Deuteronomy 30:9-14New International Version (NIV)
9 Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, 10 if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
The Offer of Life or Death
11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
The Slovenian philosopher Slovaj Zizek tells the story of a man who visited a psychotherapist for a number of years because the man believed that he was a kernel of corn. Week after week, year after week, the therapist tried to convince the man that he was not a kernel of corn, but was in fact a human being. After years of therapy, the man finally came to accept that he was a person, which brought great joy to the therapist, who sent him on his way and pronounced him “cured.”
Two weeks later, the therapist heard a banging on his front door. When he opened the door, he found the man who had previously believed himself to be a kernel of corn, and the man seemed to be under great stress. The man yelled out, “You have to help me! My next-door neighbors just bought chickens, and I’m afraid that they are going to eat me.”
The therapist replied, “But you know that you are a human being and not a kernel of corn.”
The man responded by saying, “Sure, I know that. But do the chickens know?”
That silly story is actually meant to convey a deeper truth about all human beings. We can understand something, even believe it at an intellectual level, yet we still act differently. We can say that we believe something, yet act in the completely opposite way. And far too often, our actions reveal our true beliefs.
Our text for today is from the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the Greek name given to this last book of the Hebrew Torah when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in what we call the Septuagint. Deutero means 2nd, and nomos is the Greek word for “law.” But this word can be a little misleading, because Deuteronomy isn’t a second law, it is a second giving of the first law.
Recall that when Moses and the Israelites come out of Egypt, they arrive at Mt. Sinai where they receive the Law from God. But the Israelites have a hard time keeping the law and trusting God. Sure, they say they trust God, but their actions tell a different story. God tells them to take possession of the Promised Land, they hesitate, and are punished with a sentence of wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.
After this 40-year sojourn, Moses leads the Israelties right up to the edge of the Promised Land and gives them the Law again. In 40 years the Israelites would have seen two generations born and two generations die. It is hard to say how closely the held to the Torah in their wandering years, but now as they are about to enter the Promised Land, God, through Moses, gives them the law again, a deutero-nomos.
Let’s look at Deuteronomy 1:5, which explains a bit of the context of this book for us: “East of the Jordan in the territory of Moab, Moses began to expound this law, saying…”
What follows from this point is Moses preaching on the Law, on the Torah. That’s 34 chapters, minus the first five verses, of preaching. Try reading Deuteronomy straight through sometime. And you thought my sermons were long and boring! Moses revisits the religious holidays that the Israelites are supposed to keep. He talks about idolatry and forbidden forms of worship. There are laws dealing with slavery, sexual relations, marriage, divorce, and tithing. Moses also restates what we commonly call the Ten Commandments and gives what Jesus calls the “Greatest Commandment” in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The “love your neighbor as yourself” part is in Leviticus.
After all of this challenging, confusing, and downright-weird-at-times teaching, we come to chapter 30. Verses 9-10 sound a lot like the Prosperity Gospel to me, especially because Moses uses the word prosperous. He says, “Then the Lord your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your ancestors, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
The Prosperity Gospel says that if you are faithful that God will bless you with health and wealth. Moses says that if you are faithful that God will bless you with health and wealth. The difference is that Moses is speaking of the community of Israel as a whole being blessed for their faithfulness. The “you” is plural, which is most accurately translated as “ya’ll.” Among the laws that the Israelites are commanded to keep involve commandments to care for the poor, the weak, the powerless, the widows, and the orphans. Moses isn’t offering a “get rich quick” trick. No, he is promising that their community will be strong if they care for what Jesus will call “the least of these.” Or to put it differently, they will be as strong as their weakest member.
I step back and look at the book of Deuteronomy and shake my head. How can anyone possibly keep all of these commandments? Remember that there are a total of 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible, and we Christians like to reduce it to the big ten. Even those seem nearly impossible to keep, so we follow Jesus’ advice and boil it down further to the top two: love God and love your neighbor. But really, who can do that?
I’ve got one neighbor who works early in the morning and he leaves for work in his old Ford pickup truck each morning around 6:00 am. It is by far the loudest vehicle I have ever heard in my life. He lives one block away, so he backs out of his driveway, puts it in drive, and he must be late every day because he then floors that old V8 with open headers and a glasspack exhaust.
My windows shake, and my children wake.
The point that I’m trying to make is that even after we boil down and reduce the commandments in the Bible, they are still really difficult, if not impossible, to keep.
The good news for us is that we are no longer under the Law, we are under the grace of God! We don’t follow Moses, we follow Jesus. And the teachings of Jesus are a lot easier to keep, right?
Maybe not. Perhaps you are familiar with the six antitheses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Each starts out with a reminder of the teachings of the Torah by saying, “You have heard it said,” and then quoting a passage from the Law. You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery.” You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Jesus then makes the teaching even more difficult with the line, “but I say unto you…” But I say unto you, do not lust, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Many people have tried to get around these difficult sayings of Jesus by claiming that this is ethics for the world that is to come; this is eschatological, or how things will be when Jesus comes back. Others have said that Jesus is showing us how impossible it is to actually be perfect, as his father is perfect, like he commands in Matthew chapter 5, verse 48. Jesus is pointing out how fallen we really are in therefore in need of God’s grace.
I’m not buying it.
There is a phenomenon known as the “Pygmalion Effect.” The Pygmalion Effect is an observation made in the workplace, schools, and in society in general that claims that when higher expectations are presented, people tend to perform better. If you let someone know that you expect them to get good grades, perform well at work, or be a good citizen, the chances of them doing so increases. That is why there is a “Pygmalion School” here in Staunton.
Of course, there is an opposing phenomenon to the Pygmalion Effect, which is known as the Golem Effect. The Golem Effect says that low expectations can contribute to poor performance.
I doubt that Jesus had the Pygmalion Effect in mind when he called his disciples to practice these six antitheses, or when he called them to be perfect. But it is clear that Jesus had high expectations of them.
No, I don’t think we can be perfect, and no, I don’t think we can perfectly follow the teachings of Jesus or the Torah all of the time. But that isn’t an excuse for not trying. We have these difficult teachings and we are expected to do it. Yes, we will make mistakes. Yes, we will fail. But you can do it.
We can’t do it on our own. We need the church, we need each other, and we need the helper that Jesus promises to send his disciples in John’s gospel. We need the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.
You can do it, we can do it, if we work together.
Let’s go back to our original text from Deuteronomy, beginning in verse 11, “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven… Nor is it beyond the sea… No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”
Just as I said that the words of prosperity earlier had to be understood as speaking to the entire community and not just individuals, I believe that this too is speaking to the collective body. Moses says to the people, you can do it!
You can do it, and you know that you can. But there are always those outside influences that make us question whether or not we can. Like the man who was afraid of his neighbor’s chickens even though he was convinced that he was not corn, we allow outside forces make us question ourselves.
On one level I know that I can love God and love my neighbor. I can even love the guy with the loud truck that wakes up my entire family in time to milk the cows. I can love my black neighbors, and I can love my police officer neighbors. I can love my Christian neighbors, and I can love my Muslim neighbors. I can love my straight neighbors, and I can love my gay neighbors. I can do this, even when the world around me is saying that I can’t.
Our world says that we must choose. Which side are you on? If you say black lives matter, then the world will assume that you don’t love the police officers. Or, if you say police lives matter, it sounds like you don’t care about black people.
My advice to you and to myself today is to stop listening to the world. You are not corn, even if the rest of the world is a bunch of big old chickens!
You can do it! It won’t be easy, and you will surely stumble along the way. But you can follow God, you can follow the teachings of Jesus. You can love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, mind, and soul. And you can love your neighbor as yourself.