“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Our mothers warned us about the power of words. They cautioned us to use words that are positive and helpful and healing.
“Don’t judge another person until you have walked a mile in her shoes.” Our mothers warned us about using our own limited experience to criticize the experience and actions of another.
“You are what you eat. A penny saved is a penny earned” – our mothers warned us and tried to teach us to live our lives in a good balance.
And then we grew up – and lo and behold we find our mamas’ words coming out of our own mouths.
But even as we hand on some of this age-old advice to the next generation, we can still hear our mothers’ voices in our heads reminding us to “practice what we preach.”
As we complete our reading of Deuteronomy, we hear some similar efforts of advice giving: Moses passing on wisdom to the next generation.
Deuteronomy’s stage is set with the people standing on the edge of their Promised Land.
Here Moses is pictured as the patriarch saying farewell to his children, reminding them who they are and reiterating the core truths that bind them together.
The generation of slaves that left Egypt was buried in the wilderness and now a generation of nomads is poised to enter into the promise, to accept the challenges of growing into the life God has called them to.
Listen to the common sense warnings in some of these words. “Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother or who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker or who misleads a blind person on the road or who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27:16-19).
Moses’ warnings from Deuteronomy caution against doing anything that damages covenant – the covenant God made with Israel and also the covenant of relationship that connects them together as a people.
In the biblical way of thinking, a curse is pronounced as a lament or as a judgment.
In Deuteronomy, what we have is a typical form for international treaties in the ancient Near East. At the end of these treaty agreements, there was often a list of sanctions, a catalog of repercussions if one side or the other was guilty of breaking the treaty. In Deuteronomy, God is portrayed as stating – in no uncertain terms – the dangers of ignoring the divine covenant, of breaking the “treaty.”
The sanctions, the catalog of consequences can sound severe.
But it’s not so much God dishing out a list of arbitrary rules and expecting people to obey unquestioningly “just because I said so.” It’s more like the mother wisdom that says: “actions have consequences. If you lie down with dogs, you’ll rise up with fleas.” If you act like this, things will go badly. If you act like that, things will go well.
This “you-get-what-you-give” philosophy of Deuteronomy is woven in strands throughout all of Scripture. It is as if God is declaring the natural consequences that will inevitably follow.
Of course, we could argue with Deuteronomy’s simplistic notion that “what goes around comes around.” And we would be in good company since the Bible argues with itself in this ongoing discussion.
Remember how Job quarreled with too neat an explanation of good and evil. His friends had held to the conventional deuteronomistic philosophy that – if Job was suffering, then he must have done something wrong. “NO!” Job insisted.
And the Psalmists; they took serious issue with the notion that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Just look around at the real world, they say; look at the wickedness the rich and the powerful get away with. And our mothers agreed; we can still hear them warn us that “life is not always fair.”
I imagine Jesus knew both truths. He knew well the mystery of God’s workings in the world and God’s hidden purposes. But he also knew us humans and how we – oh so often – “have to lie in the beds we have made for ourselves.”
We can hear some of Jesus’ own warnings in Luke: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.” Or in the way The Message paraphrases Jesus’ wisdom: “If you live wide-eyed in wonder and belief, your whole life fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your life is a dank cellar.”
Like Moses, Luke’s Jesus pronounces “woes,” warnings: “Woe to you [when] you tithe herbs of all kinds, but you neglect justice and the love of God.”
“Don’t major on the minors!”
Jesus’ mother taught him well!
“Woe when you clean the outside of the cup, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” Jesus spoke words like this in one time and place; Luke wrote these words for his church in another time and place; God continues to speak in these holy Scriptures. So all these centuries later, our mothers might warn us: “If the shoe fits, wear it.”
I know the curses and the woes we read in the Bible sound harsh. They are harsh sometimes; they don’t mince words.
But when we think of them as warnings, we see how they startle us and get our attention. They wake us up and (hopefully) keep us from sleepwalking and stumbling through our lives.
When we think we know but we really are very mistaken, then someone needs to warn us. When we think we are enlightened but the light within us is really darkness, someone needs to point that out. We need to realize that there is a very good chance that our own negative behavior will “come back to bite us” one of these days.
Remember Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on this: she envisions God as a kind of divine jiu-jitsu master. God doesn’t create all this bad stuff, she says; we are the ones who generate the negative energy. God simply spins it back around so that we can experience its effect.
The curses and woes warn us that actions have consequences – in our relationships with other people, in our relationship with God, and within our own character.
But then there is this whole other thing: the blessing. In the biblical way of thinking, a blessing is pronounced in order to make something good come into being.
God’s blessings are not good wishes; they are more like announcements.
Biblical blessings are performative language: words of blessing have the power to speak something into existence.
We have experience with this performative language.
- Whenever we say the words: “I’m sorry,” something happens; we change something negative into something positive.
- Whenever we say the words: “I forgive you,” we alter reality and cause a new aspect of a relationship to come into being.
- Whenever we speak words of affirmation: “I’m grateful for you; I appreciate your thoughtfulness” – a new confidence and hope may come to life in the deep, quiet places of another.
- Whenever we speak words of encouragement: “you can do it; hang in there; you’re not alone” – something shifts, both in the one who receives encouragement and in the one who gives it.
Something real really happens.
Life is full of all kinds of hard things, but the power of blessing is always stronger than any hard thing. Pronouncing, enacting, enabling blessing to come into the life of another can help counteract the effects of the curse of hurt and hopelessness.
Earlier we read Deuteronomy’s charge to “love God with heart and soul and strength.” We heard Luke’s reminder that “loving our neighbor as ourself” is not just a feeling but a pro-active verb.
Both Deuteronomy and Luke demonstrate what happens whenever we sin against love. Both Deuteronomy and Luke remind us what can happen whenever we actually practice active loving. Both Deuteronomy and Luke teach us that love is more powerful than hate.
What matters is the power and beauty of actual, practical, practiced love that flows from our character while at the same time, it is shaping our character.
What matters is the power and the beauty of the love that flows forever from the heart of God.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you is not too hard for you, (Deuteronomy charges). It is not in heaven…neither is it beyond the sea…
No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth, it is in your heart… If you obey the commandments … that I am commanding you, loving the LORD your God and walking in his ways … then you shall live.
I call heaven and earth to witness today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you … (and others) … may live.”
Living in The Story readings for Week 19
Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000) 50.
Charlotte originally preached this sermon on Mothers’ Day, 2013.