Choose Life: Blessing or Curse?

Sermon Study Notes for Sunday 02132011 – Deuteronomy 30 vs15-20

Thoughts for reflection:

Again we are faced with an if-then proposition from scripture, this time situated not in the writings of the prophet Isaiah set some time in the 7th-5th centuries BCE, but toward the end of Deuteronomy, presented as ‘the last sermon’ of Moses to the people before they cross over into the promised land. Throughout this book, Moses has reminded the people of all that God has done for them as a statement of the promise and challenge of covenant relationship with YHWH. They have had 40 years to root out from their lives the mindsets from generations of slavery in Egypt. Over this same time YHWH has been attempting to shape and form them as this new covenant community which will pass into the land promised centuries earlier to Abraham through his descendants.

In this series of sermons beginning Sunday, 2/13, we will explore the idea: Choose Life:
Blessing or Curse
Love your neighbor as yourself.
God will not forget ~ God will restore!

Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away from God.

Inherent in the ‘if-then’ premise is a choice, and with choice comes both power and responsibility. The presumption is that I have the power to choose, and thus have the power to effect change in my life and potentially in the world around me. If this is true, then (I would argue) it is also true that I have the responsibility to choose well, as my choices affect not only myself, but by extension the world around me. ‘Freedom of choice’ in whichever context this phrase is used must also consider the impact that choosing has on others.

The doctrine of ‘free will’ arose out of necessity most notably in the work of Augustine of Hippo. The phrase is not found in scripture – and arguably the idea is not found there in any developed form. The necessity was prompted by a desire to hold together the idea that we are presented with choices, such as those found in Deut 30, God’s ultimate power (omnipotence) and that God is just in judging humanity for the choices thus made. If we do not truly have freedom of choice, then God is not just in judging. If we do have this freedom, then how can we say that God is all powerful. The developments of this article are too much to unpack here, but a good starting place would be:

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm or

Here’s also an interesting brief essay arguing against the doctrine of ‘free will’ known as ‘libertarian freedom’ in favor of a doctrine named ‘compatibilist freedom (the freedom of inclination).’ http://withchrist.org/veracity.htm It is worth noting that this argument rests on and is pointed toward a doctrine of scripture that itself rests upon reason. Again, to quote from the article:

Both the authority and veracity of the Word of God rest upon its inerrancy. Without a God capable of insuring inerrancy, without a God capable of overriding men’s fallibility, nothing–absolutely nothing–is certain…. If men have free will, then that free will allows for errors to be introduced at any point in the Divine chain of communication mentioned above. And if errors can be shown at any point, then the entire process falls to the ground, and its value and worth are rendered void.

The essence of this quote is based not in scripture, but in a rational argument of what ‘must be true’ if there is any reliability or truth in scripture. So, for the author quoted, though he is unaware, his own human reason is still the essential factor in determining ‘what is truth’.

All three texts – Psalm 119, Matthew 5, and Deuteronomy 30, raise a call to attend to righteousness via a dialogue with the “commandments, decrees, and ordinances”. The psalmist begins this acrostic poem – an ode of praise to the TORAH (“direction, instruction, law”) by assuring us:

1 Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the torah of the Lord.
2 Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart,

This writer of course knows Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and the charge that before us are placed life and death, blessing and curse, and that we should choose life, which of course is found in following torah. Jesus, then, in Matthew’s gospel, knowing both of these passages by heart, speaks to a community that is conflicted in its relationship with torah. There are some, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, who believe that right relationship with God is to be found in obeying the letter of the law. There are many others who experience this teaching in the way Jesus describes:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:2-4)

So, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus opens dialogue regarding torah and our relationship to it, inviting people to re-imagine their relationship with it, or with God through it. “You have heard it said,… but I say to you…” And in each instance Jesus effectually raises the stakes, making discipleship more difficult, not less, and yet also freeing the hearer from objective obedience to the particular written code, as not really being the point at all. The law is an outward expression of an inner spirit, motivation, intention, heart.

As Christians approaching the choice given by Deuteronomy 30, we can not simplistically take up the written law, either in the Hebrew Scriptures or in the New Testament, and say, “See, here are the rules. If we follow these rules, then we are choosing blessings and life. If we break any of these rules, then we are choosing curses and death.” We must, as Jesus does in Matthew 5, be continually in dialogue, through study, prayer, and conversation in community, with the Holy Spirit, Scripture, church teaching, reason, and our own experience and understandings. A deep and thorough reading of Psalm 119 makes clear that the poet’s heart is drawn toward God, and that the poet finds meditation on Torah (i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and possibly Joshua) to be a way to draw near to God. Living out the human-divine relationship described in the narratives of these books gives the poet spiritual strength, assurance, comfort and joy.

Unfortunately for the contemporary church, the New Testament is loath to specify which rules from Hebrew Law (“direction, instruction, law”) still apply, and which don’t, and why. The closest, I think that the church ever came is found in Acts 15. When faced with the question of which Jewish laws the Gentile Christians should be taught to keep, James, the presumed head apostle in the Jerusalem Church at the time, says this:
19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.
Hardly satisfactory, I think, as a comprehensive moral teaching. And so we have Paul, Peter, John, and in his own way James, working out this question by listing various virtues and vices or fruits/works of the flesh and fruits/works of the spirit. Some of what they teach is quite obviously drawn from earlier Jewish teaching in the Torah and elsewhere. Some seems to grow more from the teachings of Jesus. Others are primarily an expression of social and cultural norms at the time, either within the Jewish community, within Hellenistic or Roman society, or some combination.

Determining what we are to hear, understand, and do in light of all this is anything but simple, and must be approache
d with the utmost humility regarding our own understandings, and grace toward others.

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