Thursday, September 05, 2013

September 8, Proper 18. Contradictions 2: Choose God or Choose Life.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

The first contradiction is obvious, between the lessons from Luke and Deuteronomy, between what Jesus says and what Moses says, between possessions and possessing, between possessions to be given up and possessing the land as a gift. Which is the way of life, the way of blessing?

Moses was giving his final summation to the Children of Israel as they were poised to cross the Jordan and take the Promised Land from the Canaanites, who were already possessing it, thank you very much. Moses had just reiterated the Torah, with all its commandments and decrees and ordinances. It was their constitution and their code of law. Moses summed it up with God’s deal: you observe the commandments and decrees and ordinances, and God will keep you in possession of the land, God will bless you in it with prosperity, and God will protect you from the enemies around you who will soon enough attack you to plunder your prosperity. God will protect you and bless you but only if you keep the commandments and decrees and ordinances; that’s the deal. Choose it, Moses tells them, choose life, choose for prosperity.

But Jesus says to choose death and adversity. "Whoever does not carry his own cross cannot be my disciple. If anyone comes after me and does not hate father and mother and wife and children, even life itself, cannot be my disciple." Hate life, not choose it. Hate your parents. What about the fourth of the commandments, that we should honor them? Jesus contradicts the commandments and decrees and ordinances. No wonder so many good Jewish people declined to follow him. Which is the result he seems to want. He makes it hard to follow him.

The contradiction is less extreme if you look into the commandments and decrees and ordinances which Moses had reiterated. The deal that God offered them would make them sitting ducks, from the Egyptian or Syrian or Philistine point of view. The constitution of the Torah made absolutely no provision for an organized defense. The radical equality which the Torah gave to every man in Israel meant there was no upper class, not any nobility, and thus no military officers. The deal was that the Lord of Hosts would defend them if they just observed the commandments and decrees and ordinances. Is that a deal that you would take? If you were Senator John McCain, what would you advise? If you were Barak Obama? Would you not hedge your bets? Would you count the cost? Would you have your intelligence services evaluate the numbers of your enemies and the realities of their threats? Is the deal God offers too great a risk of death and adversity?

The commandment and ordinances included the decree of the Sabbath year, when they should give the land a rest, and every seventh year plant no crops, and have no harvest, and depend on God to somehow give them daily bread, and they should forgive all their debtors and any land they’d bought during the last six years they’d give back to its prior owners, all of which looked like a recipe for recession and adversity and hunger and death. No investments, no capital, no crops, no harvest, no food. If you were Timothy Geitner, would you advise this deal?

So from the worldly point of view, from the perspective of conventional wisdom, the deals of Moses and Jesus are about the same. They come at it from opposite ends and meet in the middle, at an deeper contradiction, the general contradiction between the blessing which the Lord God offers us and our experience, and thus what our experience teaches us about the realistic way to security and prosperity. We have facts in our lives which give us doubts that we can count on God to protect us and defend us and give us life. We get sick. We lose jobs. Our enemies attack us. We experience no less than unbelievers do all the vicissitudes of life, the unfairness and injustices and pain and loss.

We want to choose for God and thereby get God’s blessings. That isn’t wrong. I pronounce a blessing on you every week as the last thing in the service. I don’t say that as empty words. We give you personal blessings at Holy Communion after the passing of the cup. We mean them to be real. But we don’t control these blessings. My benediction is not a blessing from myself, I only dare to say it on behalf of God, and I have to leave the reality of that blessing to the promise of God and the mystery of God. And how long do you wait, how often don’t you go for very long stretches when you cannot feel that the face of the Lord is shining on you.

Do I wish I could say that there is a cause and effect connection between choosing for God and getting blessings? I understand that is the message of Joel Osteen on television, and that’s why he’s so popular. I don’t think he’s faking it, I think he must really believe it, and it’s only natural to want to believe it. It’s the most natural kind of religion, that if we do the right things with the gods then they have to bless us, that’s their job.

But this convenient god is not the god of our scripture lessons. Both Jesus and Moses are warning us of the necessary contradiction between the promises of God and our experience of prosperity, between the offer of God and our ordinary vision of the good life. We want to take the short cut by hedging our bets and squeezing the law and gospel into the expectations we prefer, but Jesus tells us we have to go the long way round, the whole way to the cross, and there give all that up.

So from what Jesus tells us here we all have to give up our possessions and our families and take vows of poverty and celibacy and become like monks and nuns. No, that’s not the right take home. That misses the deeper contradiction. That suggests that your righteousness is something you can achieve by means of sacrifice and exercise, like good grades or great muscle tone. Now, we do need to say that God really no interest in blessing you with possessions. The expansion and protection of your material prosperity is immaterial to God, doesn’t care either way, except God does care about how much we are tempted by our possessions.

So here’s the right take-home. You may choose to keep your possessions, but then you must repent of your possessions every day. “Oh God, I ask you once again today to forgive me for my possessions. I confess that I cannot justify any last one of them by any righteous reasons I propose. I admit that I may hold on to them only on your sufferance, only on your indulgence, as they are yours.”

In my reading of this passage I am quite certain that the Lord Jesus is telling you to give up your self-possession, to give up your right to your own life. He’s telling you to surrender your self-determination. Your life belongs to him. Everything you possess about yourself. Your mind, your soul, your ambitions, your opinions, your self-control. He’s talking about abandonment. He’s talking about surrender. He’s the king who comes against you with his 20,000 troops, and you must sue for peace with him. He has conquered you and he requires as his booty not less than everything you possess, from your coffee-maker to your marriage to your children to your own image of yourself and your hopes and dreams. He is your adversary, he is your adversity, he is your death, he is your contradiction. That is how he saves you: he conquers you and you must abandon yourself and all you have to him.

This all is parable, and as with every parable he is telling it about himself. That’s why his words are so hard, because of how hard it was for him. He has to surrender himself, he has to abandon himself. He is the rightful king of Israel with only 10,000 troops who is facing his Father in Heaven, the Lord of Hosts with 20,000 troops and he must give up, he must give up himself and all his possessions, even the right to his own life. He is the best man that has ever lived, and does God protect from his enemies? He is the most honest man who ever lived, and does God defend him from the lies they use to convict him? He is the most loving man who ever lived, and does God bless him with a wife? He has honored his father and his mother, so the fourth commandment says he should live long in the land that God has given him, but all he gets is thirty-three years. Jesus is talking here about himself, and the contradictions of his own life.

Why does he do this? To get to the cross, that constant contradiction. To accomplish the atonement, that troubling resolution. To win the forgiveness of your sins before the face of God, the only lease on life you have. He died the death of a slave to set you free from your slavery that you might be his brothers and sisters. So once again it’s love. Behind the hardness is his suffering, and the motive for his suffering is his love. The situation is desperate, it is the only way. Yet once again it is the love of God for us.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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