Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
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. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 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. 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.
How do we do what is right? How do we live a life that is worth living? Those two questions undergird a large part of our life. The two feed into each other, or at least they should. When we are asking ourself what makes life worth living, we should hopefully be thinking about how our actions impact our lives and the lives of those around us – hopefully for the good. Contrariwise, if we are asking ourself what is good and what we must do, then hopefully we are looking for it out of something more than simple obligation. We should tie the actions we take and the perspectives we form to our ideas about what makes life worth living. To use put a dollar toward some fifty cent words, we must make sure our praxis – what we do – reflects our theory – what we believe.
The Church, not as any establishment but as the full body of believers, is not always good at following up the things it believes with action. While I can list many things happening here in this church and in every church throughout time that are good and in line with what God has taught us, I can also see a disconnect – again as individuals and as a community – that seem dissonant with God’s vision for the world. While this contrast between ideals and actions is as old as humanity, the Church has a particular set of beliefs it must keep in tension that cause it to lean toward this imbalance. The Church is constantly balancing the instructions which God has given us, those standards laid out in God’s teachings, and the grace God has shown us through Jesus Christ.
God has always shown mercy to the world. From the moment Adam and Eve were given clothing as they left Eden, through the time of Abraham and Moses, even up to the Babylonian Exile – God is a God of grace. While we often split God’s word in two, saying that the Old Testament tells one kind of story about God and the New Testament tells another, the reality is not so simple. We as Gentile believers, that is people who are not first century Judeans, do interact differently with the Torah than the first Christians. We read the prophets differently than Jews do today, connecting even obscure texts to the life of Christ. Even poetry like the Song of Songs we shape to reflect our understanding of the Church, when it has traditionally been considered a story of love between two people. We are part of the tradition that predates Jesus’s ministry on earth, but we are also somehow distinct from it.
The grace which Jesus brought, the mercy of salvation, is universal in its scope. We will never understand all that Jesus’s time on earth meant until we see it completed on the Day of Resurrection. We are people living in the middle of God’s story, at the end of it the mysteries we have been told and the questions left unanswered will suddenly find an answer in God’s salvation of creation itself. Yet, one of the key aspects we can understand about what God did in sending Christ to us is that we, non-Judeans two thousand years later, were able to be included in the same family which began in Ur of Chaldea with Abraham’s call to enter Canaan. We were allowed to know the God of Israel fully, through the work of Christ which removed all barriers to us.
Unfortunately, we often teach that one such barrier was God’s instructions – the Torah. We read Romans and the Gospels selectively enough to think that Torah, often translated as “Law,” is somehow a dirty word among God’s people. We cannot talk about the “Law,” without visions of legalism. We see the commands of scripture in harsh, consequentialist terms, “You will do this, or you will suffer that!” We project our anxiety about obligation onto the Hebrew Scriptures and say that, “Before Jesus, everyone was trying to work their way into Heaven, after Jesus we were enlightened and knew that only God could save us.” We created a false sense that in the Old Testament, God was a God of Works, but now we know God differently, as a God of Grace.
The truth is that God has always been a God of Grace and that God remains today a God of Torah. I mentioned earlier that the translation of “Torah,” as “Law,” is simply that, a translation. I usually do my best to translate Torah directly from Hebrew. Anytime we read a passage from the Hebrew Bible and see “Law,” we must understand that the word used actually means “Teaching.” When the Hebrew was turned to Greek, the translators chose to use the word “Law,” in place of “Teaching,” shaping how we read both Hebrew and Greek even into the modern era. While people like Paul understood both realities, speaking Greek but knowing Hebrew, we often see God’s teachings in the same way we do tax law – they are hard and fast strictures that are boxes meant to be checked.
In some ways, that is a natural response to how the New Testament discusses Torah. Jesus was often in conflict with holier-than-thou members of the religious establishment. Whether they were Sadducees or Pharisees, writers or lawyers, he constantly butted heads with people who were more concerned with being technically correct than actually good. Yet, Jesus was also perfectly clear that his business was about fulfilling the Law and not throwing it out. Paul, in his sprawling reflection on salvation in Romans, sought to equalize his Jewish fellows and Gentile believers – both of whom had begun to fight over who was “really,” the Christians in the room. Paul spoke describes the Torah in this argument, as a “Law of Death,” which has led us as Christians to often think of it as something we have moved beyond. However, Paul also explains that God gave us a good gift in the Torah, we are the ones that made it into a tool to judge others rather than transform ourselves. We made it a Law of Death, not God.
One of the key problems with how we try to talk about God’s teachings is that checklist mentality we talked about a moment ago. Similar to how we sometimes see God as a vending machine where certain inputs get us certain benefits, we see any list of rules as something we must do and then be satisfied we did it. This is formally called “obligationism,” the idea that we do good things because we are asked to them. In obligationist thinking, life is all about actions in themselves and not what is behind them. Jesus fought with obligationists who could list every way they kept the letter of God’s law, but never cared to talk about the Spirit of it. When you only think of the world in terms of obligation, you do not think of doing “good,” you think of doing what you have been asked.
