Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37 Jan Savory
In today’s OT reading from Deuteronomy, the Israelites are perched at the edge of the Promised Land listening to Moses, who has been delivering speeches for what amounts to thirty chapters. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, he has reiterated the stipulations of the law, including frequent reminders that when they enter the promised land, the Israelites must not worship any other gods. These six verses provide the rousing rhetorical climax to all thirty chapters of talking. This is not a time for Moses to speak with subtlety or nuance. It is a time for stark dichotomies: life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil (translated “prosperity” and “adversity” in NRSV). Service to the God of Israel yields life, service to other gods yields death. Moses has laid it all out for the Israelites, and now the choice is left to them.
An ongoing way of life
Reading these six verses in isolation might give the impression that this is a one-time choice for the Israelites. But we have the good fortune of knowing how the story continues. To “choose life” in this moment does not mean to have accomplished anything or to have finished anything. Choosing life means starting something: living in a messy, difficult, and holy relationship with God. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites stray from the covenant, only to find God continually willing to embrace the people again and again, and give them another chance to choose life; choose God; choose love.
Torah vs Hammurabi Code
God’s laws were actually very forward-looking for their time. If we compare them with other laws formulated in the Middle East, we find that the Torah is much gentler than other codes of behaviour from the same time. For example, the Babylonian law of Hammurabi is far more discriminatory and brutal than the biblical laws. The Hammurabi laws differed greatly in how it treated the various social classes and revolves around maintaining the order in society by establishing political power; it protects the nobility and land-owners as privileged classes, and contains no positive obligations toward others.
The Torah, the Hebrew law, on the other hand, outlines behavioral guidelines. It demonstrates a caring concern for others and the obligation to assist the poor, the disabled, and the weak. The class of people “protected and favored” in the Torah are the widows, the orphans, the poor and the strangers and is replete with directives of love, kindness, lending, charity, etc. It proved to the Hebrews that Yahweh, their god, cared about and loved them.
Moses and Jesus
As Moses said, it is the way of life, blessing and goodness. It is a way of living, a way of being, an ongoing orientation toward love of God and neighbor, not a question of simply checking off the correct box; Moses is asking them to turn their whole lives toward God. And this is what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel. He’s not saying Moses – or God – got it wrong. For from it. He expands on the intention behind the Law. Murder is wrong, but we also avoid hatred and anger. Adultery is still wrong, but so is lust. Being truthful should be an integral part of who we are, not just something we do under oath.
It is easier to live by lists of rules and laws than it is to live in authentic, dynamic, and redemptive relationship to people. For Jesus, obeying God is not just a matter of what we do, it goes deeper; it’s something that comes from the heart. It’s embodied in our very being. Laws can be static and arbitrary. Jesus reached into the Law to reveal its objective: the valuing and the protection of others. And in so doing, he gives us the formula for deciding how To act in situation that were never dreamt of by people in Bible times.
Love God and do whatever you please
Jesus isn’t setting out here a recipe to achieve salvation – or happiness even. He’s talking about a way of life. St Augustine said “Love God, and do whatever you please.” It sounds like a license to live a double life. However, Augustine made this point when preaching on 1 John 4:4-12, where John calls us to love, because love is of God, and because God first loved us. Augustine’s full quotation was, “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”
That’s Kingdom living. Augustine recognised that being in a right relationship with God bears the fruit of right actions, not the other way around. John’s first letter says (4:7-8): “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
God is Love
God is love. If God is love, then God is something we do, a way we live. rather than somebody or something we try to believe in or placate. If God is love, then God is a relationship, and not a Guy in the Sky or some other kind of supernatural entity.
God is love. Love is life. Choose life, says Moses. Love God and do whatever you please. Three ways of saying the same thing.
Love is the one fundamental of the faith. God’s love stops at nothing. In a few minutes Susan will lead us in our affirmation of faith, words from the Torah, a prayer used by Jesus in his day and Jesus’ answer to the question What is the greatest commandment? The Torah, and Jesus Message can both be summer up in those words. We love God and love our neighbours.
Choose life; choose God; choose love and God’s kingdom comes closer here on Earth.