See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
“Life or death” says Moses to the Hebrew people, “choose” he then commands. Moses is laying it all on the line, recalling all of the events that have led to this point; the promise to their Ancestor Abraham and Sarah, being enslaved in Egypt then set free, wandering in the desert, the gathering at mount Sanai, the giving of the law. They have reached the border of the promise land and Moses says in the starkest terms, choose a life the leads to prosperity or choose death. Love God, walk in God’s ways and you will be blessed – don’t and you will perish. Moses speaks these words as he is stepping down as their leader and a new one (Joshua) will be chosen, eventually leading the Hebrew people to victory in the promise land.
Choose they are told, but what exactly are they choosing and what does it mean? This warning to choose life is sprinkled through much of the Old Testament. There are references to kings who would walk in God ways leading to good thing and those who didn’t leading to bad things – often invasion from foreign powers. There also develops a challenge to the very premise of this question. In the Psalms, Lamentations and the Book of Job, the writers ask if following God leads to blessings then why do terrible things keep happening to the faithful? Why did Job suffer – this upright and holy man? Maybe, these writers wonder, it is wrong to say that faithfulness, correct theological ascent and proper behaviour leads to good things.
The link between sin and suffering faith and prosperity finds itself in the New Testament as well. In the gospel of John the disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” It is clear in Jesus’ time the causal relationship between suffering and sin is alive and well. If you are wondering Jesus answers, that neither sinned.
In our time this interpretation of sin leading to suffering, or faithfulness leading to blessing is found in the theology of the Prosperity Gospel. A theology that says if you have enough faith in God, you will be prosperous. This theology finds itself wed within American capitalism, less so in Canada. The theory is if you are prosperous financially it is because of your hard work, your choices and blessings. Now, there is nothing wrong with admiring hard work. The prosperity gospel becomes toxic when it is a measure for one’s value as human. It is when you are told that if you are failing, or not happy, that is your fault and choice, because if you were doing the right “things”(worked hard enough, had faith) it would be evident in your material success and the blessings in your life. I will say this loudly to whoever needs to hear it; God DOES NOT pour out special favour on those who believe correctly or “work hard”. While it is right to give thanks in gratitude to God for what we have, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or grace. Here is the secret: we already have it.
Besides feeding the prosperity gospel message, this passage and other like it have also influenced and justified colonialism. Moses tells the people if they turn away from God they will not receive the land that God has given them (land which already has people in it). We must question any theology that leads us to say “God has given us this land, we have it (conquered it) therefore because we were successful in conquering it God must be blessing us, otherwise we wouldn’t have it.
If there are so many pitfalls in this passage from Deuteronomy, what then are we to do with these words? If we shouldn’t equate success with blessings, then what does it mean to choose life or not? Well, we may ask our selves what makes life possible for us individually and together. We might consider the implications of our daily choices and ask does this make life, flourishing, possible for us and for those that will come after us? To choose life is to create possibilities for goodness and the flourishing of all things. To choose life is to live a life together as Christians committed to God ways not our own.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this small book called Life Together in which he explores what it means to be a Christian community and how we out to live as Christians together. It was a book I had to read for a course in seminary in which Bonhoeffer essentially challenges us as followers of Jesus and as clergy to live up to the ideal of community that we preach and talk about.
I distinctly remember for one class being quite worked up and passionate about what Bonhoeffer was suggesting. I came to class, hoping, with this idea that others would be a worked up as me. In one point in the book Bonhoeffer directly says pastors should not complain about their congregations, and members about their congregation to each other and especially not to God. I pointed this out, and wondered what others thought, is Bonhoffer just delusional, are his ideas just too idealistic, I mean has he met other humans, other church people? Or was there something about this, was he calling out our hypocrisy as Christians that like to talk about community but love to complain often because others don’t fit the our ideal of community.
Bonhoeffer offers us is a way to think about this question of what makes life possible. It is in how he sees community, the Christian community as a gift and not something we demand according to our own human ideals: he writes
“God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.”Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What makes life possible? When we live not as demanders but with gratitude. That is the first lesson for us, the second is how we see others.
Bonhoeffer writes that we must resist our attempts to control and dominate others and that another person is to:
“be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ’s; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ’s eyes.”Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What makes life possible? When we love others for who they other not who we want them to be. To chose life to is to live a life that does not demand that others must conform to our image, it is to make choices that do not come at the expense of others. It is to walk in God ways, that there is flourishing for us today and also for those that come after us.
Let me give you a concrete example. Have you ever considered that planting a tree is an act of faith, it is to choose life and blessings for others? There are some very large trees on the property of Glebe Road United Church. Those trees were planted in the 1950’s when the addition to the church was built. I found an old photo of those trees commemorating their planting. Those trees are huge now providing shelter to humans and other animals. Consider that many of those who were a part of making the choice to plant the trees, are not around to experience the blessings of that choice they made. They (whether they knew it or not) chose life and the possibility for flourishing of creation, of blessings for future generations.
The question before us today is will we choose life? Will we live the way of God that does justice, that takes care of the orphan, and widow? Will we live the way of Christ that does not seek to fashion others according to our image? Will we choose to plant trees so that others may take rest in their shade? Will leave behind a planet that is habitable for future generations? Will we choose to see our community as a gift giving thanks to God for it?
See, set before us is life and prosperity, death and adversity. So choose. Choose life, choose community, choose life together, choose God’s ways. Amen.