18 February 2011

Summoned to Life

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 13th February 2011

The cynics might say that Moses’ farewell discourse here in Deuteronomy is merely propaganda.  It’s an odd way to talk about the authority of scripture, I know.    Hear the word “propaganda” today and we think “lies” or half-truths that are trying to dissuade us from some position or idea. Forms of propaganda have been around a long time, although earlier ages might not have used this word.   Wherever we have written records from earlier cultures, we have propaganda.  The earliest evident is from the seventh century BC in Babylon.  Every empire has used it; every type of political system, every economic system has used propaganda. 

Religious organizations are no exception.  It was prevalent during the Reformation, among both Protestants and Roman Catholics.  Christians have used it against Jews and vice versa; Christians and Jews have used it against Muslims and vice versa.  We used it against the Nazis and the Communist Soviet Union, they used it against us.  Scholars have identified more than twenty-five different techniques or strategies of propaganda to explain how it works.  These include:  appeal to prejudice, appeal to fear, appeal to authority, demonizing the enemy, labeling, flag waving, scapegoating, rationalization, making excuses, half-truths, black-and-white thinking (meaning there are only two choices, “You’re either with us or against us.”),  managing the news, obfuscation – keeping everything murky, muddy.  All of which, ironically, we saw going on in Egypt these last 18 days, on both sides, but primarily on the part of the Hosni Mubarek government trying to control the message and the masses.

Propaganda is a form of communication aiming to persuade, convince, and affect people or a community of people around an idea or a cause.  When the word was originally coined, however, it didn’t have a pejorative meaning.  It surfaced in English in the 18th century from the Latin propagare, “to propagate,” and is taken from the name given by Pope Gregory XV gave to a council of cardinals in 1622, Congregatio de Propagatio Fide, “Congregation for Propagating the Faith.”  Propagare is related to propages, meaning “a slip, a cutting of the vine,” an act of pruning, as it were, of preserving what is of the faith and what isn’t.  The fact that we have negative associations with the word says something about how far we have fallen, and continue to fall, as a human race in all the negative ways it is used.  As an agency of persuasion, propaganda has its roots in rhetoric.  Plato (428/427-348/347 BC) used it and Aristotle (384-322 BC), Cicero (106-33 BC) and others.  For them, however, propaganda was used as a way to wake people up to the truth, as a way to appeal to honor and the best intentions of the human spirit.  Today, so much propaganda is used for personal and political and economic gain.  There’s little noble or honorable about it. 

Deuteronomy 30, this farewell speech, is a kind of propaganda—of the ancient variety.  Why do I say this?  First, there’s the clear “either-or” strategy at work here—Israel has a choice, choose life or choose death.  Moses is hoping they choose life.  Second, we should say “Moses,” because Moses never gave this speech.  These aren’t his words.  How do we know this?  Moses could not have written Deuteronomy.  A clue is Deuteronomy 34:5, “Then Moses, servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab.”  That’s quite a trick, to write about one’s own death.  Moses died in about c.1272 BC.  The text we have here, known as Deuteronomy, was written by a group of theologians and historians when Israel was in exile in Babylon.  The First Temple in Jerusalem was sacked in 586 BC by the Assyrians and the people taken off to Babylon.  The speeches of Deuteronomy 29 and 30 come late in the exile period, as Israel tries to come to terms with how the temple could have been destroyed in the first place, as they struggled with the deeper theological question—where was God in their suffering?—and now that it appears they will be allowed to return home, what will their future look like?  These speeches have a pastoral dimension to them; they are given with the hope that the people will repent and change their evil ways.  The Deuteronomist appeals, therefore, to the covenant made between Israel and Yahweh. 

The covenant features prominently throughout Deuteronomy.  This book is calling the people back to their roots, to remember all that Yahweh had done for them in the past.  God had liberated them from the flesh pots of Egypt, God brought them through the wilderness, God gave them a place to live and food to eat.  So what happened?  For the Deuteronomist, the land was devastated, the temple sacked, the people forced into slavery and exile, all because they forgot the source of their life, they abandoned the covenant, they went their own way, they worshipped other gods.  When this text was written, Israel was in exile, their homeland devastated, written for a people demoralized and not really sure where Yahweh could be found in it all.  For how could this have occurred to Yahweh’s people, Israel?

So with brilliant theological imagination the writers of this speech “channel” Moses’ spirit, as it were; this “Moses” calls the people back to their roots, back to the covenant, back to the land.  Although it’s written as if we’re receiving a first-hand account of what happened when Israel first entered the land, the original hearers would have known they were not hearing a literal, historical account, and would have known that it’s the theological claim that matters most here.  And it’s this:  Israel will be given another chance.  The return to Jerusalem from exile will be a kind of new crossing of the River Jordan.  It’s a chance to start again.  So before you begin that trek back across the Jordan—you better get your lives in order.

