I have found a great appreciation for the book of Deuteronomy this week. This is a very ancient law book, now nearly three millennia old. Some of these laws feel strange and dated, such as practices for animal sacrifices, that they like lambs should not have blemishes. Don’t use mixed fibers and shellfish are an abomination. Others laws are remarkably relevant. Don’t eat dead animals you find on the ground. Appoint judges in every city who are impartial and who don’t take bribes. Hired workers should be paid fairly. Debts should be forgiven after seven years. Parts of the crop should be set aside for poor people. Here is a good one from Deut. 17:16 in case the people want a king:” He must not acquire many horses for himself, 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also, silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.” If we keep reading perhaps there is a verse about providing tax returns, but I haven’t read that far yet.
I spent an hour thumbing through Deuteronomy, and it was time well spent. This should not be surprising, but it was. I have absorbed a negative bias about laws and lawyers. Legal-eeze is inscrutable, to many laws and regulations bog things down, lawyers are often described as money hungry advocates for the rich. I was raised to “Question Authority.” And to beware of legalism. Religious legalism is especially pernicious, and often just a cover for nationalism, racism, sexism and other forms of in-group bias and prejudice. Laws have bias, from Deuteronomy, to the Constitution to current law enforcement practices like racial profiling.
And yet the past week was a reminder to us about why we endeavor to be a nation of laws. 250,000 listened to the live stream of the Federal Appeals Court panel questioning the Presidential Order to ban travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations. We listened through the arcane discourse, for some hint of hope that we are nation of laws, rather than a country guided by 140-character Twitter fights. Lawyers are suddenly heroes as they charged to the airports to help foreign travelers, and the ACLU received $24 million in one weekend. Deuteronomy has swag again. The only thing worse than being a nation of laws is not being a nation of laws.
We are part of an ancient religious tradition emphasizes covenant. Covenants need some agreed upon rules. Ancient law did not get everything right, women were not give equal standing, unforeseen technology presents new challenges, but the truth has not changed-we still need a foundation of fairness, concern for the weak and unfortunate, and justice we can count on.
Today’s reading is a sermon by Moses, near the end of the book urging people to take these laws to heart:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God[a] that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, blessed. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear … 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish.
This is great preaching. I made a similar speech right before teaching my son to drive. I held up the keys and said, “These are the keys that will become your freedom. Listen to what I teach you and you will live. But if you fail to take heed, this car is a death machine. It is the most dangerous thing you will do your entire life and the thing most likely to cut it short, so you shalt use your turn signal and drive more than 5 MPH over the speed limit, and never listen to the radio while driving until you are over 30 years old.”
Learning to drive is like what Moses and Jesus were trying to teach. If you ignore the rules of the road, there is no longer any covenant and everyone suffers. What happens when no one uses turn signals, tries to text on their phone, and drives over the speed limit? (You get Rhode Island.) You get chaos, and driving becomes dangerous, and everyone is shouting at each other and getting more aggressive. The covenant is gone, and road rage takes its place.
It is human nature that we start to slide on this covenant. Let’s be honest. Do you always use your turn signal? How fast do you drive on the Mass Pike? I won’t even ask about reading text messages on your cell phone. I will not look at people at a stop light any more. I don’t want to know what they are doing in their car. (That’s why I just read my phone till the light changes.) Moses is the guy that keeps reminding us, don’t forget why you have a covenant. Follow the rules of the road and you will be safe and everyone will eventually find a parking spot. Likewise, respect free speech, free religion, privacy, treat everyone equally under the law, and guarantee protection for the weak and the stranger.
Jesus knew the challenges of teaching driver’s education. Jesus knew that even if you memorize the driver’s manual, and know all the laws and regulations, it does not make you a good driver. Rules of the road can’t give you skill, it can’t teach you judgement, it can’t prepare you for dealing with several things happening quickly, so you react in the right way. What does it take to be a good driver? You need practice, you need to mindful of what you are doing and pay attention, sometimes you must protect yourself out there. You need to have some sense of the value of the other people on the road and what they might do or think. Driving demands a certain amount of caring, empathy and forgiveness. Jesus knows the law will not make you a good driver by itself, nor will Biblical law by itself make you a good Christian.
It’s not enough to say, I didn’t kill anyone. Jesus says when you start to harbor anger, exchange harsh words, and curse your sibling, your guilty. You are developing the very attitudes that lead to violence. Most violence starts with small actions and decisions. No one just wakes up and decides one day to kill someone. Every good detective knows a murder starts with a motive. Most of us never venture into that much evil and violence, but Jesus challenges us to not even start down the path of allowing our relationships to get out of hand.
You make think Jesus gets a little harsh in Matt. 5:22 when he says you may be guilty of Hellfire. Our modern translations miss something important. Jesus says, you might end up in Gahanna, which was a real place just outside of Jerusalem. There are several references to Gahanna in the book of Jeremiah, who says that it was where child sacrifice was practiced in ancient days. Therefore, it was a cursed place. In Jesus day, it was where the trash was dumped and burned, and was probably about as foul a place as people could imagine. I don’t think Jesus was warning us that our sins were going to land us in eternal damnation. Rather when we forget our covenant to one another, and don’t seek to love, we start to trash our relationships and our community. Don’t litter, because it adds up to a big dump. Likewise, take care of the small mishaps, indignities and injustices before they become a deep and painful wound, or rupture our relationship. When Jesus said, don’t create Gahanna by your actions, we should hear, don’t create Love Canal, or Flint, Michigan, or Nagasaki, or Auswitz, and for the love of God, don’t melt the ice caps while you are at it.
Take care to nurture the bonds of covenant, because things can fall apart. That is Gahanna. There is a tipping point where evil and injustice take over and it will create much suffering before things are made right again.
Here is my takeaway analogy from wrestling with these two texts. Good drivers respect the rules of the road, but they don’t fall in love with the driver’s manual. People become good drivers because they love the journey, they love to travel, to see the sights and take in the world. And they love it so much that they share the road because they want everyone to enjoy it. Good Christians should not get too far from the manual, but the point is to love this journey of life, to do the work of building community and living in right relationship.