OLD TESTAMENT: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Brought out of the land of Egypt, the Israelites are now given a depiction of what they should become—a people of obedience to the law and devotion to God. This is their very life. They are told to love God or perish. If they devote themselves to God and to becoming the people that God called them to be, they will be blessed. But this is not to be taken legalistically. Rather, the people are being called into relationship with God, into the relationship that nourishes and feeds and gives them life.
The truth is, they have already been released from slavery, have already been redeemed from perishing. Egypt means captivity; devotion to God means freedom. It is a call to not yield to fear, to not cower into the past but rather to go toward God, to go into the future with devotion and obedience. This reading is a sort of weaving together of the past and the present. The past is part of them but it is not all there is. God waits to take them to freedom.
And now they hear this call to renewal, a call to be who God calls them to be. Think of them standing at the threshold of new life, ready to go on. But first they must hear who they are. It is not a promise of prosperity if one follows God, such as we often hear today; rather, it is a promise of life.
For us, too, obedience, going toward God, represents life. When faith falters, self-centeredness takes over, fear and insecurities move in, and we forget exactly who we are and who we’re called to be. Life is about choices. Choices bring dignity to life. God gave us the wonderful gift of free will, the gift of the power to choose. (In fact, in giving us that, God gives us a small piece of the very Godself. God gives up a part of God for us.) But our choices affect us and they affect the world. Some bring blessings; some do not. Blessings are not rewards for a choice well-chosen; they are, rather, life-giving consequences of living and being the way were are created to live and be.
The Book of Deuteronomy is not merely a simplistic guide to health and well-being. It is not merely rules. That would be entirely too simple. And this passage is not meant as a threat. It is instead a way of teaching or instructing. Some see it as a sort of summary of the entire Torah itself. It is God’s love pleading with us to return. These are not just demands, but something to which one can listen to guide him or her home. It is the way to justice and righteousness, to the life that God has always envisioned we would have.
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What is difficult about it?
- What changes if we read it legalistically as opposed to life-giving?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
Again, Paul’s letter is in conflict with the culture and society to which the Corinthians are accustomed. Their loyalties are misplaced and because of that, disunity has set in. There are those that have led them and, it seemed, have nurtured them. They probably feel that they owe them something—at least some level of devotion and loyalty, if nothing else.
Paul doesn’t seem to be necessarily warning against false prophets or ineffective leaders here but rather displaced loyalty. One human cannot “belong” to another (hence the misuse of the Scriptures about slavery 150 years ago). Rather, we all belong to God. It is God to whom our loyalty should be given. And realizing this will unify us with one common purpose.
Paul sees this as true maturity. And as long as these people don’t get that, they are mere infants, still needing basic instructions in the ways of God. They see themselves as a spiritual and righteous people following devoted leaders. But they have a long way to go. For Paul, righteousness and spirituality comes with being “in Christ”. Differing leaders, then, should not be in competition, but should be co-workers with God. In other words, their ministries should be complimentary, not competitive. For Paul, these divisions are doing nothing for spiritual growth and are, in fact, pulling the people away from what is right and good, away from their unity in Christ.
Perhaps, then, this is a call for us to take a good hard look at our leaders and the way we live as Christians in this world. Divisions? Quarreling? Jealousy? They are all indeed rampant in our world. But Paul claims that if we see ourselves as one in Christ, all of these divisions, all of these misunderstandings would fall away, our divisions would be healed. The question is “to whom do you belong?”
The late Henri Nouwen often spoke about his journey to L’Arche, a community of mentally handicapped people and their assistants, trying faithfully and simply to live the Gospel together. Nouwen, assigned to work with Adam, a twenty-four-year-old epileptic man who could not speak or dress himself, spoke of his real fears. A university professor who was far more comfortable with matters of the head than of the heart, he was now assigned the task of bathing and dressing a grown man. Over time, fear gave way to something new:
“Somehow I started to realize that this poor, broken man was the place where God was speaking to me in a whole new way. Gradually I discovered real affliction in myself and I thought that Adam and I belonged together and that it was so important…I want you to understand a little better what happened between Adam and me. Maybe I can say it very simply. Adam taught me a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way.” (In Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, by Richard M. Simpson, p. 355, noted as from Henri Nouwen, “Journey to L’Arche”.)”
