Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

After what is surely one of the longest sermons in history — all of Deuteronomy! — Moses makes his final appeal to Israel in this passage.

Delicate - Artisanal Hands X
Delicate - Artisanal Hands X Creative Commons image by Derek Lyons on Flickr.

September 8, 2013

First Reading
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Commentary on Deuteronomy 30:15-20

After what is surely one of the longest sermons in history — all of Deuteronomy! — Moses makes his final appeal to Israel in this passage.

Two long poetic passages follow in chapters 31–34, “The Song of Moses” and “The Blessing of Moses,” along with narratives recounting Moses’ death and the transfer of leadership to Joshua.

Just prior to our text, Moses announces wonderful blessings for an obedient Israel and blood-curdling curses for an apostate Israel (chapter 28). These benedictions and maledictions are followed by a prediction of eventual exile (29:18–29) and return (30:1–10), predictions sufficiently prescient that most scholars deem the words of post-exilic origin.

In the four verses immediately preceding 30:15–20, Moses assures the people that the commandments of the LORD are neither too hard nor too remote: “No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (verses 11–14. See Rom 10:5–8). God’s commandments do not exceed the human capacity to understand and perform them.

Moses’ Final Appeal
Having assured the people that what God commands they can do, Moses launches into his final call for a decision. He reiterates the essence of God’s covenant, focusing especially on the promise of blessing for obedience and the threat of a cursed existence in exile for failure to obey. With these words, Moses concludes and descends from his pulpit. The terms of the covenant are clear; the community must now decide.

Readers of Deuteronomy, both ancient and modern, stand alongside those in the story world. They, too, must decide. What will God’s people choose when confronted by so momentous a decision? We are not told the response the first congregation made. In the following chapter, it becomes very clear that both Moses and God know that the people will fail miserably (31:16–20, 26–29). So why does Moses preach the sermon, if he knows ahead of time that it will make no difference? A question every preacher must ponder now and then.

Finding Hope in the Shadow of Failure
In its final form, Deuteronomy is addressed to the post-exilic community. Those hearing or reading the book of Deuteronomy know that the first hearers failed. That first congregation, encamped on the border of the promise, did not take root in the land but was whisked into exile like wind-blown chaff. The later audience living in the shadow of the exile would have heard Moses’ words with regret and sadness.

The call to love the LORD and obey the commandments had been emphatic; the conditions had been crystal clear; the promises and threats had been compelling. But Israel had failed, as Moses had predicted they would. The post-exilic community quite naturally wondered, “Is there any hope that we can succeed where our parents failed?”

The answer is yes — then and now and always. The call to obedience assumes that Israel in a new generation can indeed turn to God and walk according the commandments. To every person who hears the call of God the promise is made, “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away” (30:11).

Today You Must Decide!
Moses’ repeated use of the word “today” (29:10–15, for example, but also throughout chapters 4–12 and 26–30) emphasizes the hope of a new beginning. In every age, there are moments when it is again “today,” a kairos moment in which God’s people, individually and collectively, are offered “life and prosperity, death and adversity. To first-century Christians, the letter to the Hebrews says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7, 15; 4:7). Whenever God’s word is read, it is again that “today” in which each of us must decide how we will respond.

The choice is laid out bluntly. It is yes or no. The options presented do not include ‘maybe’ or ‘I’ll have to think about it’ or ‘I’ll give it a try.’ As Yoda famously tells Luke Skywalker who has half-heartedly promised to “try” to do as Yoda asks, “No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Moses’ strident call for decision also brings to mind the words of philosophers and theologians more orthodox, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, for example. Both remind Christians that Jesus made stark demands upon his followers. A decision is required; we must choose and we must act.

Shalom Here and Now
Blessing for the first audience of Deuteronomy primarily focused on a re-established Israel in the land once promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The land is both a material and shared blessing, and Christians do well to remember that in the time these words were written perishing (verse18) and “length of days” (verse20) denoted the material existence of the community, not the spiritual destiny the individual.

The shape of salvation throughout the Old Testament is material and communal. Salvation includes freedom from bondage and oppression, from hunger and homelessness, from violence and fear. These blessings define the shalom of the community, both in a specific historical moment and across generations. Salvation is a work in progress; we inherit it from our ancestors and pass it on to our descendants. The choices of one generation affect the next (verse19).

Count the Cost
Christian preachers may be tempted to soften the demand of Moses’ final call for decision as they draw out the implications for their flocks. After all, Christians live under the New Covenant, a covenant of grace embraced by faith. But Jesus states his call and demands in terms as uncompromising as Moses,’ and those who would follow him must consider carefully the cost of discipleship. Today’s gospel reading leaves no doubt that disciples must make a sharp break with their past, sell all, and do as the Lord commands. Grace is free, but it is not cheap.