We’ve spent the last month or so looking at letters in the New Testament, so today we’re going to do something a bit different: we’re going to look at part of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy is one of those Old Testament books that most people tend to avoid. It’s not quite the page-turner that Genesis is, and it doesn’t have the same dramatic tension as Exodus – but what it does have is the aftermath, the new beginnings of the people of Israel as they wandered in the desert and tried to figure out who this God was and what this God asked of them.
Moses is still the central figure, and the whole book of Deuteronomy is written in his voice, as though he’s speaking to the gathered people of Israel. Over the last few chapters, they have come to the edge of the promised land and Moses has reminded them in no uncertain terms of all they’ve learned and experienced in the wilderness—including the Ten Commandments, which Moses reiterates for them in the chapter just before this.
So as we listen this morning, I want us to listen for the answer to this question: what is God asking of Israel, and why?
Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:1-9
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.
The first part of this passage introduces the second half: the speaker reminds their listeners that what’s coming next are not merely rules for the sake of rules – that they have a purpose. These words, which Jewish people and Christians around the world still recite today, are meant to be a grounding point. They are offered so that we, and our children and grandchildren, might follow the Lord all of our days. So that we would be reminded of what it is God asks of us: to love with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole lives. This introduction, which links together hearing and doing, indicates for us that this is not the part that should go in one ear and out the other.
The Apostle James says it this way in his New Testament letter: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”
Alternately, you could also go with the lyrics to the song I learned at church camp as a child: “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing; it’s about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.”
The covenant that God is making with the people of Israel in Deuteronomy has this at its core: that the proper way to respond to God’s liberation from slavery and the gift of grace and hope and a future, is to follow these commandments. That’s where the last two ‘so thats’ come from in our passage – follow these commandments so that you may have long lives in the land, that it may go well for you, that you may experience abundance.
As modern Christians, we tend to think of the Old Testament law as this overwhelming, nit-picky, impossible thing. But we have to remember that it began as a way to respond to God’s love and care – that’s why the Ten Commandments begin with ‘I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt – therefore, you shall have no other gods before me…’
It’s all grace.
The second part of our passage, verses 4-9, make up what’s known today as the Shema – it’s a Hebrew prayer that’s recited at least twice daily, at the beginning and end of the day. Shema is the Hebrew word that means ‘listen, hear, and obey.’ It’s all the same word.
There’s a difference between listening to your favorite song and listening to your mother, right? ‘Shema’ carries the same weight as that second one. It’s the difference between ‘listen!’ and ‘LISTEN.’
Listen, the speaker says, and remember: the Lord is your God – the Lord alone.
And then comes the response: therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
In some ways, this will be a dangerous conversation in every time and every place and every generation—because if the Lord is our God, then the king is not.
If the Lord is our God, then Caesar is not.
If the Lord is our God, and the Lord alone, then no president, no boss, no political party, no amount of money, no other person or thing or preference can be God, too.
When God says all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your might, that’s not hyperbole. That’s discipleship.
But God knows that we’ll need help along the way—and this is where God gets creative.
Rather than asking us to stay at home all day and study the Bible and never do anything else with our time or love or energy, God tells us to take these words with us.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today on your heart. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
There’s a quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that goes something like this: “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Here’s a fun fact about the Hebrew language: in Hebrew, teaching and learning have the same root word—but teaching is just the intensive form of learning.
So often, we don’t talk about our faith because we feel like we don’t know enough. We don’t open our Bibles because we’re not sure what to do with this ancient collection of speeches and stories and letters and poems. We’re not sure how it all fits together, and we’re not sure how to apply it to our own lives.
Like the Israelites, we’re all still learning who God is and what God asks of us.
And this passage tells us how it happens: by holding on to the words and images in Scripture that stick out to us, by talking about them with each other, in the K-room and in the car and around the dinner table. It happens when we read Bible stories to our children and answer their 40 million questions, and it happens when we go read those stories again as adults and realize the story books left some things out, and ask another 40 million questions.
I think I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again.
When I was in seminary, the men outnumbered the women by about 2-1. And when we got to Systematic Theology class, on our very first day, the professor specifically addressed the women in the room. He’d been teaching theology classes for a decade or two, at least, and he’d noticed a pattern. Women not only spoke less than the men, but they tended to assume their questions were irrelevant and distracting, rather than contributing to the class discussion.
So he told us—the women specifically, but also the rest of the class—that as long as we were in his class, we were not allowed to begin a question with an apology. Our questions were valid, and our contributions were not only relevant, but necessary.
And that really transformed how I studied, how I thought about myself as a student, and how I encountered the Bible. I had always been taught that the Bible was to be obeyed, not questioned—no one told me that you could do both at the same time.
So today, I want to offer you the same freedom: never apologize for your questions, your confusions, your wonderings. This is how we learn and grow in faith, and in love.
One more thing: why on earth does the speaker tell us to tie things to our foreheads and arms, and write on our doorposts?
Because each of these points are gateways: the eyes lead to the heart and soul, the hands to our doing and working, the doorposts are the entry and exit points for our lives, and our gates represent our households.
God knows we’re forgetful people. We’re running here there and everywhere every day. We are visual, tangible creatures. These are reminders, at every touchpoint, to help us filter everything we see and do through this commandment to love the Lord our God—and as is added later, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Write it on your hand, if you need to. Frame it and put it near the door. Tape it to the center of your steering wheel. Make it the background on your phone or computer. Talk it through. Ask your loved ones “what does it mean to love God at home, at play, and at work?” Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” and don’t let go of your questions too easily.
And today, I want to leave you with this Franciscan Blessing:
May God bless you with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths,
and superficial relationships
so that you may live
deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for
justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer pain,
rejection, hunger and war,
so that you may reach out your hand
to comfort them and
to turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
with enough foolishness
to believe that you can
make a difference in the world,
so that you can do
what others claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness
to all our children and the poor.