Vol. 6, No. 24
Daughters of Mary Instruction
21 February 2017
Lynn D. Clapper
The book of Deuteronomy is the last of the first five books of Hebrew Scripture that we know as the Law of Moses. The book’s name is the English translation of the Greek deuteronomion which means ‘second law,’ an appropriate title for a book which is comprised almost entirely of a second reading of the law Moses had delivered to the ancient Hebrews some forty years earlier at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The older name for this book, however, derives from the Hebrew debarim, which simply means ‘words,’ a title taken from the opening sentence “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness…” (Deuteronomy 1:1). These are the words of the Law.
Moses has led Yahweh’s chosen people to the plains of Moab, on the eastern side of the Jordan River across from the land of Canaan. They have travelled together for over forty years, and while they have endured tremendous trial and tragedy during that time, they have also been witness to the miraculous, saving hand of their God. Now, with the promised land in sight, and knowing that the time has come for him to pass the mantle of leadership to Joshua, Moses addresses his people one last time.
This re-reading of the law covers 31 of the 34 chapters in the book of Deuteronomy. More a sermon than a simple reading, Moses delivers the law to a people who have grown into a nation in the 40 years they have spent in the wilderness. Nearly all of the original generation of Israelites who were delivered out of Egypt have died as consequence of their disobedience and mistrust in Yahweh, and Moses exhorts the generation poised to enter the land to obey the laws and statues that Yahweh has set before them. “This then is the commandment, the statutes and the ordinances, which the Lord, your God, has commanded that you be taught to observe in the land you are about to cross into to possess, so that you, that is, you, your child, and your grandchild, may fear the Lord, your God, by keeping, as long as you live, all his statues and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2).
As he reads the law, Moses describes the history of Israel since they left Egypt. Yahweh is an awesome God, Moses tells the Hebrews. He inflicted terrible plagues on the land of Egypt to persuade Pharaoh to free the enslaved Hebrew people. He parted the Red Sea so that the people could escape the pursuing Egyptians, only to allow the sea to swallow them up once the Hebrews were safely across. Yahweh provided water, manna, and quail to feed his people when he heard their cry. He organized them into tribes, and delivered them in battle. He guided them as a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night as he led his chosen people to the land he had promised Abraham. He delivered a law to his servant Moses that would set his people apart from all the other peoples of the ancient world. He is a God like no other God. They are his people. These are his words.
But, Moses issues a challenge to the nation of Israel as they stand ready to enter the promised land. “See, I have set before you life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I am giving you today, loving the Lord, your God, and walking in his ways, and keeping his commandments…the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess…” (Deuteronomy 30: 15-16). The nation of Israel, a people Yahweh delivered out of bondage to be his light to the world, was faced with a choice.
Many centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth sits on a mountain in Galilee and addresses a crowd of people who have come to hear his words. Invoking the words of Moses, Jesus describes the law in a way that is at sharp odds with a Jewish culture that has strayed far from the spirit of the law Moses read to his people as they readied to enter the promised land. With no preamble at all, Jesus states that those who are blessed in the kingdom of heaven are those who are poor in spirit, meek and merciful, and clean of heart. And, as he tells his listeners that the laws that they have heard – that they shall not kill, they shall not commit adultery, they shall not swear on God’s name in vain, and they shall not retaliate more than an eye for an eye – are the letter of the Law that will never change, Jesus reminds them that anger, lust, deceit, and vengeance violate the spirit of the law that defines a people who are his light to the world.
In Year A, the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time marks the end of our time in the crowd at the foot of that mountain where Jesus challenges his followers to be the salt of the earth. But, as Jesus nears the end of his sermon on that mountain, he tells anyone who is listening that they, too, are faced with a choice. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says (Matthew 6: 24). For those Jesus has chosen to be his people, for those he has called to follow him, the choice in Galilee in the first century is the same choice Moses issued on the plains of Moab; it is the same choice Joshua demanded as the people conquered the land; it is the same choice King Josiah vowed when the Scroll of the Law was discovered in the Temple; it is the same choice Ezra and Nehemiah proclaimed when they rebuilt the city of Jerusalem; it is the same choice that faces the Daughters of Mary. Echoing the words of Moses, Jesus sets before us the choice between life and good, and death and evil…the choice between God and Mammon. On the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus tells us we must choose.
In the Biblical record, the challenge to choose never takes up more than a verse or two. For God, the choice to follow him is apparently far simpler than the details of the Law which consume five full books of the Torah, and are the attention of no fewer than eighteen prophets. But, if Moses and all the prophets, and Jesus, himself, decry how easily Yahweh’s chosen people stray from his word, we know that the lure of the world is strong. And, while Moses reminds Israel of Yahweh’s mighty acts of power in protecting and providing for his people, it is easy for us to forget. Sally’s reflection tells us that the choice is simple…we seek him, first. Yahweh is our God, and we are his people.
Next week, Lent will begin and Matthew will have us accompany Jesus into the desert for 40 days where Satan will tempt us with the power and riches of the world if we would only choose to follow his evil ways. But, as the crowd disperses after Jesus finishes his sermon on the mountain, we know which master we will serve. Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, son of God, came to dwell among us, and he has called us to follow him. These are his words. He is our choice.