Maybe we can blame it on the metric system, but the number "10" has a certain prominence in modern life. It's used over and over again as a measurement. We have the top ten books, the top ten records, the top ten news stories, the ten best this, the ten best that. How unlikely would it be to hear reference to the "nine best dressed women" or the "top fourteen ice cream flavors." No, ten seems to be the universal number.
Then there's the rating scale of 1 to 10. You may even remember back a number of years ago to a movie with the title of 10. This was a film starring Bo Derek where she was supposed to be the embodiment of perfection, the best to be found and who registered a perfect 10. So 1-10 seems to be the new standard of evaluation. Even doctors use it for diagnosis: "On a scale of ten, how do you feel?" You can't get away from it.
Actually the "ten" phenomenon is not all that new. Back in the opening pages of the Old Testament the number ten was also prominent as a number for perfection and completeness. Had ten righteous persons been found, Sodom and Gomorrah would have been saved. Abraham was tested by God on ten different occasions, including the time mentioned in our first reading today. And, of course, there are ten commandments.
Jesus would seem to have loved that number as well as he spoke about the ten bridesmaids. He also lifts up the woman who has ten silver coins and loses one, and the servant who doubles the talents so that now he presents his master with ten upon his return. How many lepers were healed, of which only one came back to give thanks? Ten.
Jesus didn't specifically use the 1 to 10 rating system, but if ten represents perfection or completion, then we can see this scale inherent in today's scripture from Matthew as they add onto those from last week. Jesus talks about what a disciple who might be rated a "10" would be like.
"Whosoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Those would seem to be exceedingly harsh words, maybe too hard for us. Can we love Christ that much? And does it necessarily mean that we love others less when we put Jesus first in our lives? Perhaps it is when we get our priorities straight that we are really more capable of loving others, including those closest to us.
"Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Seems like a contradiction. How can we lose something and be better off for it? How can we give up life to get it? If we must die to live, is that physical death or symbolic death? What must go in order for something new to come? Is it painful to lose apparent life to gain actual life? Perhaps the trade off is easier than we think once we have made the more difficult decision of what we want to live for.
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." How can it be that when we welcome another we also welcome Jesus? And further yet, that we also welcome the one who sent Jesus? Some say Jesus lived and died and simply is history now, but is that true? Can't he also be the one who still is? Is there a reality greater than that we see with our eyes? Perhaps the stranger in our midst or the person who comes to us in need also wears the identity of our Savior.
"Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple— truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." Is even a simple act of kindness a response that is in the likeness of Christ? Who deserves our attention? Only those we are already in relationship with, or does our circle of concern need to be wider? Should we do only for those who can pay us back, or is that too limited? A reward is promised for those who do good, but perhaps this ought not to be our motive. Is doing right its own reward?
These are high standards that Jesus call us to. Maybe they're too high.
Have you ever heard anyone say, "I'm just your average Christian?" I know I've heard that self-description many times. What is average anyhow? If you were to stick your head in an oven and your feet in a block of ice, I guess you could say that, on average, you were quite comfortable. Except of course that your hair would be singed and your legs frozen. To be halfway between all or nothing might be OK in some circumstances, but not in all. Not in this one.
Jesus tells us that when it comes to faith, average isn't good enough. For something this important, something so central to life, it's got to be a "10" that we strive for. The expectation is high and we deceive ourselves when we think that a half effort is good enough. Compromise is a fact of life, but not when it comes to this. Jesus says you either walk with him or you walk away from him. There is no middle ground. The Gospel demands a radical engagement with life. Are we ready to accept that?
A church leader in the African country of Chad tells of a most unusual offering gift he received in a church he served there. Before the plate was passed one day he spoke to his people about the total dedication that was required of each person. He said that we need to give back to the Lord joyfully what has graciously been bestowed on each of us..
In the church that day was a young woman who had just recently discovered Christ in her life As she was very poor, she had nothing to give—no money, no belongings, nothing. Yet, she knew she had been blessed with a new life and a new sense of worth. As the offering plate came to her she held it in her hands for a few moments, then silently set it on the floor, got up, and stood in it. The minister said that day the woman brought the only thing she had to give, and that was her—all of
her with nothing held back.
You see, that's not the response of a 4 or 5-rated disciple. That's the response of a 10. I suspect that woman in Africa was not perfect. I don't imagine that she never made mistakes or said a cross word. Probably she failed to see many opportunities for service. I'm sure that she had much to learn, much to improve. But that day, at that moment, she rated the top of the scale because she understood and acted on what it means to follow Jesus with your whole heart.
In a similar way that same high rating is possible for us as well, even with our imperfections. I see people in this room who at times do saintly acts, but I don't think that's the same as saying this sanctuary is full of saints. Yet each of us has the capacity to do almost unlimited good. Each of us can be a 10 occasionally in practice, and a 10 at all times in terms of our intention.
This is a high calling, a high expectation that Jesus has for us. It may sound unfair or unrealistic. It may seem to be unachievable. We can try to dismiss the standard, but then we're still stuck with this passage and its words echo in our hearing. We could try to argue the point and say that we think an average effort should be enough. At the very least we come to church; that ought to be worth something. Jesus tells us that it takes more than that, but then whatever is put forth will be returned to us double, triple, or even ten-fold.
The true disciple walks to the beat of a different drummer. Right thoughts lead to right resolutions, and right resolutions lead to right responses. A sincere person of faith does what needs to be done irrespective of whether the world even knows or cares.
Jesus calls us to be the best that we can be, and in that way, to glorify God. Jesus calls us to be the best that we can be, and in that way, to discover the path of true life. Jesus calls us to be the best that we can be, and in that way, to share in the rewards that he promises to those who serve him faithfully.
So strive to be a number "10" in faithfulness, but not because I say so. Strive to be a number "10" because Jesus know that's what you are capable of being and, with his help, what you can be.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church