Sunday, September 3, 2023

Sermon: "Shoot for the Moon", Deuteronomy 15:1-11 (September 3, 2023)

About a month ago, NPR’s Scott Detrow interviewed Russell Moore on the radio show “All Things Considered”. Russell Moore serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine Christianity Today, is the author of a new book about Evangelicalism in America, and USED to be a high-ranking official in the Southern Baptist Convention. I say “used to be” because he resigned from his position and left the denomination in 2021. He was gravely concerned about how the Southern Baptist Convention had handled allegations of sexual abuse as well as what he perceived as its tolerance for white nationalism within the church.[1] In his interview with NPR, he shared his thoughts about the crisis that Christianity is facing in America today.

While the interview as a whole was more or less publicity for his new book, one of Moore’s quotes has gained traction as a newsworthy item in and of itself. In his own words, quote: “Multiple pastors tell me essentially the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount parenthetically in their preaching (‘turn the other cheek’) [and having] someone come up after and to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ And…when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ’…the response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak,’”[2] unquote.

In addition to being shared virally on social media, this quote has also been picked up by news outlets like Newsweek, Religion News Service, Business Insider, and the New York Post, because let’s face it: it’s fascinating to read about “Christians” who flatly reject the actual teachings of Christ.

I mean, these people aren’t wrong about the nature of Jesus’ teachings. They do sound pretty “Social-Justice-y,” don’t they? For example, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is especially jarring to us. You remember the story from Matthew’s gospel: a landowner hires workers throughout the day, starting early in the morning and ending just an hour before the end of the workday. When he goes to pay the workers their wages, those who were hired at the end of the day are given exactly the same amount that the landowner had promised to those hired first thing in the morning. When those who worked the longest complain, the landowner replies, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair. We agreed on [this wage,] didn’t we? So take it and go. I decided to give to the one who came last the same as you. Can’t I do what I want with my own money? Are you going to get stingy because I’m generous?”[3] I mean, what the heck? Surely, Jesus isn’t a Socialist![4] Since when does the Bible advocate for free handouts?

Well…since the beginning, as it turns out. This isn’t an idea that Jesus comes up with off the top of his head. In this parable, Jesus is actually reiterating a religious principle of generosity that dates all the way back to the Torah. The rarely-preached-on Law in today’s reading would make many so-called “Christians’” toes curl, yet there is NO ambiguity here – Moses makes it clear that Deuteronomy 15 is LAW given by God directly to the people, and one that they need to follow if they want to flourish. Every seven years, all debts within the community are to be completely forgiven, end of story.

Well, shoot. Never mind Jesus being weak; this commandment would completely destroy our economy, wouldn’t it? This is about much more than student loan forgiveness: 34% of small business owners took out a loan in 2021,[5] 78% of recent homebuyers financed their purchase in one way or another,[6] and 84% of Americans have at least one credit card.[7] While some debts can be paid off within the seven years required by the commandment, a lot of people take much longer, and some debts (like mortgages) have default terms of anywhere from 10 to 30 years – sometimes even more. Our nation relies on systems of long-term debt to function, and we rely on these systems of debt to live the lives that we want. So were the people in Moore’s anecdote right after all? Is the Bible outdated and irrelevant to today’s society?

Well…not quite. First of all, God isn’t saying that systems involving debt are innately immoral. At the end of Deuteronomy, Israel was on the brink of transformation from a nomadic people into a significant political power, and they’d NEED systems of debt to help them grow more quickly, especially when it came to international commerce. Instead, what this law objects to is keeping others, especially those within the community, indebted indefinitely. Debt creates a power imbalance, and YHWH did not rescue the Hebrews from slavery just for them to impose permanent economic subjugation upon one another. This Law isn’t meant to eliminate debt entirely, but to prevent the new nation of Israel from becoming the very thing they’d been delivered from so many years ago.

But perhaps even more interesting to this law’s modern relevance is the fact that scholars don’t believe that this particular law was ever actually systematically implemented. Various resources describe it as “unworkable”, “unrealistic”, and “infeasible,” even for a small kingdom like ancient Israel. The Law itself recognizes its own impracticality in light of human nature, futilely instructing the people to, “Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as… ‘The year of debt cancelation [is coming],’ so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything.” We all know that if this Law were to be enforced, the economy would grind to a halt as lenders refused to loan money that they might never see again and debtors paid off any loans they WERE able to get as slowly as humanly possible.