The choice is theirs.  From the viewpoint of the Deuteronomist, there was only one reason for the destruction of the temple, the devastation of the land, the diaspora of the people. It was their fault.  God was not to be blamed.  God is ever faithful. The covenant stands.  Life and death come through the living out of the covenant.  So it’s up to the people:  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you, today, loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses.  Choose life…”

It’s up to you.  You have to make a choice.  Choose.  Be faithful to the covenant, and you will be blessed.  Reject the covenant, and you will be curse.  Obey the commandments and you live.  That’s the formula.  Follow the formula and everything will be alright.

But can we really believe this?  Is it really this simple?  Is blessing really found in following the commandments, in obedience?  Yes, God’s Law is given that we might live well in the land.  But are we to believe that when adversity and suffering do occur—as they will—that we are always the ones to be blamed?  Is it always our fault?   And, doesn’t such a view take God off the hook; remove God from having any responsibility in the running of human affairs?  It’s a tricky question.  I, personally, don’t think it’s that simple and take issue with the Deuteronomist.  And I’m on good theological and biblical grounds here (so don’t call me a heretic), because whoever wrote the book of Job—which was also written while Israel was in exile—didn’t agree with Deuteronomy either.  Existence is infinitely more complicated than Deuteronomy admits.  Deuteronomy is also the voice of the religious establishment—obey the rules and everything will be alright.  It’s not that simple.  We can all name people we know who, while not perfect and sinless, have sought to live a holy, faithful life, but yet are struck by and struck down by adversity, tragedy, sorrow.  We need to be existentially, theologically honest here.

The wisdom of the Deuteronomist, as least for me, is the call to examine one’s heart.  It’s the psychological wisdom of this text that draws me in.  “But if your heart turns away…”  Before Israel crosses the Jordan, it needs to take time to examine its heart, to go down, to go deep, to fathom the depths of their souls in order to identify the things that make for life and the things that make for death and sorrow.  “Moses” is calling them to a personal examen.  To identify the things that give life and those things that take it away, to examine the ways of the heart—which are, according to Jeremiah, full of deceit and self-deception (17:9). 

 I, personally, don’t believe God wields life to some and death to others, prosperity to some and adversity to others based on behavior.  But I do believe that the nature of our lives, the quality of our lives, the meaning of our lives change when we align ourselves God’s vision for our lives.  To not align ourselves with God’s vision of justice and mercy, to not align our lives with God’s vision of reconciliation and love, to turn our hearts away and go after our own vision, our own selfish pursuits, is in itself a kind of judgment and punishment inflicted upon us, not by God, but by us.  This is what I hear Jesus saying in John 3, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”  For, remember, in him, John says, was “…in him was life and the life was the light of all people (John 1: 4). … Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). 

What blocks or hinders the relationship? What or who is turning your heart away from what is really wants?  What’s giving you life and what’s draining it away?  God loves it when people come alive and are drawn to life.  I think it’s embedded in the human spirit—we saw it this week in Cairo and Alexandria, in the millions of protestors drawn to democracy, yes, but even deeper, deeper than the cry for democracy is the cry for life free from the weight of oppression, the cry for a future.  They were being summoned to life and had the courage to peacefully resist those forces in the world that are determined to snuff it out.  While we must always be careful in saying where God is and isn’t in human affairs, my guess is God is always on the side wherever the human spirit is liberated to choose life and in choosing life is liberated.

What is clear here in the text is that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, is ultimately concerned with life—your life.  What matters most is our life and our life as found in God.  We might say, of course, life matters; there’s nothing profound about that.  But why does it matter?   It matters not just because it is, but because it is holy and what makes life holy is that life itself, existence, being itself, not only participates in God, but is an expression of God’s creativity and love.  God is life and God’s Spirit is the life-giver. 

 Life is to be preserved and hallowed, because it is not ours, but God’s.  And God longs to give life—not just biological life, but meaningful life, abundant life.   That’s why “Moses” is calling the people back, to help them remember their roots, the covenant.  The covenant was given so that the people might live. The covenant was given so that people might remember who is the source of life and that the people might stay close to that source.   The call to “choose life” is a summons to be reconciled to God, to renew the relationship—that’s what covenant means— to reconnect with the source.  The Swiss theologian Hans Hofmann (1923-?) once said, “Life, since it is always relation and relationship to the source of life (whether this relationship is consciously accepted or denied), depends on being rooted in a life which is lasting.”[1]  There can be no life, according to the Deuteronomist, apart from the relationship to the source.  Or, to put it another way, life is only found in relationship to the source of life.  This is basically the core of Jesus’ message, if you think about it, especially in John’s gospel where it is precisely the modeling of his relationship between Jesus and his Father that matters.  It’s the power contained in the relationship that is the way, that is the truth, that is the life (John 14:6).  That’s the gospel message.

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.”  Choose life.  For God’s sake and yours, choose life.

[1] Hans Hofmann, “Immortality or Life,”  Theology Today 15 (1958): 242.

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