August 30, 2015
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
Obedient people are usually characterized as dolts. The submissive dunce who placates every wish of his master is a familiar trope in pop culture. Why? We like leadership. We like to have someone to go before us, to blaze a trail, to show us the way, to lead us effectively. Compliant and dutiful people might be useful, but not inspiring. They are not the heroes that upend the world, but the ones who just get the job done. Obedience then seems boring. It is easy to make fun of someone who is predictable.
A Pep Talk
Yet oddly, in this Sunday’s first reading from Deuteronomy, obedience is celebrated. It is held up as not only something to aspire to, but something that will transfix the gaze of others and garner approving nods from onlookers. Moses has just recounted the history of the people of Israel as a kind of preamble to the repetition of the covenant law. The whole premise of Deuteronomy consists in Moses giving a long speech to the people that includes all of the laws of God and establishes them with a special covenant ceremony. Our reading follows the historical prologue. It takes the form of an exhortation, a pep talk, where Moses once again invites and encourages the people of Israel to obey, to observe all of the commandments which God has given them.
At the café I regularly visit, they offer a decaf, sugar-free, skim milk latte, which has been appropriately named the “Why bother?” That’s the question that confronts many of our contemporaries when we start talking about an invisible God, a moral law-giver, a set of rules that must be followed. To many, our faith does not seem harmful, just silly. Why bother believing in a God that tells you what to do? Why bother following his rules? Moses offers us two reasons here. First, God has promised his people something, a land, and in order to be eligible to receive that gift, they must live by his laws. So it is in their self-interest to do so. Obeying God leads to blessing. That seems simple enough, yet he adds another reason as well.
Obeying Like Olympians
This second reason is more complicated:
Keep them [the laws] and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (Deut 4:6 RSV)
The following of God’s law, the obeying of his commandments is objectively wise and intelligent. It reminds me of the Olympic games, when one country’s athletes sometimes dominate in a particular sport. It leaves the commentators, the fans, and the other athletes wondering what is different about that country’s training regimen. Do they eat differently? Do they practice more frequently? Do they add some unusual correlated training to the typical kind of practice? We can find ourselves in awe of the discipline, the focus, the skill, and the passion of the athletes that perform so highly. Though we might not know the details of their regimen, we see the results and therefore see the wisdom of it. Their training clearly prepares them to compete.
The Awe of the Gentiles
Moses is suggesting that this same kind of logic will apply to the Gentile nations who observe the Israelites living out the commandments of God. Rather than criticizing them for their strange and singular God, they will look in awe upon people who are so intelligent, so wise, so disciplined, so clearly doing things the way they were meant to be done. Rather than asking “Why bother?” they will be asking how they can join up and learn such wisdom.
Operating According to Design
This change shows something about the way that God’s law works. It is a mistake to assume that since the law is his, that the law’s purpose is merely to satisfy God’s personal tastes. Often God is accused of being megalomaniacal or selfish in wanting everyone to obey his rules instead of following their own desires. But this is the rub. God does not set up a law for his own personal pleasure, but rather, his law reveals to us how we were designed to live. God’s law is essentially teaching. In fact, the Hebrew word Torah (law) can also be translated as “teaching.” And Moses makes reference at the start of our reading (Deut 4:1) that he is “teaching” the laws of God to the people. The law of our Creator teaches us about how we creatures are supposed to live. God designed us and so his law functions as the “operating instructions” for how we are meant to live. If we routinely violate God’s law, then we will find ourselves “malfunctioning,” not operating the way we were designed. When we do follow God’s law, we start looking more like those Olympic athletes, training our souls the way they train their bodies, according to design.
Leading By Obeying
What does this mean for obedience? Rather than being a path to cowardly submissiveness, obedience shows itself to be something more, to be a way of leading. When others see our obedience to God—along with our love, joy, peace, patience, etc. (see Gal 5:22)—they won’t want to snicker at us for being submissive losers, but recognize the wisdom and intelligence of obedience. Those who follow God and his laws take on the mantle of moral leadership, boldly stepping out against the so-called wisdom of the self-seeking world and finally living the way we were meant to live, like heroes.