Towards the Promised Land
Deuteronomy 30:15-end; Matthew 5:21-37
Only those who have been ordained can fully understand the impact of wearing a dog collar. People seem to assume all sorts of things when they see someone in one of these things, and among them is the assumption that the wearer must be a paragon of virtue. For instance, no one ever swears in my presence when I’m wearing mine. For someone who has spent the most part of his career in TV News and Current Affairs this can come as a bit of a surprise. Needless to say, I don’t get told any dirty jokes when I am wearing my dog collar, not unless, that is, I am talking to another member of the clergy. They often have a very well stocked supply of them. Truly, to wear a dog collar is to put on the uniform of the morality police.
Now, all this would be funny if it didn’t say something very serious about how we generally see religion. For this suggests that religion is primarily a set of rules to be enforced. Indeed, both readings today might seem to support this idea. In both the gospel and Deuteronomy the seriousness of sin – and of departing from God’s law – is doubly underlined. By coincidence, those of you taking part in the bible challenge will recognise today’s reading from Deuteronomy from last Thursday’s set readings in the challenge. And Deuteronomy is full of dos and don’ts covering many aspects of life – from sexual relations through warfare, worship and property. Some of the detail is extraordinary. Israelites were instructed, for instance, to put a parapet on their roofs to prevent people from falling off.
For all this exactitude, what today’s reading also makes clear is that the law is but a means to and end, and emphatically NOT an end in itself. Moses tells the Israelites:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”
In saying this, Moses was urging the Israelites to believe that God would be true to his promise of giving them the Promised Land, that land “flowing with milk and honey”, that land of beauty and plenty that he was preparing for their enjoyment. Yes, obeying his law was vital – but it was in the end only the means of their getting to this Promised Land.
Reading the Old Testament you realise that the Israelite’s problem wasn’t so much their inability to obey God’s law – a problem we all have – but believing that God would be true to his promises. For this meant believing that he wanted the best for them, believing that what they most wanted was what he most wanted – indeed, that God wanted to shower them with an abundance beyond their imaginings.
So what you see in the first five books of the Old Testament is what is called “kvetching” in Yiddish.
To “kvetch” is to moan, to whine, to constantly complain. So in the Torah you find the Israelites kvetching when they are Pharaoh’s slaves. No sooner does God release them from slavery by the parting of the sea than they’re kvetching again in the wilderness where they’re tired, hungry and thirsty. They’re in the wilderness for 40 years and kvetch that the Promised Land nowhere seems to be in sight, despite God having released them from slavery. Indeed, at one point in the book of Exodus they say they’d rather be back in Egypt as slaves because at least then they’d be safe and secure and have things to eat. And of course, that instinct to stay with what you know – be it ever so imperfect – rather than set out on the uncertain path to something better, is something familiar to all of us in many aspects of our lives. As Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said in his farewell sermon, the enemy of faith is not unbelief, or lack of faith – it’s fear.
James Alison, the Roman Catholic theologian, argues that one of the biggest challenges of being a Christian today is believing that God wants the best for us. This is so, he says, because the church has so often turned Jesus’ unconditional love into its opposite – something conditional and rule-bound. In this context “love” becomes a loaded word, implying as it so often does that Jesus loves you so long as you do what the church tells you to do, so long as you are respectable. And yet in the gospels, Jesus sought out precisely the people who weren’t “respectable”, the ones who didn’t go to church, and he spent time with them because he seemed to actually like them and enjoy their company. And in so doing he scandalised the respectable, religious crowd for “eating and drinking with sinners”.
Alison therefore suggests that we should send the word “love” to the laundry and use the word “like” instead, implying as it does a delight in other people, taking pleasure in them and wanting the very best for them just as they are. And insofar as we all of us fall short of what God intends us to be, a God who likes us doesn’t dragoon us or throw the rulebook at us, but encourages us, coaxes us by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to reach for something better, to step on the journey to our own Promised Land.
But that, of course, begs the question, as to what your Promised Land is. What, indeed, is your heart’s desire? And that’s a question we should ask ourselves both corporately as a church and in our place of work and individually, for the extent to which that future vision inspires us and excites us, is the extent to which the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, drawing us into that fuller life that Jesus promises us.
As the story of the Israelites in the wilderness shows however, all this takes both faith and courage – faith to believe that God likes you and wants the best for you, courage to step out on the journey to your promised land with all the uncertainty that involves. Still more, it requires an openness on our part to being changed, transformed even, along the way.
To be sure, there is a vital moral and ethical aspect to our faith, but it is not an end in itself, rather a means to the end of an abundant life, that Promised Land that the Spirit lays before us if we can but see it. It goes without saying that we fall short of the standards of behaviour God wants of us, but if we can just set out on our journeys in expectation of his fulfilling his promises then we will, by trial and error along the way, learn the wisdom of his ordinances. In the words of Psalm 37:
“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust him, and he will act”.