See, I set before you this day life and prosperity; death and adversity, in that I command you this day: love YHWH your God, walk in God’s ways, and keep God’s commandments, God’s laws and regulations; that you may thrive and become many in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured away to the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you will surely perish; you will not prolong the days in the soil you are crossing the Jordan and entering to possess. I call as witness against you this day heaven and earth; I have put before you life and death; blessings and curses. Choose life! So that you and your descendents may live, by loving YHWH your God, by heeding God’s commands, and clinging to God, for God is your life and your length of days, to be settled on the soil that YHWH swore to give your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
In my gathering of resources to help me preach this sermon, I did what all good seminarians do, and I picked out particular commentary series’ I knew would help me. To help me get some good practical, preachable material, I turned to the Interpretation series. For a grand, wide-print overview I looked to the NIB. For detailed, way over my head analysis, I picked up the Word Biblical Commentary. And obviously, because it’s the Old Testament, I found whatever Walter Brueggemann wrote on it, in an effort to receive some sort of mystical gift by touching the hem of his cloak. But in my search, I found something that was a little out of place. In the Word Biblical Commentary, I read a lot of complex sentences, like this one: “when vv. 15-20 examined within the larger context of 30:11-20, the reason for the Numeruswechsel in v 19 becomes clearer, for it functions as a structural marker to separate v 19a from what follows as a distinct unit of thought within another five-part concentric structure”. You know, Word Biblical kinds of things. But at the end of the section on my passage, I found a little story, about a friend of the commentator, who was about to commit suicide and decided instead to open her Bible at random, and found this passage. When she read, “Choose life”, she decided to do so, and claims she is only alive because of this passage of scripture. The commentator of course says that this isn’t the foremost model of how to approach scripture, but it does go a long way to show us what is at stake in our text today. Our text is about choosing God’s blessing – for the sake of our futures, for the sake of the world’s future, and for the sake of God.
A few things first about the book of Deuteronomy: the name of the book literally means “second law”, but it is not a new law. Nor is it simply a rehash of the first law. It is a re-giving of the first law from Sinai, but something different is at play. Deuteronomy does not simply repeat the Ten Commandments or the holiness codes – it seems to have an entirely different agenda. It’s not new, but it’s not a repeat.
Deuteronomy is interpretive. It is “preached law”. It’s the old law for a new context. Scholars generally agree that this new context has something to do with the exile, maybe before, maybe during, maybe right after, or maybe all three. It’s likely a composite work, and may have different time periods that it speaks into. But at the same time, it utilizes this particular setting: Moses and the newly formed people of Israel on the fields of Moab just before crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy places the readers and hearers in this setting for the sake of remembering, and tells the story in way that bears significance for the present and the future.
The way that Deuteronomy uses an old story for a modern issue reminds me of The Crucible. For those of you who have read the play or seen a production of it, The Crucible is about the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in the 1690’s, but it was written in 1953 as an allegory for McCarthyism; a time in which fear and paranoia around the Cold War ran so high that political figures accused and tried citizens for communism and treason based on little criteria or evidence. Arthur Miller wrote about the injustice of Salem in the past to shed light on a present injustice that he witnessed, for the sake of a better future. The book of Deuteronomy is doing a similar thing.
Our passage today, though, is about the final choice within this larger recollection: will they choose life, or will they choose death? But understanding this choice requires us to remember these multiple settings of Deuteronomy. The text is not telling us about a choice that was made once. In fact, it doesn’t tell us what the response was. The text is telling us about a choice that we all have; those on the fields of Moab, those on the brink of exile, those under the rule of Babylon, or those returning to their homeland once again; perhaps even today, we have this same choice.
This might be difficult for us to understand, because as Christians, we like to talk about a certain “decision” that you make once to become a Christian and everything follows naturally after that. We even have competing doctrines about whether or not you can go back on that decision, or if that means you never really made the decision in the first place. We can argue about that until we’re blue in the face, but our text is talking about something different. The most important difference is that it’s not talking about an individual decision, and that plays out in two ways. The choice is not mine, or Leland’s, or Edgar’s or Claire’s. It’s not even our,s collectively in this room. We have our roles to play, of course, but this choice is corporate to the people of God, and has corporate implications. Because the people of God doesn’t just include those today or even yesterday. The passage calls us to see how our choice creates a future for the next generations to come; are we handing down life, or death; blessing or curse.
What is interesting about these ideas of blessing and curse in our text is that the blessing is directly attributed to God, but the curse seems to just be a natural consequence. This is a nice Old Testament theodicy, and it’s not true of every passage. But within this covenantal relationship, God says simply, “Choose life, and all my blessings are available to you.” But this is a gift that can be forfeited. We learn that to choose death does not cause us to be punished; choosing death is the punishment. It’s what we have chosen. C.S. Lewis is famous for writing, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” This was C.S. Lewis’ eschatology, his view of how things would be at the end. Our text, however, tells us that this is the reality now as well. Choosing God is life now; tangible, lived life in blessing! But to choose a life of death is punishment unto itself, a life away from God’s blessing; freely offered, and freely declined.
