Deuteronomy 4-6, Psalm 54, Luke 12
Jesus said, “Do not worry!”
Deuteronomy 4 – 6
Knowing that he cannot lead the Israelites much longer, Moses prepares them for a future without him. Deuteronomy becomes his farewell discourse like Jesus’s long farewell address in John 13:31-14:31 and his prayer for peace and unity in John 17:1-26.
Moses drives home the necessity of absolute allegiance to God (chapters 4-11). “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you,” said Moses. (Deut. 4:2) Perhaps this is why Jesus emphasized again and again that he had not come to abolish or change the law, but to fulfill it.
Moses then asks one of the great questions of the Bible. “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?” (Deut. 4:7) The Pentateuch has shown us a God who is at times transcendental and towering over creation and at other times so intimate that he overhears our conversations, reads our thoughts and whispers in ours ears.
Each one of us will not get to fulfill certain dreams in our life. Moses will never enter the Promised Land. He seems to have been unfairly punished by God. Coming to terms with what we cannot do is one of our last important acts on earth. Preparing others for our death is an act of courage and compassion. “For I am going to die in this land without crossing over the Jordan, but you are going to cross over to take possession of that good land,” says Moses. (Deut. 4:22).
After warning his followers not to fashion or bow down to any other gods, Moses speaks with great eloquence, saying, “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him. Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.” (Deut. 4:29-31)
In chapter 5, Moses convened Israel and reiterated the Ten Commandments. This is the legal backbone of the Jewish religious experience. The first three commandments cover the vertical dimension of faith between humans and their God. The last six commandments address how we should act with other human beings. The fourth commandment to honor the Sabbath is a bridge commandment between the commandments that speak about our bond with God and the commandments that address our bond with others.
The fourth commandment is where we meet God. God sanctifies time and makes it clear that we have a divine mandate to refrain from work one day a week to renew ourselves in God, to worship and move to a different tempo than the rest of the week. This is the longest commandment that God gave. It is longer than all six commandments combined that follow it.
Sadly, it is the commandment most likely to be broken today. As more and more people view honoring the Sabbath as optional, we have become a 24/7 culture where each day looks like a work day. We are destroying ourselves by not having a day set aside to be with God and with one another, to rest, renew, restore and enjoy life around us. One of the best ways to grow as a Christian is to honor the Sabbath, not just by attending church, but by using Sunday as a day for growing closer to God throughout the day and renewing oneself in God and with God’s people.
It is in chapter 6 we find one of the most famous verses in the Old Testament, known in Hebrew as the shema, which means “hear.” “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5) These same words are also found on Jesus’ lips in the gospels. (Matthew 23:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27) The genius of Jesus was to connect the shema with a command to love our neighbor as ourselves and create a summary of the 621 Jewish laws, which was understandable and manageable to carry out.
Moses then adds, “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:7) This becomes a vital part of the Jewish tradition. Jaroslav Pelikan was the greatest teacher of Church history of recent times. I had the privilege of taking a course with him while attending the Yale Divinity School. His definition of tradition is famous. “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living,” said Pelikan.
The concern for passing along this living faith of the dead to the next generation will remain forever a major facet of Judaism and Christianity. All of us must have an answer ready when our children ask us about our faith. Christianity is just one generation away from extinction. If our children do not inherit our faith, then their children will not experience the faith that has sustained us. Studies show that 25% of all Americans ages 19-25 indicate that they hold no religious faith at all. This is the largest percentage recorded in American history.
Moses prepares his followers to be ready to respond to questions of faith. “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.’” (Deut. 6:21)
The Israelites are commanded to write down the laws and wear them as phylacteries on their foreheads. “Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:8-9) Orthodox Jews practice this.
This psalm is said to have been set down to paper by King David when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.” (I Sam. 23:19) You can find this story in I Samuel 23:15-29. King Saul became immensely jealous of David, after hearing the women singing to one another, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens thousands,” (I Sa. 18:7) Saul could not restrain his anger at David.
Saul trumped up charges and pursued David into the Wilderness of Ziph. Jonathan, Saul’s son, became David’s confidant and champion. They two of them cut a covenant with one another in the wilderness. Then Jonathan returned home. Some of the Ziphites, however, told Saul, “David is hiding among us in the strongholds of Horesh…” (I Sam. 23:19) It was there as he was being pursued that David wrote,
Save me, O God, by your name,
and vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God;
give ear to the words of my mouth.
