We take God’s name in vain when we offer God anything less than our very best.
I am nearing the end of my journey through the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. I’ve started the last of the 12, the prophet Malachi.
In the first chapter Malachi denounces those who bring lame, deformed, and diseased animals to the Jerusalem Temple to sacrifice to God. Malachi calls this practice a way they pollute the altar of the Lord.
…you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? (Malachi 1:7-8)
They are offering to God something less than their very best. They keep the best of their flocks for themselves.
Would they engage in such behavior, he asks, if they were making a gift to their prince or the governor of the land? Would not the prince feel insulted? So how do they think they can get away with offering God–their creator, redeemer, and the ground of their being–something less than the very best?
When they do not offer their best, they despise God’s name, the prophet says. That implies to me that their behavior is a way they violate the third commandment. They employ the name of God in vain.
What is striking about this passage is the prophet’s conviction that God deserves from us our very best, not our second or third best or worse. This is, I believe, one of the logical conclusions we must draw if we take seriously the Shema, the great declaration of faith of Judaism:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
I also think the prophet expresses a fundamental principle of the spiritual life. If we are offering something up to God, we cannot cut corners. We need to make it the very best we can give. That applies not only to material gifts, but also to our creative endeavors, our work, and our relationships within the faith community.
Now what is our very best varies from person to person, from condition to condition, depending upon the gifts we have been given, whether that is material possessions, talents, or social privileges. What represents the very best for a person of modest gifts and means may be something very different from what it means for an affluent, highly educated, and privileged person. That is the point of Jesus’s comment on the gift of the poor widow in the story recorded in Mark 12:41-44: …she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.
A Saddening Deception
Let me tell a story that illustrates how giving a deceptive gift to God or to anyone is an insult to the recipient’s dignity and honor. It is a story told me by an Episcopal priest who once ministered in a church in mid-town Manhattan.
His church was an attractive church and therefore became an often requested site for weddings. He had a busy ministry marrying people, at all times during the week. A man asked him to perform his wedding, and the priest gladly consented.
When the ceremony was over, the groom handed the priest an envelope as a token payment for the service the priest had performed. The priest handed the envelope to the bride saying, “I never receive payment for the weddings I perform. When I am given gifts like this, I like to hand it back to the couple I have just married as a small financial investment in their new life together. So I am giving this gift to your bride.”
The bride opened the envelope and found it contained nothing but a folded blank piece of paper.
Though the act did indeed involve an insult to his role as priest , he was not so much offended, he said, as saddened for the bride. She had just said her vows, but she was discovering her marriage starting out on a deceptive note.
If this is how we feel when people try to deceive us in their dealings with us, how much more does God feel saddened by our effort to deceive him? The prophet calls this a way we sniff at God.
“What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. (Malachi 1:13-14)
The application of this prophetic principle to our life today has multiple implications, if we just think about it.