Wednesday, February 19, 2014

From the Heart

From the Heart
Deut. 30:15-20; Matt. 5:21-37[1]
  I’ve mentioned before that I inherited the Brehm family Bible from my Grandfather.  It was given to my Great-Great Grandfather William Brehm and his wife Elizabeth by her parents as a wedding gift.  I find it interesting that the inscription they chose for presenting a Bible to their children for their wedding was John 14:23: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  But it’s also interesting that this Bible is a version of Martin Luther’s translation.  The fact is that Luther “edited” his version of the Bible, placing books like James and Hebrews at the end because he questioned whether they really fit with the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.
  You see, Martin Luther originally had a hard time with God, because he believed God to be demanding, a God of justice but not mercy.  He tried every way he knew to live up to the demands of this severe God—even literally beating himself at times.  Finally he discovered that salvation was by grace alone, by faith alone.  Through the lens of that discovery, he began to view the New Testament as “gospel” and the demands of the Hebrew Bible as “law.”  For Luther, it was crucial that Jesus had come to set us free from the “law.”  And he “wrote” this perspective into his translation of the Bible by placing books he didn’t care for at the end.  But Luther wasn’t the first or the last to try to “edit” the Bible.  I think the real problem for us is that what they did on paper, we do in fact.  We simply omit those portions of the Bible from actual use.  I think this tends to apply especially to the “law” with its demands.[2]
  But that’s not really consistent with our lesson from Deuteronomy for today.  The basis for the commandments was the relationship God wanted with the people of Israel, called the “covenant.”  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God called the people to commit themselves wholeheartedly to this relationship.[3]  The commandments were viewed as a gift that made it possible for the people to align their lives with God’s intention for their life.  In the context of this relationship, the purpose of the commandments was to define human life in terms of loving God.[4] Our lesson from Deuteronomy says it this way: “choosing life” means “obeying the commandments of the LORD your God … by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (Deut. 30:16).  It means “loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut. 30:20).[5]
  Some might object that in the “Old Testament” people had to earn their salvation through obedience, while we’ve been set free from all that by Jesus Christ.  Not only does that not do justice to what we’ve heard from the Hebrew Bible today, it also doesn’t accurately reflect our Gospel lesson.  In this section of the Sermon on the Mount,  Jesus’ approach to the commandments is not to set them aside, but to make them a central part of what it means “hold fast” to God![6]  For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred and anger.  Instead we practice reconciliation in our relationships.[7]  For him keeping the commands means that we not only avoid promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts.[8]  For him, obeying God means that we avoid all the ways people use to circumvent the truth and practice simple, straightforward honesty.[9]  In other words, for Jesus, obeying God is not just a matter of what we do, it’s something that comes from the heart.[10]
  All this may sound very confusing.  I think many Christians over the ages have been confused about what they should do with the Hebrew Bible, especially the Law and its commandments.  Our lessons for today, like many other Scriptures, teach us that the purpose for the commandments has always been to call people like you and me into a relationship with God.  It is a special kind of relationship, one defined by sincere love and trust, and by obedience that comes from the heart.  That’s right--all the “thou shalt not’s” and the demands that go beyond the way everybody else lives have always been about our relationship with God!  God has worked through Prophets and Apostles and Saints and Sages throughout the centuries from Abraham to today with one goal in mind.  And that goal is to lead you and me into a relationship with him in which we respond to what he has done for us with love that comes from our hearts. When we have that kind of relationship that comes from the heart, we can do no less than make every effort to practice the way of life defined in Scripture as “walking in God’s ways.”[11]

[1] © Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/16/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 140: “we know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.”
[3] Cf. Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213 where he says that to live in covenant with God means “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”
[4] Cf. Miller, Deuteronomy, 113: “The one who keeps covenant expects Israel to keep the covenant commandments; the one who loves Israel expects this people to love wholeheartedly in return.”
[5] John Shelby Spong, Living Commandments, 14, 15, says that it is through the Ten Commandments that we find “the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.”  Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 99.
[6] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1175, where he compares what Jesus says here with Psalm 119. He says, “Jesus ... sought to extend the torah to represent God’s sovereign claim upon all of human life (see Matt 5:21-48).”  Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 51: “What Jesus teaches brings to articulation the ultimate purpose of God for his people expressed in Torah.”  Contrast W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 508-9, where they insist that these verses do not “offer us Jesus’ interpretation of the law,” because although “the Torah supplies him with a point of departure,” his demands surpass the Torah.  Therefore, for Jesus, “strict obedience to the commandments of the Torah is not enough” because “obedience to rules, even to the Torah, does not automatically produce the spirit that Jesus requires of those who follow him,” i.e., love. I’m not sure Davies and Allison are actually saying anything different from others on this, they’re just saying it more emphatically.
[7] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads Of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003):272: “To avoid ever being angry would be an impossible ideal, but to go and be reconciled with a brother or sister is the way of deliverance from anger.”
[8] Cf. Stassen, “Fourteen Triads,” 275, where he observes, “Of course, literally getting rid of the right eye or right hand would not prevent what causes the sin.”  Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 524.
[9] Cf. Stassen, “Fourteen Triads,” 278: “The way of deliverance from the deceit and distrust of oaths that are not real, and from fine distinctions designed as escape clauses, is the transforming initiative of straightforwardly telling the truth.”  Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 533: “Jesus enjoins ... invariable honesty and integrity” which “makes the oath superfluous.”
[10] John Calvin,  Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles 175–176: “the law, which is spiritual, does not command only external works, but enjoins this especially, to love God with the whole heart.”  This is consistent with Jesus’ approach to the law in the Sermon on the Mount.
[11] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:697: the demands of the Sermon on the Mount “show very plainly that the impact which is made on man by the mercy of God revealed and operative in Jesus Christ is something radical and revolutionary.”

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