In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses exhorts the Israelites to obey the Law which YHWH has just given them. In our weekly Lenten study with Walter Bruggemann on the prophets, Walter begins with a discussion of the Israelites’ deliverance from the fleshpots and cruel servitude in Pharaoh’s production economy—you will make more and more bricks and, if you balk, you will make them without straw!
Bruggemann makes an important point. The commandments from the Sinai Covenant offer the Isrealites a much better way of life than the “commandments” of Pharaoh. In additional reading from Ched Myers, I learned that the Israelites were counter-cultural. Unlike their neighbors they were not a powerful king-led people (They later became such a people and with disastrous consequences.). Rather, they lived their faith in small communities on the high places—modern West Bank I believe. The commandments set the guidelines for living together in community where circumcision, the Sabbath, and kosher food also set them apart. Moses is telling them,”If you are to live the covenant in community with one another, you must listen ((obedire = to listen) to YHWH.”
Moses also reminds them to remember YHWH’s great act of deliverance from slavery to pharaoh’s production economy and to teach their children about YHWH’s mighty deeds:
However, take care and be earnestly on your guard
not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen,
nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children. (Dt. 4:9)
Bruggemann would tell us that part of what they have seen was an alternative vision. Hearing the word of God involves more than the literal text on the page. The myths in the Bible are not about untrue things. Myth enlivens the human spirit and takes us on a journey into deeper meaning. YHWH is not about production economies and consumerism which leads to death of the human spirit. The Sabbath—a significant part of YHWHs Law, was a direct challenge to production/consumer societies and they were to remind their children of this fact.
Jesus taught his disciples that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. Jewish scripture scholars will show us that so much of what Jesus taught was in the Law and the Prophets. It does seem that Jesus took the Law and the Prophets to a new level of expectation for his followers.
In our Post-Modern era, God is dead = we have crucified the “god” of theism on the cross. The God of theism living high in the sky and sometimes coming down and changing the laws of nature had to die so that like Jesus we become divine—more than we are, better than we are. As Merton, quoting Psalm 81, says below, “I said: You are gods, all of you sons of the Most High.” Commandments which are not popular in Post-Modern society and culture are the way up and way out; they signal the path to life lived fully. There are also consequences built into the very nature of things that come about when we are less than we are capable of being.
The Torah challenges us to choose life or death. This reminds me of Pascal’s Wager. I can or cannot choose life—God. Nietzsche declared the death of the “Christian” God. Existentialists then charted two courses. Faced with the utter randomness and absurdity of life, Sartre, for example, chose atheism whereas Tillich chose God—not the God created by humans but rather the God of Tillich’s lived experience of the Ultimate Concern.
We too have choices—God or no god, life or death. If we are to live authentic Christian lives, then we must live according to the Law and the Prophets and the mandates of Jesus—love one another, forgive your enemies, feed the hungry, practice non-violence, pray for those who put you down and persecute you.
Thomas Merton, very much an existentialist, chose life in God in the solitude of a monastery. He soon came to realize that he had to speak out from his monastic cell and later his hermitage. Merton still has appeal because he let us look at his lived experience of God and showed us how to experience our God.
Listen to Merton:
There is a special anguish in the concrete concept of man that we find in the Bible, where man is never regarded as the embodiment of a pure, abstract human essence. When man is seen as an abstraction, his difficulties are easier to solve, his tragic dilemma can be spirited away, his anguish can be made to disappear. For if man is nothing but a rational animal, all he has to do is live reasonably and keep his animality under the control of his reason. He will thus be able to arrive at a certain natural tranquility. He will be able to “find himself” at least in his natural dignity as a human being. He may perhaps even arrive at a knowledge of his remote Creator, knowing God as the cause of the effects that surround us on all sides. He may perhaps even “experience” God as the Absolute justification for the ontological sense of being which sometimes springs up from the depths of our own soul. But, that, alas, is not enough. The inner recesses of our conscience, where the image of God is branded in the very depths of our being, ceaselessly remind us that we are born for a far higher freedom and for a far more spiritual fulfillment. Although there is no “natural” bridge between the natural and the supernatural, the concrete situation in which man finds himself, as a nature created for a supernatural end, makes anguish inevitable. He cannot rest until he rests in God; not merely the God of nature, but the Living God, not the God that can be objectified in a few abstract notions, but the God Who is above all concept. Not the God of a mere notional or moral union, but the God Who becomes One Spirit with our own soul! This alone is the reality for which we are made. Here alone do we finally “find ourselves”—not in our natural selves but out of ourselves in God. For our destiny is to be infinitely greater than our own poor selves: “I said: You are gods, all of you sons of the Most High.” [Psalm 81:6]
Thomas Merton The New Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. 1961): 112-114. (http://monksworks.com/?p=397)
Merton encourages us to experience “the God who becomes One Spirit with our own soul.” The Living God dwelling deep within calls us to be more than what we are. Pondering the Law and the Prophets and the teaching of Jesus in our solitude we come to know our true self and the true self—God dwelling within—will not be silenced. When we understand that the Gospel counters our cultural myths of production and ever-increasing growth, we will be compelled to challenge the production economy which commodifies life and kills the spirit of the true self coming into union with the Living God. Merton spoke out about the deadening impact of technology on the human spirit seeking union with God. Merton understood that war, nuclear weapons, and racism were evils—choosing death instead of life.