The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 74

Deuteronomy 28-30, Psalm 62, Luke 20
You have a choice before you this day and every day. Choose life!

Deuteronomy 28-30
Psalm 62
Luke 20
Key Verses
Questions
Prayer

Deuteronomy 28 – 30

Deuteronomy 28 carries on with the curses of God that will take place the Israelites fail to obey what God has commanded them to do. Jewish law is tied closely to mitzvah or works. Christians counter by stressing that it is “faith” not “works” that justifies a person. The Apostle Paul argued that Abraham, the father of Judaism, was justified by “faith” and not by “works,” because he believed God.

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:2-3)

The author of the Letter of James countered that faith must be accompanied by works. He wrote,

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (James 2:18)

Martin Luther began the German Reformation by attacking the Roman Catholic Church’s sales of indulgences, which were used to “release souls from purgatory” and pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In 1517, Luther hammered 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Each thesis was a criticism about how the Roman Catholic Church was operating at that time in history.

Luther adamantly opposed the Catholic Church’s focus on “works righteousness” instead of focusing on faith. He stressed “justification by faith through grace alone.” Luther believed that a life that is rooted in faith and nurtured by grace will naturally produce good works. Hence, we have no reason to boast. The good that we do is a result of God’s grace at work in us. Of course, we can choose not to be good.

In our reading today, Moses paints a grim picture. He warns the Israelites that if they fail to obey God’s law their cities will come under siege and parents will eat their own children in desperation. (Deut. 28:54-55, 57) He writes,

If you do not diligently observe all the words of the law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies. (Deuteronomy 28:58)

This sounds like religious blackmail, but it is important for Christians to recall that there is truth in these forceful words that remains as true today as it was 2,500 years ago. God has created a moral order that helps things cohere and allows for humans to prosper, find happiness and live peacefully together. When we violate God’s principles, there is always a price to pay. Either we or others will be hurt.

In Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20 Moses offers his third and final address to the Israelites. Once again, he recites that covenant that was given on Mount Sinai. We find one of my favorite Bible verses, which is like a spiritual compass. I often share it with those whom I am counseling. It reads,

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days… (Deut. 30:19-20)

John’s Gospel, which we will read later, is a gospel full of choices. Again and again, the author calls his readers to choose between light and darkness, good and evil, right and wrong, justice and evil, life and death. In a similar way, the Deuteronomist demands that we chose between blessings and curses. You cannot, he says, have both. One decision leads to life and the other to death. We must choose.

Sometime around 1985, before I started seminary, my father arranged for me to meet with the Rev. Dr. Tom Bowers, who was then the Rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. Tom was one of the finest priests and preachers that the Episcopal Church has produced. We formed a friendship and Tom later graciously preached at my installation as Rector of St. Thomas Church in 1995.

I loved Tom’s sermons, and they played an important role in developing my own preaching. Tom once told a story about members of his church whose daughter was hit and killed by a taxi while crossing a street in New York City. Her parents were devastated. They went home, drew their curtains and turned out the lights. Certainly, they left to run errands and work, but emotionally they closed off their life.

In my own ministry I work a lot with people who are grieving. I have seen grief destroy people. So, I often turn to this verse from Deuteronomy. As they sit in my office, I paraphrase it by saying,

Behold I have set before you this day life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… (Deut. 30:19)

The family that Dr. Bowers spoke about, who went home and never emotionally rebuilt their lives after their daughter’s death, chose curses and death rather than blessings and life. They allowed this tragedy to shut down their lives emotionally. They cut themselves off from God, friends and church.

It is easy to blame and cut God off after bad things happen to us. We think, “I have tried to live a good life, and God let this happen to me. Why?” By cutting off God, the church and friends, we lose three of our greatest blessings and resources that can help us survive tragedy and overcome grief.

Finally, when doing pre-marital counseling, I refer to this verse as well. I give every couple exercises to do as homework. One assignment that I give is for each of them to write a list of 20 reasons why they love the other person, five reasons why this is a good time in their life to get married and one thing that they would change about each other, if they could. I then asked them to read their list to each other.

Afterwards, I ask them how they feel. They always say, “Wonderful.” “Why did I give you that exercise?” I ask. They make a few guesses. Then I explain that the five reasons as to why this is a good time to get married are usually quite basic. They have dated for long enough, are ready to marry, are financially stable and set in their careers and want start a family. The 20 and 1 are my real focus.

I ask how they felt after hearing 20 wonderful things about themselves. “Great,” they reply. “Did you notice the ratio of positive things to negative ones, and did you notice what came first?” I ask. “The positive things,” they reply. “Exactly,” I respond. “If I began by asking you what you would change about the other, you might have to say 20 positive things just to make up for upsetting your partner. But if you begin by offering positive things, your partner is able to hear something negative, receive it well and be eager to improve upon a weakness so that your relationship might be even better!”

