Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: choose life, commandments, Jesus, law, moses
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
We hear some difficult texts this morning. As much as I thought preaching on Corinthians would be great, and a little easier to deal with, I didn’t think it would be right to let these other texts simply hang over us. So, I’ve been spending time thinking over and studying the texts from Deuteronomy and Matthew.
I’ve been finding myself struck by some of the demands of these texts. From Deuteronomy we hear, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… choose life”(30:15, 19) –with the implication that it would be just as easy, if not more easy to choose death.
From Matthew, Jesus’ lips speak, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (5:29).
These harsh words and no-going-back choices trigger for me an image. I had a friend in high school who had a black and white copy paper sign in his locker. If he was standing there, getting a book or putting his coat away, and you looked up at him to say hello, you’d be confronted with this sign. It read: “If you died today, would you be in heaven or hell?”
I think about this harsh clash… one moment you’re bouncing down the hallway, excited for the upcoming weekend. You see your buddy at his locker, so you head over to say hi and then you open your mouth and go… “h-arraghhhh…” and step back. This threat of hell and the responsibility for my own fate comes to me like a sharp blow.
But maybe such a sign wouldn’t affect you in the same way. And today, it would probably be something I’d simply roll my eyes at and give him a happier picture to put up instead. Maybe some Grumpy Cat memes, those photos are always good for a smile.
These texts from our scripture can hit me just as hard as that harsh poster. They can leave doubt in their wake. Is it really up to us whether we find ourselves in heaven or hell? These texts can make us confused as we remember our confession that we are saved because of God’s grace alone, through Jesus’ faithfulness. These demands can turn us into judgmental people, who are so afraid to see our own sin and feel the repercussions, that we spend our lives picking apart other people’s live. They can leave us trying to be loud enough with our judgments that no one looks too closely at our own lives.
Today, I want us to look at these texts as the grace-filled, God-loved people we are, not as people bound by fear or judgment. These are not bad texts. The chapters of commands from Deuteronomy don’t need to be cut out from our Bibles. But they do need to be more fully understood, so that we see through them the heart of a loving, life-giving God. We can find here in these words the good news, the gift, that God has written for us.
First, we need to take care of one assumption many of us may be making as we hear these texts. These texts are not primarily about what happens to you when you die. The Hebrews to whom Moses spoke didn’t have our modern conception of separate realms of heaven and hell. As Moses sums up the law, the question is whether or not you will choose life or death in this moment, with this breath, and if, as a result, you will experience health and joy or feel the suffering of your actions right now.
The most important thing to remember when reading these texts is that God has gifted you with life. God gifts us with those things that will bring life. The law was gifted to the Hebrews as they left slavery in Egypt and travelled to a new land and a new life. The law was part of God’s gift of relationship. It is a way of living that gives life: that helps form life-giving relationships with God, family, other people, and all of creation.
All that comes before this passage from Deuteronomy includes many laws and demands that many of us have never heard before, and many that, taken at face value, have no relevance for our world today. For example, not many of us have oxen, so the command to not muzzle them while treading out the grain (25:4) doesn’t really mean much to us. However, the heart of the law remains meaningful to us. In another teaching, Jesus sums the law up as living in love for God and for neighbor. The law includes special consideration for the poor and the powerless, instructing people to take action to protect and provide for the most vulnerable. The heart of the law is about living in a life-giving way, so as to reflect the purposes of our life-giving God.
By the time Jesus is teaching on the law, it seems like the heart of the law has been lost. People have become too focused on the letter of the law, priding themselves on their holiness. They follow the commandments and believe themselves to be doing all that is necessary. So Jesus pushes back. Instead of abstaining from murder, Jesus expands the commandment to uncover the death dealing aspects of anger, insults, and demeaning others. Instead of avoiding adultery, Jesus expands the commandment to include objectifying another person. Jesus locates obedience to the commandments in the heart rather than the head. It’s not about avoiding a list of don’ts so much as living in right relationship. It’s about being transformed so that the impulse to hurt another is exchanged for the desire to always do what is best for the other.
The law is intended to promote and protect life. We see this in Jesus’ discussion of divorce. This teaching comes from a place of concern for those who would be most disadvantaged from the separation. Women had no protection or support outside of their relationships with men. To be cast aside and divorced would mean suffering: it could mean death.
The law is a way of living that protects the lives of others, and also protects the well-being of the one seeking to live according to the law. Jesus recognizes that there is something death-bringing for the one who disobeys these commands. When you harbor a grudge against someone, even though it is hidden in your heart and that person may never know of your harsh feelings, is it as if you have pulled out a knife and driven it, not in the other, but through your own heart. When you become a person who needs to swear by powers greater than you to prove the worth of your promise to another, you and the power of your word are diminished.
The law is meant to shape us into people who reflect God’s life-giving work. It isn’t meant for us to use as an attack or judgment against others. It isn’t about earning our place in an eternal paradise or choosing so poorly that we are sent to a place of punishment after death.
The law is meant to show us that God cares about how we live this day. Our relationships matter to God. Our living as compassionate, truth-telling, justice giving, and forgiving people is God’s intention. This path is the path of life: life today as well as life forever.
Those of us who have been so shaped by Lutheran theology might protest that we can never fully follow the law. It’s not possible for our captive will to choose to live in right relationship with God, neighbor, or self. We cannot do this by our own power. In the midst of all those detailed commandments in Deuteronomy is the promise that God will act to make it possible for us to follow the law: In Deuteronomy 30: 6, we read, “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” God works within us to establish this life-giving way.
God intends for you to live in joy, and not in fear. Jesus has come to fulfill the law’s demands, and any punishment you may deserve from your disobedience has already been placed on him. You have been freed from any external judgment. Still, the law has its use. It reminds us that how we live today matters. Our choices and interactions matter to God, matter to others, matter to creation, and matter for our own well-being. Choose life, choose actions and thoughts that lift other up, that sustain and promote life, and thereby you, and the rest of creation, may live.
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