Let me put it more relevant terms. If I believe obligation is what makes me a good person, then every day I will wake up and make a list of things to do. I must go to the office. I must type up worship materials for Sunday. I must call three people. I must go home. I must greet my wife when she gets back from her Church. I must clean the house. I must make dinner. I must say a prayer or two. I must sleep at least five hours. None of the things I listed there were bad things to do. Some of them contribute to good in the world. Yet, let me go to just one part of that list. If I give you a call, as your pastor, and you were to ask me why I called, would you at all be happy with the answer, “As a United Methodist Minister, visitation and pastoral care is part of my job description, and I am meeting that requirement in calling you.” Is there anything more soulless than that?
No, God does not give us instructions so that we can become better at checking boxes. God gives us teachings so that we can become better people. As we practice good things we become good people. Always we live in the flesh, limited and prone to doing wrong, but if we really believe God has spoken to us through the Word and the Spirit, we have to do more than just what is asked of us – we have to actually change how we think and how we are. Rather than focusing on life as a series of obligations we have to meet, we should see it as a series of situations we must respond to. It is not enough to do something because we have been told to do it, we must grow to want to do good regardless of whether or not that good is asked of us specifically.
Let us think of our relationship with obligations through another lens. I gave you a simple checklist vision of my job, but let us understand going beyond obligation through the prism of marriage. Hopefully those of us here who are married are willing to say they love their spouse. If they are here with you today, I encourage you let them know that. I’ll even take a moment to let you. Marriage has certain obligations to it – we are obligated to care for one another, to be faithful to one another, to live a life in concert with one another. However, that last one makes it so no list is sufficient to explain all we have to do for a spouse. I can empty the dishwasher all I want, that does not mean I’m growing closer to my wife. She can refocus my thinking when I’m in a depressive episode, but if she is only trying to meet an expectation it probably will not help.
The truth of God’s teachings, wherever they present themselves, is that they are meant to be internalized. We understand rules first as obligations. We do not hit our siblings or our friends so that we are not punished by our parents. We do good because it makes people in our lives happy. Our obligations are tied to consequences. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, we will find more situations that do not have fixed answers than situations that do. I know I am to feed the hungry, but what does that actually look like beyond handing someone a sandwich? I know I’m to love my neighbor, but what does mean when it gets to be November of next year and I have to cast a ballot for one politician or another?
Scripture gives plenty of commandments. We know ten that are easily brought to mind, but we often number the full scope of teachings in the Torah to 614. 365 things that God called Israel to do and 249 they were not to do. Just building off of the Ten Commandments I hope we can see that they are good to keep. We should love God above all else and we should honor our parents and we should definitely not kill anyone or steal anything. However, if I only learn not to kill, I am not any better a person than I was before – unless I was especially violent. The knowledge that I should not kill, or that I should honor my parents, means nothing if I do not grow from the practice of seeking peace and of showing honor.
God did not give Israel a list of things to do win their way into Heaven. If nothing else, there was no belief in an afterlife in Israel until the time of the prophets, so they weren’t working for anything beyond this life we are living now. God gave Israel rules to live by with the hope that they could become more like God, more loving, more holy, more willing and able to bring justice to an unjust world. God is a God of grace, God saved Israel because God loved Israel and not for anything they did. God extended that grace to the world through the work of Christ, and that grace likewise can lead us to become good in the same way the Torah was meant to make us good.
The Spirit works within us and the Word of God we read shows us the fullness of God’s teachings. In the myriad laws of the Torah, we should not see a checklist to fulfill and be done, but a set of standards that reveal something about God and ourselves. My house does not have a roof I can stand on, so the Torah’s teaching about parapets meant to keep people from falling off of them is not relevant to my life. However, that teaching lets me know that life is sacred, and that not taking necessary precaution to save lives is the same as taking a life. An especially important lesson in the world we live in today where even this piece of cloth can be a life or death measure.
The command that our scripture for today has is one of the key teachings of the Torah. God’s word is asked to be written all over the lives of God’s people. “Put it on your doorposts! Put it on your arms and your heads. Tell it to your children! Do not let it leave you for a second. Most importantly, etch it into your heart, where nothing can ever take it from you.” The word of God, once it is within us, digs deep roots and offers us real fruit – to grow into the kind of people God would have us be. The prayer God gives us, “Hear of Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your being, and all your might.” Reminds us of what transformation looks like. When we write God’s word on our heart, it transforms us into people who seek to do genuine good. When we seek to do genuine good, every part of us is shaped to reflect that new disposition. When we are transformed our actions likewise become good.
We must all study scripture, Hebrew and Greek, Old and New Testament. We must all seek to keep God’s word, not quibbling over which teachings are more or less important, but seeing the virtues behind the commands rather than the virtue of the command themselves. We must all allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit, so that even when we fail we can attest to the fact that we are pursuing perfection in our will, attempting to reflect the goodness of God. We do not do this to be saved, God has saved us already without us contributing anything but our own sinfulness. Now though, God invites us to become Good for the sake of all people, including ourselves.
Write the word of God on your hearts today. Let God’s teachings bring life where once there was only bitterness and decay. Go forward and learn what it means to love, not by just doing enough, but by actively seeking to go above and beyond. – Amen
 This sentiment is often attributed to Jonathan Edwards. While a similar sentiment can be found in his Sermon 153 on Romans 4:16, I could find no actual evidence that Edwards said these words. It seems likely this quote is a general truism rather than an authentic quotation.