“Blessings must precede curses, and the blessings must far outnumber the curses or criticisms that we make,” I explain. “When I first started doing this exercise, I asked couples to write down 10 reasons why they loved each other and three things that they would change about the other, if they could. Then I read in a marriage book that if you enter a period in your relationship where 30 percent of more of your comments to your spouse are negative, you will have a toxic martial environment.”

“I was unintentionally setting them up for this,” I explained. “So, I changed the ratio from 10 to 3 to 20 to 1. If you can maintain that ratio, you will have a great marriage. You still need the freedom to offer a criticism, but the key is to let the blessings be first and far outnumber the curses or criticisms.”

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Psalm 62

This psalm is one of the greatest psalms of faith. It reminds us where our heart should reside at all times. When we are going through stormy moments in life, this is a great psalm to read or better yet, recite the first two verses again and again like a mantra. Pray quietly to yourself,

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken. (Ps. 62:1-2)

One of the things that I have noticed about couples with good marriages is that they socialize with other couples who have good marriages. Likewise, couples with bad marriages often spend time with couples who do not respect and treat each other well. After 20 years, all but one of the first group is happily married, but in the second group, all but one is divorced.

Having a good marriage takes team strength. It takes being surrounded by other people who share similar values, respect their spouses, build trust and nurture their marriage. Likewise, being a person of strong faith takes surrounding ourselves with others who have strong faith. Many say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” But no one becomes a person of strong faith in a vacuum. Developing a strong faith requires having friends and mentors who inspire us to live and act faithfully.

That’s why the Church exists. It does not exist to be a factory solely to baptize, marry and bury people, although these are important. It exists to create strong, faithful Christian disciples, who live and act upon their faith in God and in Jesus Christ as they are guided by the Holy Spirit.

Trust in [God] at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. (Ps. 62:8)

Worshipping in church as well as spending quality time each day with God is the best way to go about this. One of my hobbies is studying languages. I speak French, Italian and Spanish. I take two private Spanish lessons a week, listen to Spanish radio, read Spanish novels and study grammar. Every day I try to spend 30-60 minutes reading, writing, speaking or listening to Spanish being spoken. It is the only way to learn a language. You cannot do it by spending one hour a week.

The same applies to the Christian journey. If we wish to be true persons of faith, then we must spend 30-60 minutes each day reading the Bible, studying God’s Word, worshipping, praying, enjoying the company of strong Christians and serving those in need. Faithful practices build strong Christians.

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Luke 20

I am always astonished by the things that I see for the first time in the Bible, despite having read it time and time again. For example, I never recall reading, “So [the scribes and chief priests] watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap [Jesus] by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:20) Things are pretty bad when people spy on you, especially when you are doing God’s work! This is how humans operate at our worst.

I have been fortunate to work with many exceptional Associate Rectors. One of our Associate Rectors once told me that she had never conducted a funeral where there was not a lot fighting among the family. Ever since, I have paid closer attention to this. There is often friction among siblings. “Why are you the executor of the estate, not me?” bellows one. “I’m older than you,” responds another. “I’ll sue,” says a third. “I want this antique,” says another. “Mom promised it to me,” says another.

Whatever it is, humans can be very hard on one another. The scribes and the chief priests should have been the first to applaud and welcome Jesus. He was the Messiah, but just as family can sometimes be hardest on one another, they were hardest on Jesus. They were constantly seeking ways to trap him.

In my experience as a priest, some of the worst actions have occurred near the time of death. From time to time, I have worked with families who have a child who has been born again, who is coming to see father on his deathbed and “bring him to Christ” before he dies. Inevitably, this child has been nowhere in sight while father was alive and well or in a hospital recovering from a surgery. But with life ebbing away, the child flies in on a mission to insure that their parent, a faithful Episcopalian, is saved!

Is it not surprising, therefore, that we read in Luke,

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:45-47)

Much is expected of us when we bear the name “Christian.” We are wise to say, “I am trying to be a Christian” rather than, “I am a Christian” as if it was a finished action. Being a Christian is a lifelong pursuit. We get up, and we fall down. We get up and fall down. Each day, we fall and seek God’s help.

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Key Verses

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days… (Deut. 30:19-20)

For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. (Ps. 62:1-2)

Trust in [God] at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Ps. 62:8)

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Questions

Are you making constant choices that lead towards life or are some of your choices inclining you towards death? How is your ratio of blessings to curses in your marriage or principle relationships? How strong is your faith? Are you going through the motions as a Christian, or are you actually making some important decisions based on your faith? Have you been disappointed by the religious people? What steps are you taking to walk the walk and avoid being a religious person who disappoints others?

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Prayer

Gracious God, each one of us is striving to be a Christian. Every day we must wake up and choose to be a Christian and acknowledge you as our Lord of lords and King of kings. Help us to live this beautiful life as authentically as possible and with as much integrity as we can. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania