Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 22:34-46
Deuteronomy 34 is the final chapter of the Torah, the five books of Moses. The Israelites are taking one last rest in the plains of Moab before they enter to possess the Promised Land. But Moses goes up the mountain.
From the mountaintop God shows Moses all the land, which he may not enter, but here on the mountain he was satisfied, “satisfied by God’s loving-kindness in the morning.” And here he dies alone and not alone, but in the presence of God. The people down below all know he is to die, so they weep for him, for thirty days, the people sit Shiva for Moses.
They don’t know where he was buried. Who then will have buried him? Imagine that God wrapped his body in the shroud, and dug the grave, and laid the body down, and put the earth back perfectly without a trace, and then God sat Shiva too.
This last private intimacy of God and Moses is an image of love. Not just general love, but personal love. Imagine that Moses felt that love as he lay dying, the touch of God upon his skin, God being gentle with him (in the words of First Thessalonians), like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children, because he had become very dear to God.
We have come far from Egypt, with its pyramids and temples, their massive monuments to immortality, their construction exploiting the labor of countless peasants and slaves. The Egyptian rulers craved immortality because they were not satisfied with life. They mummified themselves to last as long as their gigantic tombs. While Moses doesn’t even get a gravestone.
That’s not a loss, that’s a gain. Moses was satisfied with his life. He had reached the full enjoyment of God’s love. His people should rightly grieve for him, but they can spare their labor, they need not build him any monument. What they should do instead is “love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind.” Them doing that will be his monument.
Moses had taught them that in his final speech to them, there on the plains of Moab, earlier in Deuteronomy. “Shema yisroel, adonai eloheinu adonai ehad.”
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” It is a monument to Moses that these words are repeated every morning still today by every faithful Jew—to be satisfied in the morning with the loving-kindness of God.
For the last two months we have been watching God training the Israelites. The Passover, the Red Sea, the manna, the water from the rock, the commandments. How to believe, what to believe, what belief includes, and how God is believable. All this is for us too—we have to learn how to believe, and learn what to believe, and we need to trust in God as believable.
But belief is not the goal. It is the means. The goal is love. In order to be a Christian, you need to be a believer. But your purpose in being a Christian is not to be a believer; you are a believer in order to be a lover. We are saved by faith, but not for faith, we are saved for love. God saves us, by our faith, in order to restore us to love, to love God fully and love our neighbors as ourselves. Belief is the means, and the goal is love.
The Pharisees asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. When he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” he was quoting the very words from the Shema that they all had prayed that morning. His only innovation was to add that a second was like it, that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
His innovation would not have been unreasonable to any Pharisee, since this too was a quotation from Moses, from Leviticus. It was accepted midrashic practice to add a second verse from the Torah to expand and confirm the first verse.
The innovation of Jesus was that you need both verses to summarize the law. It’s not that some commandments are about loving God and others are about loving your neighbor. All commandments are about both, every commandment in the Torah, all the commandments hang from both.
This means that everything you do in order to love God must also serve your neighbor, and everything you do to love your neighbor must also put God first. There is nothing that God requires of you that is not loving of your neighbor too. The innovation of Jesus is to say that to fix your ethical course through life, you always need to work by two coordinates. Working by these two coordinates will sufficiently guide you in deciding everything you need to do.
How can love be commanded? Love cannot be legislated, love cannot be forced. Any more than you can make a flower grow. You can plant it, and protect and nourish it, but it has to grow from its own inner power of life. You can not force love. You make the conditions, you protect and nourish it, and it will grow, of its own internal power. And the conditions for love to grow are fidelity and faithfulness and faith. That’s the way it works.
When a couple comes to me requesting marriage, and I meet with them ahead of time, my concern is not whether they love each other. Of course they do. But whether their love will mature and endure depends on if they can make and keep their promises to each other, whether they can believe in each other and keep believing in each other, whether they can be faithful with each other. A marriage is not built on love, it’s built upon fidelity. Faith and faithfulness are what make the conditions possible for love to grow. Faith is the means, and love is the goal.
Every week I ask you in the liturgy, “In whom do you believe?” And every week you answer, quite agreeably, with the Apostles Creed. (I’m glad that you don’t conspire to answer with something else.) But what if I asked you, “Why do you believe?” What would you say?
You believe in order that you might love. You believe all this about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in order that you might love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. You believe these things about God in order to be satisfied with God’s love, and thus to create such conditions in your soul for your love for God and your neighbor to mature and endure.
To love requires risk. There is so much evidence to make you doubt the power of love and its dependability. There is much to convince you that love will fail. To keep practicing love you need the more mundane practice of fidelity, of faithfulness, of keeping faith, of living by your faith. Your faith is how you handle all the ongoing risks of love.
This Tuesday is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The great discovery of Martin Luther that sparked the Reformation was “justification by faith.” We are right with God not by our merits or our love or our good works, but by our faith—that is by hanging on to the message of the gospel by faith. Sometimes y only the fingernails of faith.
Faith is a practice of worship and service, it’s one of our most important Christian practices. Your Sunday morning practice of worship is to exercise your faith, by what you sing and pray and say what you believe in, even the morsel of holy bread you eat. Your weekday practice of service in the world is to express what you believe about the world because of the gospel.
The practice of worship and service is offered by this community of Jesus in which I invite you to exercise your faith and love.
Practice faith, but don’t be faithful for its own sake, because then you’ll be judgmental of those who fail in faith. Faith is for love, and not the other way around.
Practice love, but not by working on your love for the other folks in this community, rather start by having faith in them. Be faithful to them, quite apart from their deserving it, invest your faith in them. Be gentle among each other, like a nurse tenderly caring for her children. Share with each other not only the gospel but your own selves.
Share, invest, and receive their sharing too, staying with each other, being faithful to each other. And then the love will come, not as your own achievement, but as a work of the Holy Spirit among you. Actually God is practicing God’s own love among you. Your community of Jesus is God’s living experiment of love.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.