The Dangers of Doing the “What” Without Remembering the “Why”

FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Prayer of the Day: O God our strength, without you we are weak and wayward creatures. Protect us from all dangers that attack us from the outside, and cleanse us from all evil that arises from within ourselves, that we may be preserved through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children—” Deuteronomy 4:9

Forgetfulness is the mortal enemy of covenant loyalty. It also leads us into a warped and toxic way of interpreting the scriptures. In these final words of Moses to Israel, memorialized in the book of Deuteronomy, the call to remember is a constant refrain:

“When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.’” Deuteronomy 6:20-25 See also, Deuteronomy 8:11; Deuteronomy 11:2; Deuteronomy 31:9-13.

Israel was admonished not merely to remember “what” God had commanded but also “why.” God did not liberate Israel from slavery in Egypt only for her to become a mirror image of that oppressive empire. Israel was to be a different kind of community, a “light to the nations.” The law is to be diligently observed, says Moses, “for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” The whole reason for God’s election of Israel was to show the world a new way of being human. Obedience to the covenant laws and statutes was a means to that end, not an end in itself. For this reason, Israel was warned never to forget her story of how God’s compassion and zeal for justice brought her into being as God’s instrument of blessing for all creation.

To forget our stories is to forget who we are and why we do the things we do. In Pierre Boulle’s book, Bridge over the River Kwai, a group of British soldiers under the command of Lt. Colonel Nicholson are captured by the Japanese during World War II and ordered to work on building a bridge across the River Kwai. In order to keep up the morale of his men under cruel and inhumane conditions of captivity, Nicholson orders them to take special care with their work. He directs them to build the best bridge possible to show the Japanese just how skilled and competent the British are and what the Japanese are up against. The bridge was to be a symbol of British power-an act of defiant resistance giving the captive soldiers a sense of purpose and dignity. But before long, Colonel Nicholson becomes enamored with his bridge, proud of the project-so much so that it consumes him. In the end, when British commandos show up to destroy the bridge, Nicholson fights with his Japanese captors to protect his bridge.

Colonel Nicholson forgot who he was. He forgot who his enemy was. He forgot why he was building his bridge. So, too, Moses knew that his people would be tempted to forget who they were, how they were called from slavery into freedom and the reason for which they were given the commandments and statutes of God. He therefore admonishes them (and us) “neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.”  Deuteronomy 4:9

When the law is observed with no recollection of why it was given, it becomes an instrument of bondage rather than a vessel of liberation. In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents seem to have lost touch with who they are called to be and why they are following the law. They practiced well enough the “what” of the law, but quite forgot its “why.” For them, the law had become an instrument of judgment, exclusion and condemnation. The rules were ends in themselves and it mattered not whether one knew or understood why they were given or what they were intended to accomplish. Suffice to say, Moses surely never imagined that the statutes he delivered to Israel in order to protect their newfound freedom from bondage would one day be used by a religious elite to condemn, enslave and shame hungry people. Clearly, that was not God’s intent for God’s people or God’s law. Nor, do I believe, is it God’s intent that the Scriptures be used by Christians to shame, condemn and reject people because of who they love, or what their legal status under the laws of any nation state happens to be or the nation, race or culture of their origin. The commandments, we dare not forget, were given by the God who liberates God’s children from slavery. If the scriptures are not lived, taught and proclaimed in a way that moves us from bondage into freedom, they are being misinterpreted.

Our lessons for this Sunday call us to remember who we are: Children of a God who, at the cost of his only beloved Son, liberates slaves, lifts up the lowly and embraces the outcast. That is the narrative that must control how we understand, interpret and apply every verse we find in the Bible.

Here is a poem/hymn about biblical remembering by James Weldon Johnson.

Lift Every Voice and Sing   

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Source: Johnson, James Weldon, Complete Poems (c. 2000 by Penguin Publishing Group). James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a lawyer, teacher and civil rights leader in the early part of the twentieth century. As head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, Johnson led civil rights campaigns aimed at eliminating legal, political, and social obstacles to black advancement. In addition to these achievements, he was also a gifted author and poet. The above poem, ultimately set to music, constitutes a tribute to black endurance, hope, and religious faith that was later adopted by the NAACP and dubbed “the Negro National Anthem.” It is found in many Christian hymnals today, including Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). See ELW # 841. Concerning this hymn, Johnson had this to say: “A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

“The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.” You can read more about James Weldon Johnson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

  

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