggest, loudest personal hi-fi system in the neighborhood. And so it goes.
We hear plenty about questionable “investment decisions” in today’s Scripture readings. The LORD, speaking through his prophet Jeremiah, calls the Hebrews to account for abandoning their faith, and “changing their glory for something that does not profit” (Jeremiah 2:11). Bad investment. The Psalmist laments Israel’s penchant for straying from God’s holy ordinances, preferring, instead, to do what they thought best (Psalm 81:1, 10-16). Bad investment! The writer of Hebrews reminds us that the Lord is with us—right beside us, through thick and thin—and will never leave us hanging, as long as we live our lives in Christ: walking in love, showing hospitality to strangers, doing good and sharing what we have, and paying forward God’s generosity by treating neighbors with dignity and respect. A much better investment, don’t you think? Living our lives in and for Jesus is what pleases God, we’re told. And we all want to please God, don’t we?
But living our lives in this fashion sometimes seems so counter-cultural… even scary, right? Today, just as it was back-in-the-day: if we don’t put first things first, and look for number one, who’s gonna do it for us? Funny you should ask. Because in Luke’s gospel today, counter-cultural Jesus explains to his disciples, for the umpteenth time, a little bit about the way the kingdom of God works. What? You thought Jesus was simply talking table etiquette? Think again. You see, our place in the kingdom will never be predicated on any amount of righteousness or worthiness we can cobble together on our own… which is a mighty fine thing by my way of thinking. I doubt I’d make it past St. Peter at the pearly gates if it was all up to me. Our hope is founded upon God’s righteousness and God’s worthiness alone. That’s grace, my friends. On the last day, all the temporal pecking orders and petty prides-of-person and place we’ve invested so much time and energy in constructing for ourselves will be turned upside down. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11). So… to please God, maybe we need to do a better job of choosing our investments.
And all of this leads me to the tippy edge of a very deep “rabbit hole.” Are you ready to take the dive? Why is it important for us to please God? Well, God is… God, you might respond. Of course, we want to please him! And you’re right: God is indeed God. All-mighty. All-encompassing. All-knowing. But that sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? Yes, God is all these things, and more, but what does it profit us to please him? Are we afraid he’ll smite us if we don’t walk in love, do good and “play well” with others? Is it possible that our misbehavior might one day land us in some sort of infernal (and eternal) “time out?” “I’m mighty! Worship me! I’m above you, around you and even inside you! Adore me! I know everything! You’d best do what I say… or else!” Is that why we should strive to please God? Somehow, that just doesn’t feel right.
I wonder… if our concerns about celestial retribution from a God who demands worship, adoration and obedience stem from a tendency to “create God in our own image,” rather than the other way around. Mortal kings certainly like to be worshiped, adored and obeyed… and human fathers and mothers might sometimes find themselves pressed to the point where a little physical or emotional “smiting” of our children seems like the only way to solve a problem. But not our all-mighty, all-encompassing, all-knowing Father in heaven. Sure, there are consequences for failing to live our lives in accordance with God’s will—and some of those consequences may be dire—but I don’t believe God punishes. I believe we do that to ourselves. Because, you see, God made us for love. That’s what comprises our “spiritual DNA.” Love is the only thing that matters… it’s the only real currency in all of Creation. Jesus said it: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Love is the summation of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40) and the common thread that runs throughout the entire warp and woof of the parables.
So, what pleases God? In a nutshell, I believe God wants us to love and be loved. And to be happy. And what does it profit us to please God? It will profit us everything, if we’ll let it. It will uphold us in the face of disappointment and adversity. It will strengthen us when we’re feeling wobbly. It will nourish and sustain us when we find ourselves lost and alone in the valley of the shadow of death. It will lead us to meaningful work and fulfillment as laborers in God’s vineyard. But it will also make us happy… as we live into the purpose for which we were created, which is helping to bring about God’s kingdom on this old earth. And all that kingdom-bringing stuff is a pretty tall order… and we’ll never be able to do it on our own. But if we place our faith in Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, and let our chief investment be in love…which is the currency of creation, we’ll not only be unstoppable, but on the last day, we’ll be blessed and repaid more than we could ever ask for or imagine at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14). Which sounds like a pretty good rate of return to me.