Scripture appointed for today can be found at: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Epiphany/AEpi6_RCL.html
Note, I went with Deuteronomy...
If This…Then X; If That…Then Y
This week I spent a significant chunk of time grappling with the scripture appointed for today. And, in the midst of this grappling I found myself reflecting upon another genre of literature entirely.
Choose your own adventure.
Remember those books? If you were a young child in the 80s they were the bread and butter of junk fiction.
One popular edition titled “The Mystery of Chimney Rock” began as follows…
“On your vacation in Connecticut, you notice a huge, empty stone house at the top of a hill. The old house, known as "Chimney Rock:' is so dark and gloomy that most people won't go near it.
But you're the curious type. Should you see for yourself what's inside?
If you say, "I'll do it!" turn to p. 4.
If you say, "No thanks!" turn to p. 6.”
At the pinnacle of every action these books forced a choice. One choice would lead to the continuation of the plot and future decisions to be made. Other choices would culminate in death or capture.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
The Israelites gazed out upon the vast expanse of desert that lay before them. A pillar of fire lit the night. Behind them, Egypt and oppression. In front of them, uncertainty and famine.
Faced with a choice, they argue. Should they follow the fire by night? Or should they return to the flesh pots of Egypt?
If they say, “I’ll go into the desert!” turn to page 982.
If they say, “No thanks, at least we had food in Egypt!” turn to page 843.
At every step, the people of God were given a choice. Continue to follow God, even when that choice presented immediate and tangible hardship—or turn away and select the easier path.
In Jewish tradition, rabbis and sages would engage with scripture through the custom of “midrash” in which new stories are crafted to bridge the divide between contemporary problems and the scriptural text. One example of this is based on the portion of Deuteronomy we heard today,
"An old man sat on a highway from which there branched two roads, [one full of thorns at the beginning but level at the end], and the other level at the beginning but full of thorns at the end. So he sat at the fork of the road and cautioned passersby, saying, "Even though the beginning of this road is full of thorns, follow it, for it will turn level in the end.' Whoever sensibly heeded the old man and followed that road did get a bit weary at first, to be sure, but went on in peace and arrived in peace. Those who did not heed the old man set out on the other road and stumbled in the end. So it was with Moses, who explicitly said to Israel, 'I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your offspring may live.'" (a Midrash Tanhuma, Re’eh 3)
The easier of the roads is not necessarily the life giving road…the obvious solution not necessarily the right choice…God’s call to us is an invitation to life and not a promise of ease.
And, so as Moses addresses the community we call Israel, he is reminding them that the choice is theirs. He is reminding them that they are in it for the long haul--and that the easy road is not the one that will lead them to the future that God has promised. In choosing life they set themselves and their children on a path leading to peace.
A choice that was all the harder because it was not a choice that was to their immediate benefit. The fullness of the promise is not for them, but for their children and children’s children--Moses himself never entered the promised land. The path wasn’t about him; it was about the new creation which had been promised. From Deuteronomy 34,
“The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab,”
Moses set the stage for the future. A future that wasn’t for him.
A future in which God’s chosen will be faced with choices…
And each choice leads to another set of choices…and on it goes. And here we are, in this moment. A moment which offers us new choices and hence begs the question, how will we choose?
I ask this because the life giving choice is not always obvious. We don’t live in a world in which we are presented with clear and distinct rights and wrongs—where actions fall into neat categories of good and bad. Instead, we live in a world where good and ill are muddled and complex and where we ourselves are routinely confronted with uncertainty.
And out of this place of uncertainty, we try to create external frameworks that support us in right action—laws and rules and standard and policies. But, even our best attempts to map out the good on paper fall short when confronted with the real world.
This brings me to the Gospel for today. Where Jesus makes clear that living according to the letter of the law is insufficient. And, sets a standard that seems nigh impossible.
It’s not sufficient to avoid murder—one must also refrain from insulting anyone.
It’s not sufficient to avoid adultery—one must also refrain from looking at another with lust.
Jesus’ intention, as I see it, in this text is to point out the insufficiency of human law when set against the full sufficiency of God’s love. Human law is incomplete whenever it fails to honor the dignity of every human being and reflect the fullness of God’s love. In short, Jesus intensifies the law to make us more responsible for our neighbor’s well-being.
And, whether that neighbor is in Haiti or the adjoining pew, this intensification of the law is meant as a reminder of our interdependence and our responsibility as followers of Jesus to care for each other.
In this, the exhortation to choose life, becomes an exhortation to care for others. And, when we fail in our care of the other we are commanded to seek reconciliation.
Reconciliation then offers another choice…neither life nor death, but healing. And, so unlike the Mystery of Chimney Rock where the wrong choice ends the story, we, as Christians, are reminded that death is not the end of our story. What has been broken can and will be restored. And therein is the good news of today’s Gospel. God’s love will be sufficient to the task.
If you choose to be reconciled, turn to page 5.
If you choose to carry a grudge, turn to page 12.
And, there you will find a chance to begin anew…
Repent and return. Repent and return. The future will unfold, choice by choice by choice…