“See,” Moses says, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments I give you, by loving God and walking in his ways and observing his commandments, you shall live, and God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants shall live.”
Sometimes the law falls heavy on our ears, weighed down with the measure of what it tells us we cannot do.
Love the Lord your God, walk in God’s ways, observe the commandments AND the decrees AND the ordinances, and you shall live. And you shall become numerous. And you will be blessed in the land you’re setting your foot toward.
IF your heart turns away, IF you do not hear, IF you bow down to other gods, IF you wind up serving those other gods…you’re not going to make it very long in the land you’re crossing that Jordan River to enter.
Deuteronomy can be translated from the Hebrew as the “second law,” or “the second giving of the law.” And that explains something of the importance of today’s first reading from that book in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. This is part of one of the three sermons Moses makes to the People Israel as they prepare to enter the land of God’s promise. They’ve spent 40 years wandering through the wilderness. They have walked through the Red Sea on dry land, they have gotten lost and found, they’ve eaten manna and quail that rained down from heaven, they have drunk water from a rock. They have gone from being slaves in Egypt to knowing themselves as God’s own beloved. And as God’s own beloved, they have this new law – this new way of being who they are. They are people of a covenant about to be fulfilled. “Go, to a land that I will show you,” God said so very long ago to Abraham. And now…their feet are about to walk on that land.
So the Law that God gives them is a gift to the People Israel. The law will show them how to give shape and substance to the covenant that God has established. The law helps them live, offers them an identity based not on bondage but on promise. And the People Israel love the law. That’s important. The People Israel, prepared to cross the Jordan, love the law that God has given them.
“Choose life,” Moses tells these people he has helped to free and sought to lead. “Choose life, that you and your descendants shall live.”
It’s clear that the people have a choice. They can choose to walk as closely as they can to the path God has offered, and the promise of the covenant is that they will find in that path God’s abundance. Or…they can choose to fall away, to get lost, to get distracted and fall in love with things that are not worthy, and that abundance will be lost as well. The people have the awesome and devastating choice of life abundant…or death…and God gives them the autonomy to make it.
We’re in the midst of four weeks’ worth of gospel lessons that re-tell Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount. It began two weeks ago with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you,” Jesus said. And it continued last Sunday with Jesus’ teachings on salt and light. Next Sunday Jesus will tell his followers to love their enemies, to pray for those who persecute them.
Scholars aren’t sure who exactly Jesus’ audience is with this sermon. We know that he has called his disciples, that he walked around in Galilee teaching and preaching and healing people, we know that as his fame spread, people brought their sick and afflicted family and friends to be healed by him. And they were healed. So his fame grew. The texts tells us that people followed Jesus from Galilee and the Dacopolis region and Jerusalem and Judea and from well past the Jordan. And I’m telling you that that’s a pretty spread out region…so it says something about Jesus, that people came from all over those places to follow him. The text tells us that Jesus sees the crowds just before he begins to preach the Sermon on the Mount. He sees the crowds, and he walks up the mountain, and he sits down, and his disciples come with him. We don’t know about all the others. For all we know, they stay down at the base of the hill. But we know the disciples hear him.
And so begins the “Blessed are you…” and the “You are the light of the world…” and so will continue next Sunday: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow…”
And (sigh) we have Jesus’ teachings from today: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder…’ But I say to you that if you are angry, you will be liable to judgment…’
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…’
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate…’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife…causes her to commit adultery…’
“Again, you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all…Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’
Sometimes the law falls heavy on our ears.
Last week Jesus made it clear to those who follow him that the law that God gave to the People Israel is the law that God still gives to the People. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” he said. “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
The two might strike us as different, especially given this morning’s text, but the Book of Deuteronomy and the Sermon on the Mount have something in common. Remember, Deuteronomy is the second giving of the law, the preparation for people walking into the lives that they have hoped for, for generations. And scholars treat the Sermon on the Mount as a parallel fulfilling, a kind of second giving of the Ten Commandments. Jesus is offering it to his disciples up there on the mountain, this distilled and amplified and seemingly impossible way of being, to the people who have dropped their nets to follow him, people who will descend this mountain and continue in seemingly impossible ways with faithful and imperfect lives of ministry.
As hard as it falls on our ears, what if today’s gospel passage from the Sermon on the Mount is every bit as much about choosing life as the reading from Deuteronomy? With those heavy words, what if Jesus is provoking us beyond superficial adherence to the rule of law, to instead find our way inside of that beloved law, to what it means at heart?
Is Jesus saying that life is endangered when anger and insult and judgment prevail?
Is Jesus saying that life is endangered when women are treated as disposable?
Is Jesus saying that life is endangered when we make promises that we have no intent to keep?
It seems to me that we’re living in a distilled and amplified time, one in which multiple times a day we could envision Moses standing before us on the Plains of Moab, saying “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live.”
How do our thoughts and our words and our actions bring life to this beautiful world? How can we hold this second giving of the law, this fulfillment offered by Jesus, when our fury would cause us to dehumanize another person? When our labels would exclude? When our promises fall flat?
The People Israel wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, proved again and again that it’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to be distracted, to fall in love with bright and shiny objects. It’s easy to forget who we are, especially when the words of law fall so heavy on our ears that we forget to listen.
But the law that the People Israel love, the fulfillment of the law that shapes the disciples’ journey down that mountain and beyond, invites us, as it invited them, to choose life in the abundance of a God who blesses us and calls us beloved.
“See, I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God…so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebecca, and to Jacob and Leah and Rachel.”