It’s always interesting to me to consider out of what context a particular book of Scripture springs. It’s also interesting to me to consider other parts of Scripture and Christian tradition as they either support or, at times, argue against, as it were, a particular book of Scripture, or a particular theological mindset found in Scripture. I found myself thinking along these lines this week primarily because of the heavily legalistic strain of thought found in all of our readings today, and because these readings, and others like them, can lead to very much non-Lutheran understandings of the faith, of how salvation happens, of what the Church is, and other such things.
Now, I could have taken an easier path and just pulled a particular verse or two out of context and preached on those couple of ideas, but I don’t think that’s what’s most helpful for us as a community of faith. So I’m going in a different, more difficult, direction. I want to bring you in and to let you hear some of the theological struggles that I encounter when presented with a lectionary week that flies in the face of my own primary theological focus as a Lutheran theologian and preacher…
So starting with Deuteronomy 4, a text that’s in many ways similar to last week’s first reading from Joshua,
I want to lift up a couple of things.
Deuteronomy purports to be Moses’ final instructions to the people. The story goes that, because of his striking the rock a second time to bring forth water, instead of simply speaking to it as God told him to when the people were complaining that they were going to die of thirst, Moses has been told by God that he would not enter the Promised Land, but that he would die on the wilderness side of the Jordan River. And this is part of the set up. Moses is about to lay out the law for them, and remind them of who God has been for them, and how God has been leading them since delivering them from slavery, and then he’s going to die. But first he charges them with the responsibility to keep the whole law – every bit of it – diligently observing every word, in order to give witness to the surrounding nations who will no doubt respond: “What other nation’s god is as near to it and gives laws as just as these?” And that’s really the point, still to this day, of why observant Jews are so clearly different in how they live, dress, act, participate, or don’t participate, in the dominant culture. They understand themselves to be a chosen and separate people who by the very nature of their chosenness and separateness –
that is, their keeping of the laws and ordinances of God – give witness to the holiness of God.
The problem for us as Lutheran Christians is that we don’t believe we’re able to keep the Law. In fact, our understanding of how the Law of God works is:
- It teaches us how we ought to live in the world
- It reveals God’s perfect standard which we can never achieve, and therefore, we are condemned by that failure to measure up.
So to hear a reading that says: “heed these statutes so that you may live” is very problematic. I know I ought to heed them, but I also know that I, as a fallen human being, cannot do so, for if I could, I wouldn’t need the death and resurrection of Jesus to save me. I could do it myself…
Psalm 15 isn’t any help at all. It presents the classic Hebrew Wisdom literature understanding that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people and tells us that, if we hope to dwell in God’s presence, we better
- live a blameless life
- do what’s right
- only speak the truth from our heart
- don’t slander
- don’t do evil to friends or discredit neighbors
- reject the wicked and honor those who serve God
And so on, to which I want to ask: “So, how you doing? How’s that working for ya?” because, honestly, I’ve got no shot at living a blameless life. And, not to speak for you all, but I’d be willing to guess that you don’t either.
The one thing that redeems these readings for me is the reminder that’s tucked into them as it’s clearly stated in verse 7 of Deuteronomy 4: The Lord our God is near to us, whenever we call to him.
And, unless you’re all very different from the rest of humanity, we tend to call on the Lord most readily when we’re in need, hoping that God will rescue us from whatever mess we’ve gotten ourselves in to, or from whatever danger, harm or ill happens to befall us. The Lord our God is near to us when we call to him, and stands ready to help, to save, to strengthen, to redeem us in our time of need…
Now, we start a series of readings in the letter of James this week, and as we do so, I’m reminded of why Luther really didn’t like this letter at all. He called it an epistle of straw. (Luther’s Works Vol. 35, Page 362) Luther, like many who have followed him, see a clear distinction between the theology presented in James and that found in Paul’s letters, and as a Lutheran theologian, I readily admit that I struggle to find much that is of value in this letter. I don’t normally encounter that struggle when I read Paul’s letters. Now, that’s not to say that I couldn’t pick and choose some verses or parts of verses out of James that sound good, but there’s usually a twist that loses me along the way.
Take verse 17 for instance: “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” is simply wonderful. It’s moving in the right direction, that is, it’s focused on God who comes down to us, rather than on our, by our religious observances and good works, climbing up to God. But James then tacks on that part about God having “no variation or shadow due to change” and I wonder if James has ever read the Hebrew Scriptures at all where God changes God’s mind, over and over again, many times in many stories. God repents and changes God’s mind about destroying the people and such. (Exodus 32)
Or verses 21 and 22 which starts out with the imperative to rid ourselves of all sordidness and wickedness, but that gives us the answer as well, as it reminds us that the word that has the power to save our souls has been implanted in us. And we know that it’s God who does the planting, and as God plants the word in us, we are saved by it. But James quickly undoes that understanding as he presents another imperative: Be doers of the word, not merely hearers. But Luther, based on Romans 10:17 which says: Faith comes by hearing the word of God, would say that hearing is the most important thing we do, for, as we hear God’s word, as it comes into us through our ears, God creates saving faith in the hearer by that act of hearing, that act of receiving with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save.
And finally verse 27 which, again, starts out wonderfully, with its reminder that true religion is other-centered, not about the self, true religion is about caring for the widow and the orphan, in other words, it’s about doing justice as we’re empowered to do so by God the planter, but then he tacks on again something that’s so problematic as he writes that true religion also means to keep oneself unstained by the world. But I can’t! I’m powerless to do so, and if I weren’t powerless to do so, if I could keep the law, if I could do it myself, then the death and resurrection of Jesus is of no use to me…
My heart is deceitful and wicked. I am captive to sin and completely unable to free myself. I am dead in sins and trespasses apart from God’s saving work in Christ Jesus. That’s the hard truth of the matter, and no amount of ritual observance, no amount of striving to be better, no attempt to live according to the law is going to change that truth!
The Pharisees get upset with Jesus and the disciples because they’re not following the rituals that had been established as a way to try to live according to the law. But that was never the point of the law in the first place. We were never supposed to find ourselves confronted by the law, with God’s righteous standard, and to think: Oh, I can do that. I can be perfect. I can please God and earn salvation. No. The law, again, serves 2 purposes
- it shows us how we ought to live
- it reveals how short we fall in our efforts to live as we ought.
What comes out of us is not good and Godly and salvific. What comes out of us is nothing but evil intentions by which we are defiled and condemned. But, thanks be to God, God does not leave us in that state on our own! God is, indeed, very near to us when we call out in our need. God, in fact, reveals how near he really is and how ready to help and save he really is
- in the incarnation, becoming human.
- Suffering death on the cross, becoming sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.
- Delivering us from sin and death as we join with him in his dying and rising in Holy Baptism.
- Forgiving us when we confess.
- Nurturing us through Word and the Holy Meal.
- And empowering us by the Spirit to die to self and to live lives of service to others, rejecting sin, to live for Christ alone, not as we ought, but as we’re able – being doers of the word, after all, in the end, not because we’re so good, but because of the goodness of the One who is himself the Word made flesh.