It is often a tricky thing for a pastor to base his sermon on the Old Testament lesson. The reason is that the way the ancients interpreted God’s hand in history often differs from the way we interpret God’s hand in history. Today’s lesson from Deuteronomy is a case in point.
Can anyone tell me where the phrase, “Go ahead and make my day!” came from? Anyone? Bueller? It was from a 1983 film starring Clint Eastwood in which his character, Dirty Harry, shoves a gun in the bad guy’s face and say’s, “Go ahead and make my day!” The message is, “Make the move I want you to make and you will live. Make the move you want to make and you will die.”
Well, today’s lesson from Deuteronomy has a Dirty Harry feel to it. As the children of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land God says, “See, you have two choices: life and prosperity or death and adversity.” God says, “If you obey me, love me, and observe my commandments and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering. But if your hearts turn away and you bow down to other gods I declare that you will not live long. You shall die.” Then, to put a finer point on it, God says, “I have set before you life and blessings or death and curses.” Go ahead and make my day.
Well, if you put it that way, God, I guess I have no choice. I want to live. Actually, this is an old debater’s trick in which the speaker presents a binary choice; either this or that. There are no options. No middle ground. You have to pick. College students learn in Philosophy 101 that this is called a logical fallacy – a false choice. Things are more complicated than that.
Here is a real life example from a dialogue between Bill Nye, the science guy, and Ken Ham – a Pentecostal who doesn’t believe in evolution because he must believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.
Bill Nye laid out the scientific view of creation and evolution, that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans evolved from lower life forms some 200,000 years ago. Ken Hamm holds to a fundamental view that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that human beings were created just as they appear now on the 6th day. Hamm said people had a “Make my day” choice. As one listener summarized it, Hamm said that either one accepts the Bible, accepts divine creation, accepts moral order, motherhood, apple pie, and puppies; or else one supports evolution, supports anarchy, ritual sacrifice, and Festivus.” The listener said, “You could just picture folks all across the country sitting in their Barcaloungers, looking at each other, and saying, “Well, we don’t believe in anarchy or ritual sacrifice, and we love puppies. And what’s Festivus? So we just can’t be evolutionists.” That is the debater’s trick of offering a binary choice. It is a logical fallacy.
Truth be told? If you buy into the binary choice we are presented in Deuteronomy today – following all the laws and commandments presented in Deuteronomy to get on God’s good side – we would be for genocide. Yes, we would be for the complete annihilation of the Canaanite population. We would aso take our rebellious children to the town gate and, (I’m quoting Deuteronomy here) say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious…. Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So shall you purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” Well? God said you will live if you follow such commands and you will die and be cursed if you don’t. So, what’s a person to do?
Maybe the real question is, “What is a Christian to do?” Herb Chilstrom, former president of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, once said that the biggest issue facing modern Christianity is interpretation of scripture. If you would like to study more on that topic I can refer you to a whole shelf of books in my study. But for the purposes of a Sunday morning, let’s suffice it to say this: We must always interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. So, instead of doing theological gymnastics to explain how God could be for genocide or that he didn’t really say that parents should kill their kids – we hold up those kinds of verses and judge them in light of those things Jesus said.
And Jesus didn’t always agree with the Old Testament. He was forever saying, “You have heard it said … but I say…” I don’t think Jesus would be in favor of genocide. I don’t think Jesus would be in favor of having the townspeople stone a drunken son. But there is one verse from today’s Old Testament Lesson that I very much think that Jesus could take and run with it. It is the last half of verse 19: “Choose life that you…may live.” I think Jesus was all over choosing life. I think choosing life was the basis of his earthly ministry, especially the Sermon on the Mount.
I think that when Jesus said that we should favor the poor, console the depressed, stand up for the oppressed, be strong for weak people, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the imprisoned, love our enemies, be for peace, turn the other cheek, invite homeless people to your parties – I think that when Jesus teaches these things he is saying the exact same thing that Deuteronomy says: “Choose life!”
This is what I mean by reading the Old Testament through a New Testament filter. But – here’s the thing! It also works the same way in reading what goes on in today’s world. Here’s an example. All throughout the Old Testament women are often objectified, existing only for the purpose of producing children (preferably male) for their husbands. They are second class citizens in a patriarchal society. But when we see how Jesus treated women with dignity and respect, when we see that the only witnesses to the empty tomb were women, when we hear St. Paul say that “in Christ there is no … male nor female” – then we know how to counter those who say that the woman’s place is in the home and quote Deuteronomy to back it up. But, if the New Testament allows us to critique the Old, it also allows us to critique society. Women are objectified today and treated as second class citizens today. In many ways our society is still a patriarchal one. Jesus helps us to not only re-interpret our history, but re-imagine our future.
As I wind down please allow me to compare and contrast life choices made by our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at its biennial assembly in August with the focus of our Missouri Synod Lutheran cousins in their summer assembly. At our assembly in Milwaukee we passed a very notable resolution which declares that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America shall be a “Sanctuary Denomination.” Becoming a sanctuary denomination means that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants is a matter of faith.
Sanctuary is an ancient concept which means that protection will be provided for the persons seeking it. It means that the ELCA advocates for stopping the detention of children and families. We take sides on the family separation issue and speak out against it, as well as against the deportation of those who have lived in the U.S. for many years. Some congregations are providing actual physical sanctuary for immigrants seeking protection against ICE raids. It is a bold move and, as far as I know, we are the first denomination to make such a declaration.
While we were doing that our Missouri Synod second cousins once removed passed a resolution declaring that the earth was created in six twenty-four hour days just the way we measure days and hours. Oooo,,,,kayyy!! In so doing they have rejected evolution, science, and biology and have embraced a literal fundamental interpretation of Genesis.
So here’s a second way we Christians can interpret the Old Testament. If the first way was through the prism of the New Testament, then the second way is through the prism of science, history, logic, and reason. Now, it is not so much that these third cousins twice removed have chosen to place an interpretation on the creation story that even those that wrote it in the first place didn’t hold – it’s not so much that they have chosen the same interpretation evangelical Christianity holds – it is that, given the option to use their time to embrace life-threatening issues such as our U.S. immigration policy – they have chosen to wrap their arms around a dead concept.
Each denomination chose to spend its time in different ways. As Deuteronomy quotes the Lord: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, …. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”
As Dirty Harry would say, “Go ahead and make my day.” Make my day by standing by immigrants. Make my day by supporting the oppressed. Make my day by defending the LGBT community. Make my day by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry. You have choices about how to spend your time. Go ahead and make my day. Choose life!
Text: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20