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Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures Deuteronomy 20:15-20, Sirach 15:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

The discussion was active and wide-ranging at this week’s breakfast gathering—free will, the function of law, how people become members of and are encouraged in the life of a congregation, divorce, the sharing of memories, thoughts on the functioning of society, etc. I guess what one might say is that we were discussing life.

If we were to ask what this week’s readings are about (which we are), we would get pretty close to an answer if we said, “They’re about life and relationships.” What is faith all about? It’s about life and relationships, infused with, guided by, given growth by, the breath of God’s Spirit?

The context this week is rules—rules of religious ritual, rules of social conduct, etc. If we just follow the rules will everything be all right? Is following the rules enough? For some, following the rules becomes sort of a minimalist approach to life. What’s the minimum I have to do? How much can I get away with without breaking the letter of the law? Overemphasis upon rules can also be a way of trying to set life in stone (as in stone tablets?). We can get life tied down. Instead of welcoming the possibilities that may be opening in our future, we hold tight to what has been decided in the past.

The name “Deuteronomy” means “Second Law.” The common interpretation is that the Law was lost for a period of time and Deuteronomy was recorded after the lost documents were found during the reconstruction of the temple in 621 B.C. Deuteronomy repeats much of what is in Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, but the tone seems to be different. It appears to have been recorded by religious leaders who were trying to keep the traditions of Moses alive and apply them to their particular circumstances in another time and place. The Law is a living thing that requires adaptation and interpretation as we face new circumstances.

The Ten Commandments from Exodus, chapter 20, are repeated, with variations, in Deuteronomy, chapter 5. It is what follows, though, that is interesting. Early in the next chapter, the Deuteronomist writes, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” The Law is something to be applied in our daily living, in our homes, etc. Centrally it is about loving God—which is also linked with loving our neighbors. Many of the laws in Deuteronomy concern relations with our neighbor and, as early as Leviticus 19:18, we read, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Although the emphasis is not absent from the other books of Law, we see clearly, in Deuteronomy, that the Law is undergirded by God’s Love. It is that Love which is life-giving.

Today’s reading from Deuteronomy, chapter 30, calls us to focus upon, choose, life—the things that build up life rather than the things that lead to destruction. (vss. 15-16) In God’s scheme of things, “Life” takes precedence over “Death.” Aligning ourselves with “Life” is a way of “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” (vss. 19-20)

The reading from Sirach is similar. It says that how we act is a matter of choice. Sirach appears in the Catholic Bible but not in the Jewish scriptures nor in our Protestant Bible. It is attributed to Jesus ben Sirach about 200 years before Christ, sometimes called “Ecclesiasticus” (not “Ecclesiastes”). “To act faithfully,” he writes, “is a matter of your own choice . . . before each person are life and death.

Psalm 119, the longest book in the Bible, is sort of an ode to the Law. Although the portion in this week’s readings does not specifically speak of choice, it is implied, offering happiness to those “who walk in the law of the Lord.” (vs. 1)

In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) It was part of his introduction to this week’s reading, which is a series of illustrations that suggest we ought to be more concerned with the matters of life and relationship and inner attitude that are behind each law than with the letter of the law. “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times,” Jesus says as he introduces each of several commandments, (vs. 21) introducing a deeper meaning with the words, “But I say to you . . .” (vs. 22)

He spends several verses moving from the law against murder to his emphasis upon not getting angry, not insulting one another, not calling one another names. His emphasis is upon reconciling relationships rather than brutally bringing them to an end.

I won’t go through them one by one—adultery/lust (vss. 27-30), divorce (vss. 31-32), using something to confirm your “sworn” testimony vs. letting your simple “Yes” or “No” suffice because your honesty is above question (vss. 33-37). The last of those reminds me of the old sealing a deal with a handshake—no contract needed because everyone knows your word is good.

Since a number of us have been through divorce, we got into quite a discussion of verses 31-32. I won’t try to repeat the discussion here, except to say that these verses are, in fact, a good illustration of the underlying point of this entire passage. Without considering all the details of the words and the context of customs of that time, the simple lesson is that divorce is more than a piece of paper. It is about relationships, feelings, pain, etc. Anyone who thinks it’s simply about putting one’s signature on a document is cruel and hard-hearted. I’m still a little uncomfortable with the term “amicable divorce,” but, even when the most violent of relationships are broken, we need to treat one another with as much dignity and consideration as possible. The point is not to destroy one another, but to find ways to love even one who seems to have become an enemy, and perhaps move into a new kind of relationship/friendship. Certainly lots to think about here - fodder for several blogs.

Finally, there’s I Corinthians. The main emphasis of this week’s reading is growth, which certainly connects with the theme of life and relationship. There is no life, no relationship, without growth. Paul, in I Corinthians 3:6-7, says it is “God who gives the growth.” The reading begins with the people not being ready to receive what it takes to grow. “ . . . you were not ready . . . even now you are still not ready.” (vs. 2) It goes on to talk about thinking our growth depends on this leader or that leader. (vss. 4-6) The leaders, Paul says, are just gardeners, planting and watering. There is no life unless the Spirit of God is at work. (vs. 7) The reading ends with one of the mixed metaphors for which Paul is famous. “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (vs. 9)

Whatever else we make of rules, these scriptures, I believe, call us to look behind them to see the
God, the Spirit, who gives them, and us life, who is the ultimate source of growth and meaning in all of life and its relationships.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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