Deuteronomy 7-9, Psalm 55, Luke 13
Don’t walk past the kingdom of heaven!
Deuteronomy 7 – 9
It is good while reading through challenging parts of the Old Testament to keep before us some key texts from the New Testament such as John 3:16, which tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” This is one of the greatest sayings in the Bible. You can stake your life on this verse. “For God so loved the world…” It does not say, “For God so loved the Church…” or “For God so loved the Israelites…” or “For God so loved Episcopalians…” but “For God so loved the world…”
I encourage you to let this verse be your filter as you read the Bible. Texts which cannot exist alongside John 3:16 must be rejected or at least questioned. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:2 we read, “…when the Lord your God gives [the seven nations] over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.” Did God not also create the seven nations? Were these people not created in God’s image, too? When we read that “God so loved the world…,” are people like this not part of that world?
The Deuteronomist goes on to say, “Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy your quickly.” (Deut. 7:3-4) It is clear that Moses is calling the people to live separately from foreigners and not assimilate.
Yahweh is depicted as a jealous God, who “does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him.” (Deut. 7:10) This is not what Jesus, God incarnate, embodied as he instructed us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We do not worship two different gods, but rather there are Old Testament depictions of God which are quite different than the God depicted in the New Testament. Hence, it is the author, not God, who must be questioned.
Nevertheless, Moses maintains that God’s special blessing will be upon the Israelites, if they obey God. Neither their people nor their livestock will experience infertility” nor will they experience the plagues and illnesses that the Egyptians experienced when they refused to allow the Israelites to make their exodus, but God will “lay them upon all who hate [the Israelites].” (Deut. 7:14-15) Does God really work like this? Read John 3:16 and you will realize that this is not how God acts.
Two other things are worth noting. We are told that God led the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years “in order to humble [them], testing [them] to know what was in [their] heart, whether or not [they] would keep his commandments.” (Deut. 8:2) The Bible affirms that God tests humans to see where their heart is and how faithful they are to God. There are times when we sense that we are being tested by God. The Bible also affirms that God rewards us, not with riches, but with more responsibility for serving God, when God finds us faithful.
The Deuteronomist goes on to say that God humbled the Israelites by letting them hunger and feeding them manna in the wilderness “in order to make [them] understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) This key verse reappears in Luke 4:4, when Jesus quotes this verse when the devil offered his first temptation to Jesus, suggesting that our Lord transform a stone into a loaf of bread. Jesus knew the Scriptures well. He had memorized and frequently quoted Scripture and used it to inform his decisions. We are wise to emulate his model.
There are times when people will use the Bible to mislead us. We are wise to know our Bible well so that we can discern false teaching. In the third temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil quotes Scripture saying, “for it is written, ‘[God] will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’” Jesus replied with Scripture quoting, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Luke 4:10, 12) Throughout history the Church has struggled to seek clarity about issues concerning baptism, Eucharist, marriage, divorce, sexuality, freedom, forgiveness, discipline and other topics. A wise knowledge of Scripture and letting the Spirit guide us as we read God’s Word is a great spiritual resource to develop.
Finally, we are reminded that no one is self-made. “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…” (Deut. 8:17-18) A wise parent will instill this understanding in his or her child and model it. If we are fortunate to possess wealth or to achieve success in life, we have often been lucky. We may have worked hard, but it is God who gave us our work ethic and the gifts to succeed. Never for a moment forget the true origin of where your wealth and your success come.
A friend recently informed me that she must undergo chemotherapy. This is not the first time that she has had to endure this. News that she must undergo this comes upon much loss in her life, other family concerns and a prolonged illness that her husband has undergone. Why me? Why us? How much more? How much longer? These are questions we ask ourselves.
Sometimes life feels very unfair. Some of us are put to the test far more than others. This is our world. I believe that God never inflicts pain and suffering. The world that God has created, however, is leavened with freedom, which creates amazing situations, but can also allow great suffering. The psalmist offers words that make me think of my friend and how she must feel. He writes,
And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest. (Ps. 55:6-8)
There are other words of inspiring hope to be found in this psalm. Likewise, we find desire for retaliation such as, “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” (Ps. 55:15) At times the psalmist cannot help himself. He vents his anger and shakes his fist. But at other times he offers words of inspiration:
He will redeem me unharmed
from the battle that I wage (Ps. 55:18)
Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved. (Ps. 55:22)
Treasure verse 22. Inscribe it inside the cover of your Bible. Memorize it and remind yourself each day to cast your burden upon the Lord. God will sustain you, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
One of my best friends in college was in the wildest fraternity at Emory University. It was known as the drug house. I met him at a philosophy lecture. He was a serious and bright student. As I got to know him, he shared with me a life after death experience that he had had after his car was hit by a Cadillac that ran a red light in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
The doctors said he died upon the operating table. While his body stopped functioning, he experienced journeying through a tunnel surrounded by warmth, being drawn toward a brilliant light and hearing his name being called. A voice said, “Mike, are you ready to die or do you want to go on living?” He replied that he wanted to live. Doctors could not explain what happened, but his body came back to life.
