July 10, 2016
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Deut 30:10-14
“You can do it!” We all need to hear these words. Unfortunately, for most of us, this kind of direct encouragement ends when we leave our childhood baseball team or move out of Mom and Dad’s. Yet parents, coaches and teachers know something about us that we have a really hard time convincing ourselves of—that we can do it. All of us have deep doubts about ourselves. We don’t need psychologists to show us how much we question our abilities, double-guess our talents and choke in a tough moment. Just think of all the champion golfers who fall apart on the last day of a tournament and lose. Life scares us. Difficult challenges provoke us to self-doubt and anxiety. We often need someone whispering encouragement in our ear to remind us of our inner strength, of our ability to succeed, that we really do have what it takes.
The Last Speech of Moses
In this Sunday’s first reading from Deuteronomy, we hear the final encouragement Moses offers to the Israelites. Deuteronomy itself really acts as a record of Moses’ farewell sermon. He is the voice of the bulk of the text, with the narrator only sometimes jumping in. Throughout his long last speech, Moses recounts the story of the Exodus, repeats the Ten Commandments and instructs the Israelites regarding the law of God. He points the way to life and blessing through obedience to God and warns against death and curse brought about by disobedience. In fact, the distinction between blessing and curse are solemnized by a dramatic ceremony where the people split into two groups, go up on two facing mountains while one group proclaims blessings and the other proclaims curses (Deut 27–28).
At the end of all of his law-giving and after the solemn ceremonies, Moses gives the Israelites a pep-talk. Once we confront the law of God in all of its holiness and grandeur, we recognize how far we fall short of it. Just like watching Olympic athletes causes us to re-assess our own fitness level, encountering God’s holy law prompts us to check ourselves morally. On a typical day, we might think we are “good people,” but when we see the perfection of God’s standard of holiness, we come face-to-face with our sinfulness. After this moral encounter with the holy law, the Israelites felt discouraged. How could they live up to God’s calling? How could they possibly obey all of the rules? Yet Moses, as any good teacher would, steps into the pattern of their negativity and tries to put some heart into them. He tells them that obedience to the law of God is not some impossible pie-in-the-sky aspiration, so far out of reach that we need to send astronauts to get it for us (Deut 30:12). Nor is this obedience so far across the sea that we have to send Christopher Columbus after it (Deut 30:13). Rather, “the word (dabar) is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30:14 RSV, emphasis added).
Now the Hebrew word for “word” is dabar. It is a very common, all-purpose word like “thing.” Here Moses is talking about literal obedience to the law of God, yet when St. Paul quotes this passage, he offers a different take. He says
But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:8-9 RSV)
St. Paul redefines the dabar of obedience as the dabar of faith. Now that’s not to say that St. Paul isn’t a big believer in obedience. In fact, he unites the two ideas in his phrase “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). However, St. Paul is pointing out that in the New Covenant, the terms are a bit different. While Moses encourages the ancient Israelites that the law was not too hard to obey, now in Christ, our law-obedience participates by faith in the perfect obedience of Jesus. His obedience to God, his faithfulness unto death, now invigorates and empowers our obedience to God. We rely on Jesus by faith and through that reliance we become faithful and obedient to God.
Some people misinterpret St. Paul to be promoting a kind of lawlessness, where faith in Jesus frees us from all behavioral norms, restrictions and rules. But that’s not where he’s going with this argument. In fact, he is showing the unity of the Old and New Testaments, the unity which comes through fulfillment. Jesus does not save us by simply canceling out the Old Covenant, but instead, he empowers us by grace to live lives of obedience and fidelity to God.
Does God’s will make you sad?
Moses’ encouraging words—and perhaps any appropriate encouraging words—attack the core of our resistance to God’s will, and particularly, one vice: acedia. This mysterious vice, discussed by the ancient monks, is often equated with sloth, but in fact is a bit different than mere laziness. Acedia is a sadness at the will of God. It is the impulse in us to turn away, to avoid confrontation, to not rock the boat, to abandon our commitments, to refuse to be happy, to reject our lot in life and to always look for the green grass on the other side. God’s will is a plan for our ultimate happiness and when we respond to that plan with sadness, we show how out-of-sync we are with our Creator. Moses and St. Paul want to encourage us and get us out of self-destructive acedia by showing us that God’s plan is for our benefit. It is not too hard to obey, not too hard to believe. In fact, the word of faith, the reality of obedience to God, is so near to us. We profess it every Sunday and by his grace, we can live it too!