The best news of this passage is the easiest to miss. The passage is about a choice made long ago, but that’s not how Deuteronomy rolls. The multiple audiences, including our own, remind us that the people of God have this same choice again and again The covenant is not a one-time offer. God’s end of the covenant is always available for those who would uphold theirs. As seminary students, I think this is very hard for us to remember. As we learn more and more about God and scripture and church life, our romantic ideas of the people of God can begin to wear off. I confess that two weeks ago, when the film Noah came out the same week that World Vision made their announcement about hiring gay Christian employees, and I saw the reaction by mainline Christianity to both… I was about ready to throw in the towel. I’m sure many of us feet this way or have felt this way – like the loudest version of Christianity has nothing in common with us. And I’m sure we all know friends or family or even pastors who were once a major part of the Church but have left it behind. What this text promises, though, is that God’s people are never too far gone. The people of God can always re-choose life, and receive the blessing of God.
But what is the nature of this blessing, and how exactly do we receive it? The answer is, we already have. If you’ll allow me for a brief moment to do a little “redactionary criticism”, I promise you it’ll be worth it. If you were to read this passage in the NRSV, or the Septuagint, you would find an extra phrase in v. 16 before the command to love YHWH. The phrase reads, “IF you obey the commandments of the Lord your God” dot dot dot “then you may thrive” etc etc. But this does not appear in the original Hebrew. Without it, it reads very differently, as I read it earlier, simply: “I command you this day, love YHWH, so that you may thrive”.
It’s a subtle difference, but with huge implications. In the first version, you keep the commandments so that God will bless you. In the second version, keeping the commandments is itself the means of the blessing. This point is made again in vv. 19 and 20, when it finally says, “Choose life! So that you and your descendents may live by loving YHWH your God!” V. 20 goes on to say that God is your life and length of days! The blessing does not come once we obey the law. Obeying the law is the blessing.
Now, I think we could all pick out a few Old Testament laws that don’t sound like blessings. Our understanding of these early codes and their functions is rather limited. But was this not what the ministry of Jesus was about? Jesus interpreted the law over and over to show that God intended it as a blessing for humanity, not a measuring rod. When Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath”, we see this point clearly. God’s laws and rules were for the sake of living healthily and justly and lovingly in community. And in Jesus, God opened that community up to the entire world. To obey the laws of God is to live in the world the was God intended and to receive the blessings of togetherness, of love, of shared resources, of compassion and recreation and charity. Living the way God intended is the blessing we are all truly after.
In the next year or so, Pasadena is adopting a new initiative to help deal with the issue of homelessness in our city. All around town, even on my seminary’s campus, they will be putting up “parking meters” that are not in parking areas but just in public areas, for people to put their spare change into, and the money goes toward programs that benefit the homeless in sustainable, organized ways. The goal is encourage ordinary citizens to constructively use their money to help the homeless rather than to give directly to beggars. While the merits of this are certainly worth talking about, the most interesting thing for me is the slogan that will appear on all of these meters: “Do Good: Feel good”. As though this were the best our city could come up with as a reason to do good! I guess “Assuage your rich white guilt” was too long to fit on the sticker. But my wife made a joke as she was preaching her way through the sermon on the plain from Luke that the signs should read, “Do good because Jesus said so!” This would definitely be a better slogan.
But if we take this passage of Deuteronomy seriously, I think we can go a step further. We don’t simply do good because Jesus said to. We do good because goodness is God’s blessing for the world. When Jesus says to love your neighbor, it isn’t just because we ought to. We love our neighbor, and even our enemy, so that we may be in community with them and we can share and multiply God’s blessing with each other for the sake of the world God loves. The laws and teachings of God are a blessing for us and the world, if we would choose to obey them.
Our text in Deuteronomy is about high stakes: God’s blessing for the world, or the death that comes from rejecting it. Texts like these are repeated throughout history because we make these choices over and over again as people, losing our way and find our roots again for the sake of a new future. We are blessed by a God that will always uphold the covenant generation after generation, even if it takes us a while to come around. We may not succeed in calling the people of God back to life, but we may leave it in a better place for the next generation. And God will richly bless the world when we live in love with our neighbors and enemies, because a world like that would be the utmost blessing from God… and is actually a promise from God of what the world will one day be like! May we live in such a way that we get to see bits and pieces of that world here and now. May we all choose life today and tomorrow, in memory of those who have in days gone by. Amen.