Mike told me this story on the front steps of his fraternity house. I had never heard such a story. Part of me wanted to laugh, but I had enormous respect for Mike and realized that his story must be true. Mike later invited my girlfriend and me to join a Bible study held in his fraternity room. It was there that I read the Bible for the first time in my life. It was a powerful moment, but I could not help thinking that if my fraternity brothers across the way could see me reading the Bible in the drug house, they would have split their sides laughing. Mike is now an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Texas. He played a major role in my Christian journey. I will forever be grateful to him.
We used to laugh that if we were ever ordained, the first words that we would preach would be, “Repent of perish.” These words are in today’s gospel. Jesus raises issues about theodicy or why evil exists. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” he asked, replying, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13:2-3) Mike and I joked about wagging our finger and proclaiming, “Repent or perish.”
You will not hear those words said by many Episcopal preachers. We shy away from convicting people and letting ourselves be convicted. Jesus, however, is serious about commitment. Unlike our therapeutic culture which longs to affirm almost all behavior as acceptable, Jesus has higher expectations of human conduct. He transitions from saying “repent or perish” to telling the Parable of the Fig Tree,” where he suggests that any fig tree not bearing fruit will be cut down.
The message is clear. We were put on this planet for a purpose. If we fail to bear fruit for God’s kingdom, God will cease to work through us. God is efficient and looks to maximize resources to further the kingdom of love. The Parable of the Talents makes this amply clear.
Soon after, Jesus heals again on the Sabbath. Once again, he is restoring an individual to wholeness. This is one of Jesus’s seven miracles that occurred on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue became indignant that Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath. I had never noticed his fierce and almost comical reprimand of Jesus. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” Is he castigating Jesus or the crowd who seek healing on the Sabbath? Perhaps it is the latter. Nonetheless, he is unappreciative of a true miracle. Beware of religious leaders who refuse to see how God colors outside the lines.
Before offering the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast, Jesus begins each short parable by asking a question: “What is the kingdom of God like? It is a great question. William Barclay tells the story in one of his gospel commentaries about the famous biblical scholar C.H. Dodd, who served in the army. Dodd had a sweetheart in his village in England. She waited for him while he was away. Upon returning from service, Dodd returned home wearing his uniform and inflated with pride. He walked straight past his sweetheart’s house. She was dressed beautifully and waited for him, but he ignored her. He wrote in his journal, “I knew that moment that I walked right past the kingdom of God.”
God has a plan for our lives that surpasses what we can dream or imagine. God longs for us to enjoy the bliss and beauty of relationships and opportunities for service, learning, discovery and wonder. Unfortunately, our pride often causes us to walk right past such incredible opportunities that await us.
Dodd coined the term “realized eschatology,” which means that the kingdom of God can be experienced here and now. He noted that some of the evangelists speak of an “unrealized eschatology” and others speak of a “realized eschatology” and some speak of both. Many missionaries preached to indigenous people about an unrealized eschatology. “You may suffer now, but you will be rewarded in heaven.” Those who preach a realized eschatology note that God invites us to discover peace, joy and the abundant riches now. I believe that God’s peace and joy can be found both on earth and in heaven.
To this, Jesus adds, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24) The narrow door is the more challenging Christian journey. It is the door to God that expects much of us. We are called to act morally, live for others and give our lives as a living sacrifice to enrich others, just as Christ gave himself upon the cross. Grace is costly, not cheap, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted. God has high expectations for us.
Perhaps the doors of the kingdom of God will be wide open. Perhaps everyone will be received. Jesus says, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:29-30) Will the door to God’s kingdom be wide or narrow? None of us knows for certain, but try envisioning it as narrow for yourself so that you strive to lead the best Christian life that you can and you won’t go wrong. Likewise, strive to envision it as wide for others, so as not to judge them wrongly while urging them also to strive to live a fine Christian life. Once again, you cannot go wrong.
And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest. (Ps.55:6-8)
Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. (Ps. 55:22)
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. (Luke 13:2-3)
Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:24)
Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (Luke 13:30)
How is God testing you? Do you consider yourself self-made or do you give God credit for your success and prosperity? Can you cast your burden on the Lord? If not, what prevents you from doing so? From what would you like to fly away like a dove? What weighs your soul down? From what do you need the need to repent? How do you envision the kingdom of God? Can it be found in this world or only in heaven or in both? What does “the narrow door” that Jesus urges us to enter mean for you?
O Generous God, all that we have we have received from you. That is not a penny in our pocket that we have not received because you have blessed us with gifts, health, energy and knowledge to navigate our way through this life. Help us never to fall into the sin of believing that we are self-made and believing that what we have is “ours” when it is you that have bestowed all that we have upon us and it is to you that we should return a significant portion of what we have given us. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania