I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. –Deuteronomy 30:19-20
I don’t know when it was, but one day in Lent years ago I noticed something about Jesus’ replies to the temptations on his 40 day sojourn in the wilderness: three temptations, three replies from Jesus, and each reply was a quotation from Deuteronomy!
One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. -Deut 8:3
Do not put the Lord your God to the test - Deut 6:16
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him. -Deut 6:13
Deuteronomy is the last book of Torah, the first five books of our Bible. It is a series of three sermons by Moses to the people gathered on the plains of Moab. The first reviews the 40 year sojourn in the wilderness where God makes a disparate group of slaves into a people, Israel. It ends by revisiting the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words as they were known to Jesus and his followers. The second reminds everyone of their necessary allegiance to the One God of the Exodus and the observance of his commands as a condition of entering the land across the River Jordan. And the third offers comfort should the people stray from God’s way and be rendered homeless in exile or diaspora, with repentance they shall be returned home.
Our portion comes directly after a chapter stating of blessings and curses for those who follow or those who stray from the Way. In the opening lines of the Bible’s longest poem, Psalm 119, we learn that our happiness depends on our choosing to “walk in the way of the Lord…observe his decrees, and seek him with all our heart". Which I imagine begins with carefully observing what way the Lord walks so we might walk in that same way.
And we find Jesus in his extension of his sermon on the mount beginning to outline the way of observance. Even Paul gets into the act this week, announcing what ought to be good news for those of us who find ourselves straying from the Way when he writes to the recalcitrant congregation in Corinth, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” That is, although we need to choose between life and death, blessing and curse, it is God who gives us growth – in fact the 40 year sojourn is one long metaphor meant to convey to us that it is God who gives us everything. As Jesus would later say when queried by Nicodemus in the dark of night, “God so loved the world that God gave….”
We are created imago Dei, in the image of God. One of the girls in my religion class shrewdly asked, If there is a prohibition on images of God, what does that make us? Idols? Smart girl. I suggested that we are meant to represent the basic attributes of God in our daily life. Most basic of those attributes is that God loves and God gives.
Oh yes, Jesus says more about what he gave – and it turns out it is much more than the ten-percent of the biblical Tithe. God gives all, his life, his death and his resurrection so that we might choose blessing over curse, life over death.
This all flies in the face of modern sensibilities that want to believe, are taught to believe, and through the propaganda that is advertising we are tempted to believe: that we are each made to be self-sufficient and can have it all. It is truly amazing to contemplate our complicity with a culture of Covetousness. Again in class, we observed that of the Ten Commandments only one is repeated twice: thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not covet. Why is that, we wondered? To covet is to want or desire. Six hundred years before Christ, and some six hundred years after the wilderness sojourn, the Buddha observed that all human suffering arises from desire, from covetousness. We learned that in Hebrew rhetoric, when a word or phrase is doubled (such as Comfort, Comfort, O my people; or Song of Songs) it is for emphasis. It is as if after issuing nine words God raises his voice to thunderous volume to shout, THOU SHALT NOT COVET!!!!We further came to the awareness that coveting can often lead to adultery, lying, stealing, murder and dishonoring one’s parents. Coveting can undo all the ways we are called to relate to one another, to widows, orphans and to the resident aliens in our land, a primary concern of the Lord God of the Exodus. We are to be those people who take care of others without resources – all others!
Then we noticed that of the Ten Commandments, the commandment to observe the Sabbath comprises fully one-third of the text of the Commandments. Sabbath is God’s first gift to us, and the first thing in the Bible that God declares is holy. The day after creating us imago Dei, God gives us a gift of time – time to stop doing and simply Be – be with God, be with others, be with ourselves. So I asked the girls if there may be some relationship between the Sabbath command and the doubling of the Tenth Commandment.
Could it be that this gift of holiness in time is meant to give us a break from our daily work in trying to secure things of space – desiring, acquiring and consuming more and more things. Things which we are told define who we are by the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat. We have evolved so splendidly in our covetousness that we have created a whole new industry: Self Storage – where we store all our excess self that cannot fit into our homes! Yet, unless there is the promise of even an inch or two of snow in Maryland, we cannot find the time to set aside one day a week to luxuriate in the holiness of time – Shabbat, the Sabbath. Yet, Sabbath appears to be a possible antidote to covetousness and the human suffering it causes.
Jesus often went off alone to be quiet and pray. He affirms in the sermon on the mount that he has come to reinforce the Mosaic law given in the wilderness. How far into our own wilderness of coveting do we need to be not only to hear what God is saying, but to make it our own? At the heart of our Lord’s favorite book, Deuteronomy lies God’s first gift to us, the first holiness in all of creation, the gift of time, Shabbat – a cathedral made of the architecture of Time. And yet, here we are, most of us unable to take one day off, feeling that our security and our very being depends on endless coveting doing, doing, doing. What might it take for us to embrace and embody this longest of all the commandments, to keep the Sabbath day holy?
A wise mentor of mine used to say over and over again, “Being must precede doing.” N.Gordon Cosby. One of the gifts of Judaism is the idea that God exists not in a place as a person, being or thing, but in history – as a Spirit or Force in history, in time. Perhaps we need to reexamine our use of time to find or be found by God. The God who puts before us blessing and curse, life and death, cries out, “Choose life that you and your descendants may live!” May we reflect on God’s Word this day and choose wisely.
Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat shalom!