YEAR A: EPIPHANY 6
(Sunday between February 11 and February 17)
The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as a series of speeches by Moses to the people of the Exodus as they stand on the eastern side of the Jordan about to cross the river and enter the promised land. There are three main speeches: Deut 1:1-1:1-4:43 which tells of the people’s journey from Mt Horeb (Sinai) to the Jordan; 4:44-28:68 which exhorts them to obedience to the law and then sets out the main body of laws (12:1-26:19); and 29:1-30:20 which speaks of the covenant renewed in Moab, the land upon which they are standing listening to Moses. Today’s reading comes from the third speech. Finally, Deuteronomy 31:1-34:12 contains a set of appendices to the book with Moses’ final instructions to the people before his death.
Some scholars argue that Deuteronomy 29-30 are a late addition to the book possibly added at about the time of the exile, i.e. about 520BCE. This is later than some would see as the time of collection of much of the book (7th century BCE) and certainly centuries after the time when the book is set, i.e. in the time of Moses. Like other books, Deuteronomy was not seen as a static work but one that was regularly updated to meet new challenges in the life of the people.
The passage set for today, Deut 30:15-20 is the conclusion of the third speech of Moses. As such it also acts as something of a climax to the whole book, i.e. to Moses’ giving of the law to the next generation of God’s people. The passage speaks of blessings and curses. In the central, main speech of Moses, 4:44-28:68, a large body of law is detailed, especially in chapters 12-26. These laws end with reference to blessings and curses in chapters 27-28. Deuteronomy 28 especially, is set out in two parts, vv. 1-14 which detail the blessings that will fall upon the people if they obey the laws, and vv. 15-68 which detail the curses that will be effective if they do not. Clearly the emphasis is on the curses and the long list ends in vv. 58-68 describing the ultimate curse of the decimation of the people and their return to Egypt where they will be afflicted by every malady and plague. They will try to sell themselves as slaves but no one will buy them (v. 68). There is a reversal of the Exodus story here. The writer, of course, speaks metaphorically of Egypt, deliberately alluding to the Exodus. The important story of liberation of the people from slavery, which had become their national story and which shaped their character, could be subverted by the disobedience of the people. The end of this disobedience is the reversal of God’s liberating salvation. And even that will be worse than before because now they will not even be useful as slaves.
That is a very dismal point on which to finish Moses’ second speech. It anticipates the possibility of exile but only as a threat and not yet as a real experience. The addition to the book of the third speech brings an entirely different viewpoint, a much more hopeful and positive one. Today’s reading, which picks up the blessings and curses of chapter 28, puts much more emphasis on life – of choosing life over death. Whereas the list of curses in chapter 28 far outweighed the blessings and came after them, thus bringing the chapter to an ominous end, Deut 30:15-20 speak first of obedience as the key to life, then of disobedience and the ‘death’ that accompanies it. But the chapter returns at the end in vv. 19-20 to emphasise the choice of life over death. Moses’ third speech ends on a much more hopeful note. Many would see this part of the book reflecting the time of exile in Babylon when hope rather than threat was of greatest importance. Placed where it is, Deuteronomy 30 proclaims that the curses of chapter 28 are at an end. In fact, quite in contrast to the message of Deut 28:58-68, even exile itself, a return to slavery, does not negate the possibility of choosing life again over death.
If Deut 30:15-20 is seen as something of a climax to the book, a book of law as the name Deuteronomy (‘second law’) suggests, then it is important to note that the book concludes with a hopeful note. The purpose of Moses’ giving the law is that the next generation, and its leadership (for Moses is about to die), need to hear this positive call to hearing, loving, walking and heeding the ways of God. The law ends not in demand so much as in summons. The law itself is not a return to a metaphorical Egypt, where life is cramped and hard, confined and driven. The opposite is the case. The law, in Deuteronomy’s terms, is the means to life. It is the free gift of a passage into abundant life. But what does the book and today’s reading say about this law and the life it promises?
First, the law is given not as the last word in the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people. The last word is the people’s response to the invitation to life (Deut 30:15-16). To enter into that covenant relationship requires a decision on the part of the people, a decision to cast one’s lot with the law and way of God, or to be followers and servants of ‘other gods’ (v. 17). This is not a choice of whether to follow God or not as if the alternative to God is nothing. It is a matter of knowing that to go a way other than the way set out before us by God is to become a slave of another ‘god’, be it (in our modern terms) work, reputation, prosperity, security, safety, or comfort etc. It is also not a decision that can be avoided in any way. Having heard the law and the way of God we cannot simply put it aside as another piece of information in a world overloaded with information which is there for gathering by anyone who might just be interested in one topic or another. The choice here is not one of information alone. It is a choice about life itself and the way it is to be lived. It is a decision that we all make, through decision or indecision.
Secondly, the life that is on offer is not conformity to the will of a slave master. God released the people from that in Egypt long ago. The life that is on offer has to do with not only the way we worship, but also with the ethics and morals that govern our actions and choices, with our quest for justice and fairness in human affairs, especially toward the poor and weak, with our honour for parents and the elderly in society, with our concern for God’s creation, with just and honest leadership of the community, respect for neighbours etc. etc. All of these things and many more are the concerns of the law in Deuteronomy. The choice set before the people in chapter 30 is a choice to pursue such matters for in them will life as gifted by God be found. A life lived with concern for such matters is what Deuteronomy talks about as a good and blessed life, one lived in the ways of God. To choose anything else is to ‘reap the whirlwind of disorder and chaos’ as one scholar puts it.
In Christian terms we are talking about the matter of discipleship, a word related to ‘discipline’. Our discipleship of Christ is likewise a matter of choice and adherence to God’s way as evident in Jesus. The Gospel reading for today makes that clear (Matt 5:21-37). Our choice of God’s way is not always easy as Jesus’ life clearly shows. It can encounter opposition as well as inner struggles of peacemaking and reconciliation (see Matt 5:21-26). But it is the life that God offers. It is one in which death in its many forms is denied.
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