And yet, in spite of its impracticality, God still gave this law to the people. It’s still right there in the Torah, stuck in among other laws that most definitely WERE enforced, like dietary restrictions, tithing, and the prohibition of idols. So what gives? Are we actually SUPPOSED to be picking and choosing what parts of the Bible are “relevant” today, as so many American Christians seem to believe?

Once again, we have to look at the PURPOSE of the law instead of its particulars. According to Deuteronomy, all divine laws are to “ensure that things go well for us always.” God wants us ALL to thrive TOGETHER in community. So, God provides for us with abundance, so that there is more than enough to go around. If we obeyed this law perfectly, then there wouldn’t be any poor people among us – mission accomplished.

But God also knows human nature very well. God knows our anxiety and our fear, our concern with “fairness” over justice, and above all, our struggle to follow the Law, even when we know that it’s in our best interest. So, in Their wisdom and grace, God has given us a law that can accomplish its goal EVEN IF we don’t follow its commands perfectly.

Why would God require something of us that God knows we probably won’t be able to do? Because God believes in us, and God wants us to push ourselves to be better than we think we can be – even if we don’t reach full righteousness. To put it colloquially, God wants us to shoot for the moon, so that even if we miss, we land among the stars.

If all God expected of us, for example, was to collect the debts that we’re owed without using violence, we’d think, “Great! No problem! Done!” But if we know that God’s expectations are higher than that, then even if we aren’t able to achieve the kindom’s ideal right now, there’s something for us to reach for. We’ll know that our work isn’t done yet. And it will push us to keep striving to be better people.

We remind ourselves of this very challenge every week when we pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Unless we’re exceptionally deluded, we all know that we’re nowhere near close to living up to this apparent assumption of our extravagant generosity. But knowing that this is the ultimate goal of God’s kindom – and realizing that it’s already been done for us – inspires us to work harder to be the kind of people that Jesus believes we can be. And even though we’re not there yet, we can still do so much good in the meantime: a free lunch here, a donation there, an open-minded conversation about what larger-scale debt forgiveness could look like, and we’re on our way.

In this effort, we’re not just struggling against our own meaner impulses. We’re confronting an entire culture at odds with God’s priorities. And I think that’s what Moore’s anecdote is really about. It’s not that Jesus’ teachings “don’t work anymore,” it’s that Christians have increasingly chosen to equate worldly values with theological virtue, and that doesn’t leave much room in the Church for a gentle man who turns the other cheek, who advocates for unconditional debt forgiveness, and who quietly submits to death instead of fighting back.

Christ’s teachings have always been subversive; that hasn’t changed. What HAS changed is our willingness to accept the high standards of mercy and generosity to which God holds God’s people. Too many of us would rather blur the lines between Christ and culture in order to excuse our selfishness than to admit that the Church isn’t SUPPOSED to “work” the way our culture wants it to.

We don’t have to like what the Bible has to say, but we can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t pretend
that God’s kindom is built on bootstraps and business, on quid-pro-quo and tit-for-tat, on intimidation and might. That’s just never been what God is about. If the American Church keeps insisting that it is, then I’m afraid that our hope of ushering the kindom of heaven into our midst will keep growing dimmer with each passing day.

But Jesus’ teachings have already survived through century after century, empire after empire, culture war after culture war, and so I have faith that hope will never be gone completely. As long we approach God’s law with honesty and humility, as long as we see God’s commandments as challenges instead of impossibilities, then we can keep the Church from being swallowed up by those who don’t.

These teachings still work – we just have to be willing to let them push us beyond what’s easy. If there are still one or two of the faithful working tirelessly to become better than they are – not for themselves, but for the sake of all those beloved by God – then all is not lost. Keep shooting for the moon, even when others are satisfied with less, and you’ll find that the stars you land among will light your way towards something far better. Amen.


[2] Ibid.
[3] Matthew 20:13-15, The Message.
[4] This isn’t ACTUALLY Socialism – in fact, the events of this story are closer to Capitalism, in that the landowner (the one with the capital) is the one who determines both the available jobs and the wages.

1 comment:

  1. Very thoughtful and worthy of reflection. Thank you.