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seeking to boldly proclaim Jesus Christ
by loving God and serving our neighbors.

Deuteronomy 11: Because I Said So

Raising kids gives me a lot of respect for God’s position vis-à-vis the Israelites. We keep trying to teach them; they keep resisting. Do you remember when you resisted your parents’ rules—”why do I have to?” and they said, “Because I said so?” And if you’re a parent, do you remember the day your whiny kid drove you nuts asking “why do I have to” and you found yourself saying, “Because I said so!”
The other day, JP was banging his toys on the piano. Dan says, “Stop banging your toys on the piano, or you’re going in timeout.” JP starts playing with the toys on the piano bench, and asks, “me play toys on piano bench?” Dan slowly nods his head. Then JP climbs onto the bench and asks, “me sit on piano bench?” Dan says, “OK, but remember, you can’t bang your toys on the piano.” Then JP begins banging his toys on the piano. Dan takes away the toys and says, “You broke the rules. Now go sit in timeout.” And JP scrunches up his face, punches his fist in the air, and says one word: “Never!”
There’s a part of all of us that hears rules and says, “Never!” We all have these little corners of our soul that get a kick out of jaywalking or sneaking through a red light. Especially as Americans. We’ve all got that wild West streak, that desire for independence from rules.
This lawless streak, this rebellion against set rules, has become even more characteristic of our culture in recent years. Who reads etiquette books anymore? Rules are unpopular. Yet this passage in Deuteronomy tells us, in no unclear terms, that we need not only to follow these rules, but to uphold them as the centerpiece of our lives. Deuteronomy contains the sermons that Moses gave to the people before they entered the Promised Land. By this time, many of the Israelites had been born in the wilderness. The old generation was passing away. So Moses found it necessary to restate the law and explain it. There are two key passages in which Moses stresses the importance of the Law: Deuteronomy 6, which is called the Shema in the Jewish tradition and is repeated daily, is the command to learn the law addressed to individuals; Deuteronomy 11 is the command to learn the law addressed to the community, and says “commit yourselves to this word.”
Notice that God calls us not to follow the law, but to commit to the law. Our commitment
is not just a matter of what we do, but what we believe; the law is not just for our head to understand or our hands to perform, but for our hearts to believe in; more about this later. This command to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the law brings up three basic questions for me: What is the law of God? How do we commit to the law of God? And, Why do we commit to the law of God?
First: what is the law of God? A very good question came in through email: It seems that God is calling and directing the new community of the Jewish nation of Israel, but how many of these laws or directives from this drama apply to our lives today? I am not sure exactly how we discern what does and does not apply to us especially after receiving Christ and the New Testament teaching? So as I was thinking about this question, I believe we as Christians have clear direction from Jesus as to how to interpret and apply the law to our own lives.
Jesus taught us that the greatest commandments are these: Love God with all your heart, and
all your soul, and all your strength, and all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself. It all comes down to love. When we consider our actions, how do we love God, and love others, in the best possible way? Here in Deuteronomy 11:22, Moses summarizes the Law: show love to the Lord your God by holding fast to him and walking in his ways. There’s a heart piece here: hold fast to God. We have to actually commit our hearts to God, not just our heads; we have to trust him. But there’s also a practical piece: actually walk in his ways. How do we show our love? By our actions. We demonstrate our love of God by holding His will above our own, by obeying His commands, by walking in His ways.
Jesus said that all the law boils down to loving God and loving our neighbor. Just as God sent the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus delivered the law to the people in the Sermon on the Mount, by teaching them how to observe the law. The law was not about the letter but about the spirit. For example, if you became very angry with someone, you were breaking the sixth commandment; thou shalt not murder, because your thoughts were murderous. Sometimes, therefore, the law means doing more than the letter. At other times, the law means disregarding the letter in order to keep the spirit of the law. Jesus healed on the Sabbath; he interrupted his worship to lovingly serve others. But to withhold healing from people who desperately needed it would violate the greater commandment to love your neighbor just as you love yourself. Therefore, as Christians, we are called to look at all our thoughts, words, and actions and ask, does this show love and respect to God and my neighbor?
Jesus’s summary of the law did not mean that Christians follow no rules. To the contrary, when we look at Jesus’s teaching we see a clear focus on the Ten Commandments. And the Jewish tradition is to hold these commandments above others; Moses repeated the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, as he helped a new generation to learn God’s central law. The Ten Commandments are so important that we see them even across cultures. When you study other religions, you will find that nearly all religions prescribe something like these ten basic rules.
