I like the church that we go to. I like its exuberance and energy and robust conviction that God is a living, dynamic, transformative, communicating, healing presence in the midst of the community. But you have to wonder about the hermeneutics sometimes.
We were told this last Friday in what was, in many respects, really a quite challenging sermon about prayer, that God wants to pour out abundant blessings on those who love him or ask him. Reference was made to Deuteronomy 28:1-14. The Lord will set you high above the nations; blessed will be the fruit of your womb, of your ground, of your cattle and flocks, your basket, your kneading bowl; you will lend to other people and not need to borrow; the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and so on. All you have to do is ask or believe… or something along those lines.
That’s a rough paraphrase from memory. The bit about the head and the tail (Deut. 28:13) stuck in my mind because it is an example of how in Scripture (and indeed in Hellenistic literature generally prior to the New Testament) the metaphor of ‘headship’ denotes something other than ‘authority’, which of course is relevant for interpretation for passages in which Paul speaks of the man as ‘head’ of the woman. But that’s another story.
The point here is that I’m pretty sure the clear and repeated conditions for divine blessing in this passage were not mentioned: if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God… if you obey the voice of the Lord your God… if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways… if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them, and if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you today, to the right hand or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them…. There is nothing here about asking for blessing or trusting for blessing.
And certainly nothing was said about the remaining 53 verses of the chapter, in which the people are warned in no uncertain terms that if they fail to obey the voice of the Lord their God, the blessings will wither before their eyes and become rotten, blackened curses. They will suffer famine, sterility, disease, pestilence, military defeat, invasion, siege, subjugation, and exile, culminating in the threat of being returned to captivity: ‘And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer’ (Deut. 28:68).
It seems to me that if we are going to claim for ourselves these sort of material promises, we should pay closer attention to the terms and conditions. It is characteristic of modern church culture that much is said about love and acceptance and trust and blessing, and very little is said about honesty or integrity or justice or righteousness. This may be another reason why the church should fear competition from Islam: we know a great deal about grace and very little about the disciplines of right behaviour.
If, on the other hand, we wish to assert our freedom from the requirements of the Law, then what right do we have pursuing the benefits of Torah-righteousness? Faith for Jesus’ disciples was merely the start of a long, arduous, self-denying, cross-bearing walk along a narrow road leading to life.
It would then be a legitimate question to ask what in concrete terms that ‘life’ was to be. We are not direct actors in the austere eschatological narrative of the New Testament any more than we are Jews living under the jurisdiction of Torah. But again, that is another story.
For now, at least, we should pause to consider whether we really know what we’re doing when we edit scripture down to all the marvellous windfalls of God’s grace and leave the context and caveats and curses on the cutting-room floor. How often do we hear the promises of Isaiah proclaimed with no indication whatsoever that they were made to a people that would have to go through the horrors of war and deportation on account of their persistent failure to live up to the standards of righteousness that should have set them apart from the nations?
Yes, eventually the salvation and justification of this stiff-necked people came through faith in the way of Jesus, but this was a way to fulfil the requirements of the Law, not to circumvent them:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)
It seems to me a quite serious mistake – even allowing for the fact that we are a community saved by grace, through faith (Eph. 2:8) – to promise the goodness of God without, somewhere along the way, asking, first, what the conditions for not being blessed might be, and secondly, what the consequences of not meeting those conditions might be.