I can’t help but read this passage and think of our own culture and even our own denomination. I mean, if unity was important enough for Paul to call the Corinthian church out of itself and away from the false alignments that they had created, then what words would Paul have for us? Paul doesn’t seem to be near as worried about the subject of the quarrels or who is right and who is wrong but that fact that there was disunity within the church. No one is “right”; no one has the upper hand; no one can lay claim to the church. The Church is God’s and God is the one with whom we are aligned. Nothing else really matters. Now don’t get me wrong. I have never advocated just standing back and doing nothing. There are things that are just wrong. There are places where we are not the open and inclusive people of God who we are called to be. But there is a way to talk; there is a way to act; there is a way. Maybe when we remember that we are the people of God, we will look at things differently.
- What does this passage mean for you?
- How can this be applied to our own cultural context?
- What would be different if we actually heard what Paul was saying?
- What does this passage say about Christian maturity, about, as we United Methodists put it, “Christian Perfection”?
GOSPEL: Matthew 5: 21-37
Once again, we have more wisdom from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This is no pretty little story—just straightforward teachings. You see, we really ARE supposed to do this. There are contrasts with those teachings that are “usual” all through it. (“You have heard…but I say to you.”) It’s a pretty radical way of looking at things. And here, it is not just behaviors; it also applies to attitudes and emotions. Indeed, it is about every aspect of our being.
Jesus acknowledges what the “usual” view of righteousness was (and perhaps is)—that a murderer will be judged, that those who leave offerings will be rewarded, that adulterers will be punished, etc. Sure, we know all that. Jesus is a good teacher. He starts with what his hearers know and to which they can relate. But Jesus’ whole point is that it’s not enough. Jesus doesn’t frame his words as prohibitions but rather expectations. It’s his way of not abolishing the law but fulfilling it. Following God is not about following rules; it’s about going beyond them.
Once again, we are reminded that God came in Jesus Christ not to enforce the rules, but to reorder the world itself. God does not have a checklist or a lucky-number scorecard. Rather, God became flesh, dwelt among us, and showed us what it meant to live with an ever-present God in our midst. Once again, the choice is life. But abundant life demands a lot. We are not called to be right or good; we are called to not only avoid sins, but to live as those whose God is in our midst.
Now, that said, we often get hung up on the specifics of this passage. Murder we get. But, then, anger is a little harder. I mean, anger is a valid human emotion. But when anger becomes destructive of the relationship, it needs to be stopped. Maybe it’s a call to learn to talk to each other. I don’t know. The one about divorce always hangs us up. So is that a call to stay in a marriage that is not good for those involved? Well, keep in mind that in the first century culture in which this was written, a man could just divorce his wife for no reason, shutting her out and leaving her penniless and alone. In effect, it was what we would talk about as abandonment. So, Jesus is saying, “you owe her something. She is a valued person.” What it boils down to is that we need to learn to read these words of Jesus the way that Jesus meant them rather than the way our society looks at them. Jesus’ words were calling us to be something more, calling us to be different. And if something in our life keeps getting in the way of that, then we need to let it go.
This Way of Christ is, in effect, a reordering of everything we know. It is the way to life abundant. But it demands more and it promises more. The laws are not about keeping us out of trouble or, for that matter, even statements on morality. They have to do with relationships, with that Body of Christ embodied in our midst. So how does our community and our culture treat everyone? Where are those places where we as a community fall short? Where have we forgotten that it is not about rules and laws; it is about relationship, about unity, about living the Way of Christ?
- What does this passage mean for you?
- What is the most difficult part of this for you?
- Why is this so difficult for most of us to grasp? What keeps our focus on “rules” so firmly in place?
- What would it mean if we really listened to Jesus’ words?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
When people get to invent their own gods, they invent gods that demand very little. (Steve Bruce, 20th century)
I discovered that in the spiritual life, the long way round is the saving way. It isn’t the quick and easy religion we’re accustomed to. It’s deep and difficult—a way that leads into the vortex of the soul where we touch God’s transformative powers. But we have to be patient. We have to let go and tap our creative stillness. Most of all, we have to trust that our scarred hearts really do have wings. (Sue Monk Kidd)
Whatever is honored will be cultivated. (Plato)
God bless our contradictions, those parts of us which seem out of character. Let us be boldly and gladly out of character. Let us be creatures of paradox and variety; creatures of contrast, of light and shade, creatures of faith. God be our constant. Let us step out of character into the unknown, to struggle and love and do what we will.
(Leunig, Common Prayer Collection]