Beyond these basic laws, we have so many more. So the question is this: how many of the 613 laws of Moses are we supposed to follow? In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:18, Jesus said that not a jot, not a tittle of the law would pass away; all of the 613 laws are relevant for us today. We might not be called to follow the letter of a particular law anymore, but the spirit of the law still informs and teaches us. For example, the ceremonial laws about animal sacrifice are no longer required, because Christ is the great sacrifice, for once and all, for all our sin. The curtain of the Temple was torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death, as humanity was no longer separated from God. However, the spirit of sacrificing our best to God is important today, as we are called to give our time, talent, and treasure to furthering God’s work in the church. We have to take each law and consider it in light of the Ten Commandments and in light of the Greatest Commandment and apply it to the situations in which we find ourselves. I know that’s not an entirely satisfying answer; I know you want me to tell you which of the 613 go in Column A and which go in Column B. But what Jesus saw is that when we blindly follow the Law without paying attention to the spirit of the law, we end up becoming people of judgment and hypocrisy rather than people of love and grace. All of the law is God’s Word. All of it is relevant for us today. As we interpret and apply the law, we have to read carefully and listen to the direction of the Holy Spirit, and above all, be people of love and people of grace, rather than people of pride. We remember that the church is not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners.
The second question: how do we commit to the Law of God? Deuteronomy 11:18-19 gives us direction: Tie, teach, and talk.
First, tie them to your hands and to your heads. In the Jewish tradition, men wear phylacteries,
little boxes inscribed with verses from Deuteronomy, strapped to their hands and foreheads. God gives us a symbol that the Word of God should be in our head, in our thinking, and in our hands, and in our doing. Even if we do not literally wear Scripture on our person, sometimes we need visual reminders of what we are called to do and to be. Rev. Terence Fretheim, interpreting this passage, remembered how in his home growing up, verses of Scripture were embroidered and hung on the walls. Perhaps we are called to go back to that; but however we do it, God knows we need to be reminded, daily, of His law for our lives.
Second, teach them to your children. It was very important to God that the next generation not forget the wisdom of the past. You and I are called to reach out to the children of our community, many of whom are in great emotional and spiritual need, and share the Word of God. This is what we have done at Starr through our Parents’ Relief Week, and we are called to find new ways to reach out to the children and families around us, who need to know about God’s love and God’s law.
Third, talk about them, in your home and out of your home. How can you share the Word of God outside your home? How about putting a Bible verse on your email signature? Sharing Scripture on facebook? Or what about in the checks you write? You can buy personal checks that have Bible verses on them; so whoever is cashing your check can read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Is Scripture a part of your everyday vocabulary? There’s a fine line here between sharing our faith and being too preachy; but the more that Scripture enters your heart, the more that Scripture becomes part of your conversation. Some people simply exude Scripture, simply and gracefully; that’s how I want to be.
And the third question: why do we commit to the Law of God? In Deuteronomy 11:26-28, God is pretty upfront with His people: you have a choice. You have a choice between blessings and curses. For the people of Israel, as we will see, following or breaking the law had historic consequences. But Christians believe that the curse of sin was washed away by Christ’s blood at Calvary; that we are no longer under a curse because of our failures. So why follow the law? Because, as I keep saying up here, God gives us the best possible way to live. The law is there to keep us safe, and healthy, and whole. Loving God and loving our neighbors, keeping the letter and the spirit of the Ten Commandments, studying the Law of God, will give us better lives, better families, stronger communities.
Rules are there to help us! Just two examples: one from society first, remember the days of Emily Post and etiquette books, when there was a proper way to eat a lemon? Such a rule seems silly and unnecessary today. Etiquette has become something of a forgotten art. And do you know what that leads to?
Lemon juice in the eye of your dining companion. The proper way to eat a lemon is to hold one hand over the other when squeezing it. That rule is based on the best way not to get lemon juice all over the place. So there’s actually a reason for the rule related to loving your neighbor as yourself. The second example: thou shalt not covet, that is, want something that’s not yours. It’s the Tenth Commandment, but it’s one that people don’t talk about much anymore in the days of advertising. Actually, the Old Testament has a lot to say about not borrowing and not lending—including laws against charging interest (which Wall Street long ago set aside.) I submit to you that today, we have a society based on coveting, based on wanting what’s not yours, and that leads people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have. We buy clothes because we think they’ll make us look attractive, instead of being content with what we look like and accepting ourselves as beautiful in God’s sight. Or we buy big houses and fancy cars so we feel successful, instead of feeling good about our work no matter what we earn. What does this cycle of coveting lead to? The average American has over $16,000 in credit debt, $28,000 in auto loan debt, and $172,000 in house debt. This debt creates stress in personal life, strain on marriages, and strain on communities. Maybe it’s time to go back to “Thou shalt not covet!”
Rules help us remember what’s right; rules give us boundaries to keep us in check. The law is a gift; when we keep the letter and spirit of the law, we have fuller lives, better families, stronger communities. We have a choice between life and death, blessings and curses. We have a choice whether to say “Never!” or just quit banging our pianos. We have a choice whether to squirt lemon juice in our neighbor’s eye. And, at the end of the day, why do we follow the law? Not because I said so, but because God said so. And He probably knows better than we do. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


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