Choosing life (and readings)
6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
“Choose life…” (Deut 30:19)
“If you choose, you can keep the commandments…” (Sir 15:15)
The form of the lectionary embodies its themes in a curious way this week. In the time after Epiphany there is typically just one Old Testament* option, but here there are two; while the original Roman Catholic three year lectionary has Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Deuteronomy was added in the ecumenical Protestant adaptation (RCL), because not all consider Sirach to be canonical. Episcopalians, you get to choose. Choose carefully (see what I did there…).
And did you think we were done with sacrifice and ritual? Apparently not:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-4)
First however, the first reading(s).
Deuteronomy 30 makes for a very adequate alternative to Sirach, and maybe even an improvement, in context. Deuteronomy (“a Second Law”) as a whole is a re-do of the stories of the Exodus, and this passage which is set at the very end of Moses’ life, of the book, and of the Pentateuch itself, is a hinge between the past and the future. Israel now makes a new, different covenant with God to that made earlier at Horeb/Sinai (the Ten Commandments and all), with the famous “choose life” challenge at the center.
While this scene is set in Moab just before the occupation of the land, in fact Deuteronomy is a retrospective re-take whose point of view assumes all that subsequent history, and that seeks to make sense of, and draw lessons from, Israel’s subsequent struggles. Injustice and infidelity caused disaster, but there is still hope, if right choices are made.
So in this new covenant, there is considerable emphasis on the future; the point is not just what is being agreed to now, but how it will be worked out. Even the fact that this is a different covenant from the much-vaunted one at Horeb/Sinai makes this point implicitly. Leaning on the past won’t work, although taking guidance from it is a must. Our relationship with God can and must be renewed. This collective and societal challenge has to involve the unmistakably personal dimension of choice every day. “Choose life…”
The connection with the Gospel? Through these readings from the Sermon on the Mount over a few weeks, Jesus appears as lawgiver in his own mountain covenant, standing in the line of Moses.
Yet what separates these readings may be more tempting fare for the preacher, and this is our potential hermeneutical pitfall for today. The set of antitheses, “you have heard it said…but I say,” is the tripwire. Read carelessly, this contrast can lead to a supersessionist or just anti-Judaic approach, that contrasts Jesus’ teaching with the Law and thus misses Jesus’ point - as well as that of Deuteronomy.
Last week’s Matthew text about the continuing relevance of the law and the prophets should have helped to exclude that possibility, but in any case the tension stated here between Jesus’ new teaching and that of the ancients, while real, need be no greater than that between the covenants at Horeb and Moab. For Deuteronomy, just as for Matthew, the definitive character of revelation doesn’t make it a closed book. Not only will history bring new demands, it will require new expressions of fidelity and justice. Choosing life has to be a a daily commitment.
As a new Moses of sorts - and more - Jesus is indeed claiming a unique and fresh kind of authority. His willingness to reformulate and radicalize the demands of fidelity to God is very much in keeping with Deuteronomy, both in that book’s insistence on interiority, not to the exclusion of the social but as a condition of it, and in its willingness to present the story of Moses and the Israelites afresh. Deuteronomy, too, says (relative to the earlier sources in Exodus) “you have heard it said…but [we] say.”
The “so…” transition, leading from the warning about murderous thoughts to the instruction on reconciliation before sacrifice (v. 23), makes the given example of cultic offering a logical outworking of the radical emphasis on choice and will on which this whole Gospel centers. The “gift” being left at the altar here, by the way, doesn’t refer to money or a bunch of flowers as the bourgeois imagination might prefer, but is the term Leviticus in Greek uses for the major sacrifices. Leave your sheep (or bread, or pigeon etc.), and go.
Like Micah (and Isaiah, and the rest) Jesus will not stand for sacrifice as a substitute for right relationship with others; and like them, he assumes sacrifice is right and proper. The probing moral challenge just prior, that leaves us gasping as we wonder about our negative and objectifying thoughts, is not aimed at causing only introspection, but reconciliation and restoration, and right worship. No heaping of offerings at the Temple will compensate for a lack of attention to one another (ask Micah); but reconciled, we are called then to come back and offer what (else) is due to God.
[something additional on Sirach]
*Sirach is in the Old Testament but not in the Hebrew Bible. Using “Hebrew Bible” as a synonym for Old Testament is not always accurate, and sometimes less than honest.
Sirach is much later than Deuteronomy, and joins the older wisdom traditions (cf. Proverbs, Qoheleth/Ecclesiastes), grounded in agrarian households and such, with the more historical and cultic orientation of the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy.
Here however it speaks more with that traditional and more naturalized voice of wisdom, with just as striking an insistence as Deuteronomy on the possibility of choice: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” This isn’t just a sort of abstract moral imperative; as for Deuteronomy, there are consequences. Yet Sirach speaks to universal human experience, claiming that good choices always lead to good outcomes, and the bad likewise.
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