For the insolent have risen against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they do not set God before them.” (Ps. 54:1-3)
I once had the opportunity to interview Rowan Williams for an hour, while he was serving as Archbishop of Canterbury. One of the questions that I asked him was, “How do you find time as Archbishop to write poetry?” Archbishop Williams is one of the best living Welsh poets and is a member of the Druidic Society of Welsh poets. “You don’t actually write poems,” he replied. “Rather, they are sort of given to you. That’s why I never take my mobile (phone) on a train, when I travel, because I am often given a poem while I am traveling and I simply have to write it down.” I have a sense that this is how King David composed the psalms. He did not so much write them, as they were given to him by God. He merely set them to paper for others to benefit from for centuries to come.
Dr. Ed Hallowell is a highly successful psychiatrist from the Boston area and an expert on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is becoming increasingly common in the United States. He wrote one of the finest books on the subject called Driven to Distraction. He has written another book called Worry, which is one of the most common and debilitating emotional states.
My grandfather used to worry enormously at the end of his life. For several years, our family lived just two blocks away my from grandparent’s home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. When we went visited my grandfather, it would sometimes take an hour for my father to convince my grandfather that his financial assets were alright, the house was solid and the economy was not going to plummet.
While a healthy level of worry can help us perform efficiently at work, anticipate dangers, and learn from past errors, extreme forms worry can become “toxic” and poison our pleasures, sabotage our achievements, and prevent us from resolving actual problems. Dr. Hallowell discusses all types of worry, explores their underlying causes, and considers the best strategies for coping. Even “born” worriers can learn to use their worry wisely and channel it to live a happier, calmer, and more rewarding life.
Chapter 12 is part of Jesus’s guidance about worrying. It is well worth reading twice and highlighting some key texts. We live it a culture of stress. I spoke not long ago with someone who was working under enormous stress and is somewhat disheartened not to be living under it anymore. He said, “Stress is addictive. I loved having so much being asked of me and barely having the time to do it, but just managing to get everything done.” While stress can be exhilarating, it can also be destructive. I had a friend who is a physician who once told me, “If it weren’t for stress, I would have no patients.”
Jesus warns us, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:2-3) The purpose of this teaching is to remind us that our actions truly matter and that God is watching over us.
By the time Luke wrote his gospel, persecution was occurring and Christians were being attacked for their belief in Jesus. “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12) It is only after preaching for more than 20 years that I have learned to rely more on the Holy Spirit to guide what I say and to worry less about having each word set down on paper. The latter allows me to sleep better before I preach, but the former allows the Spirit to be at work.
Chapter 12 focuses on possessions, which come to possess us and become a source of great worry. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” notes Jesus. (Luke 12:15) He tells the Parable of the Rich Fool, about a man who what rich in wealth, but appeared to have little concern for others. His focus was on how to store his own wealth. “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Jesus is quoting a popular saying of his time. There are many, however, for whom these words embody their hedonistic lifestyle. Jesus warns, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Hedonism is a shallow pool in which to swim.
Jesus literally commands us not to worry. Think about that! We are commanded not to fall victim to worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing,” says Jesus. (Luke 12:22-23) Jesus asks us to consider the ravens and other birds and how God manages to feed them. He asks, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Luke 12:25) The answer is no.
Jesus urges us to consider the lilies of the fields and how clothes them in beauty. “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28) He admonishes, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)
This is one of the great lines of the Bible and one that speaks a powerful truth to every generation. I have heard Christian psychologists say that they never met a person who was tithing that was depressed. There is something about living a generous life that prevents being self-consumed.
Jesus closes this chapter with apocalyptic warnings. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) This has a scary tone, which seems odd for Jesus to use. It is clear, however, that Jesus spoke in apocalyptic language.
“Do your think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…” (Luke 51-53) Following Christ forces us to make choices and to set priorities. Sometimes, it can cost us acceptance and ties among family and friends, but we should be wise at all times.
From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the Lord your God and heed him. Because the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them. (Deut. 4:29-31)
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. (Luke 12:2-3)
Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:15)
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34)
What dreams will you not achieve in your lifetime? Which of the commandments do you struggle most to keep? Are you intentional about passing on the Christian faith – the living faith of the dead – to your children and grandchildren? What causes you to worry? Is worry an excessive problem for you or for someone you know? Do your possessions possess you? Do you trust that God will provide for you? What do you make of Jesus’s apocalyptic sayings?
Heavenly Father, you are the calm center at the heart of the universe, the peaceful voice that breathed a Word and brought about creation. Your Word renews us. Help us at the start of each day to breathe your Word prayerfully into our beings as we read Scripture and meditate on your wisdom and love for us so that we may overcome worry and its crippling effects. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania