"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” Moses preached to the crowd standing on the verge of entering the promised land. “Choose life!” he concluded.
“Life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Scholar W. Sibley Towner says that the book of Deuteronomy, the second law, is “structured around the two ways: faithfulness and blessings versus disobedience and cursing.” He goes on to say that retributional theology is central. “If you are good, God will reward you. If you are bad, God will punish you.”
This is the way we think of God -- the great judge who metes out punishment on those who disobey God's rule. That picture of the judgmental God has been basic to the way we see the cross. The Nicene Creed, from the 4th century, states, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” The Scots Confession says, “because he was able to undergo the punishment of our transgressions and to present himself in the presence of his Father’s judgment, as in our stead, to suffer for our transgression and disobedience.” The Heidelberg Catechism goes further. “Does God permit disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished? Certainly not. God is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge, God will punish them both now and in eternity, having declared, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” Jesus is then proclaimed as the sacrifice that satisfies God’s thirst for judgment. The Confession of 1967 declares, “God’s love never changes. Against all who oppose him, God expresses his love in wrath. In the same love, God took on himself judgment and shameful death in Jesus Christ, to bring men to repentance and new life.”
God is the righteous judge who demands payment for our sins, for our disobedience, for making the wrong choices. That has been fundamental to our view of God for centuries and centuries. It is so central that it permeates life even outside of the church. How many families are oriented around the idea of punishment for bad choices? We could talk about our approach to the justice system that metes out punishment for particular choices that we, as a culture, have said are unacceptable. Now, certainly, there is good reason to remove some people from society when their actions threaten others. But, we’re beginning to question the wisdom of some of the punishments that are given. Yet, even as we hear cries for a less intrusive government, there are those who are pushing stricter morality laws that will punish offenders.
Towner says that Deuteronomy is organized around the “if/then” understanding of God’s law – with God meting out punishment for those who choose to live the wrong way. Punishment becomes an accepted necessity for life. And our model is God. God “punished” Jesus in our stead, to balance the need for justice. We “play God,” setting the rules and punishing those who disobey them.
Is there another way to interpret, to hear this passage? The leaders of the Reformation spoke of God’s gift of free will. We can choose for ourselves. But, there is something odd about this choice if God is waiting – we might sense, gleefully – to punish us for the wrong choices. Yet we have these words in Deuteronomy. “If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall perish.”
Maybe, instead of hearing that as something God will do, as a punishment God will inflict, we could think of it as a consequence of a bad choice.
When I was studying physics, I would sometimes go to my dad for help with hard problems. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him as I worked through a problem. Sometimes, I would start to do something and he would say, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I had a choice. I could continue with the process according to my wishes, or I could reconsider, and look for another way. I usually, in his presence, looked for another way – that led to the right conclusion.
Now, if I had made the wrong choice, what would have happened? I would have gotten a bad grade – rightfully so! Would that have been punishment? No. It would have been a consequence of poor logic and poor choices.
Scholar Carol Dempsey interpreted this passage from Deuteronomy a little differently. “The main theological theme in verses 15-16 is obedience…having been set free from [bondage in Egypt], having entered into covenant with God, having been entrusted with God’s law, and having survived much of the challenging journey through the wilderness, the Israelites now stand on the plain as Moses prepares to die and the people prepare to enter the promised land…For Israel, life and prosperity meant that all human activity would be under the protection of the Divine…On the contrary, death would mean that all human activity would be devoid of divine presence.”
It was their choice. They could choose to live in God’s presence, abiding by the laws that would give life. Or they could turn their backs on God’s ways – and, as a consequence, they would they would know the death that comes without God’s life-giving presence. God would be absent – not inflicting punishment.
What if we began to think of God not as the waiting, vengeful judge, but as the one who says, “I want you to choose life! I want you to make the choice that is good for you, good for your loved ones, good for the world!”? What If we began to think of God as the one who declares, “I love you. Please choose the way that lets me be in your life!”? Then, God is not the enforcer, but the encourager. “I love you. Choose what is good, what is faithful, what leads to the ways of the realm I have created for you!”
It makes me re-think our traditional interpretations of the cross. I have always been troubled by our declaration that God is love and that God’s justice demanded that God’s very own child needed to be put to death to satisfy God’s thirst for judgement. What if, instead, we began to understand that the cross is the consequence of our actions, that the cross is our responsibility, not God’s desire to have a sacrifice made in our place? Jesus didn’t die because God demanded it. Instead, Jesus’ obedience meant that he wouldn’t make worldly choices that separated him from God. The world could not accept his choice to follow God’s ways – and so, it crucified him. The world chose the way that was devoid of God’s presence. Yet, God’s answer was to enter into that rejection – and declare love, made evident in the resurrection.
The Brief Statement of Faith, which the denomination adopted in 1983 is the first statement of faith I’ve found that doesn’t focus on God as a vengeful judge. “Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, and delivering us from death to life eternal.”
Jesus gave his life for the sins of the world. Perhaps that means not that God, therefore, punished him instead of punishing all humanity, but that Jesus bore the sins by not turning his back on God’s ways and letting the sins win – at least temporarily. So the cross is not God’s abandonment or God’s judgment, but a symbol of humanity’s willingness to “live devoid of God’s presence.” The cross is not punishment but a consequence of human sin – a human creation, not a God ordained event.
We think that playing God means setting the rules and enforcing them. A father was worried about his daughter, so he laid down the law. He told her what he would consider acceptable – and demanded that she obey. It didn’t do much for their relationship. He took away her choice. Yet, he also knew of another father who demonstrated a different way of parenting. That father encouraged his daughter to make good choices – choices that would lead to a happier, fuller life. He helped her identify what those good choices would be. And he let her make the decision.
We tend to hear this morning’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount as threatening. “If you are angry, you are liable… If you look at another with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery…If you divorce, you have committed adultery. Do not swear.” These sections have generated laws that have been used to punish offenders. But, maybe they can be heard in a different way.
Perhaps Jesus, like Moses, is pointing his hearers toward the good choices that they can and should make so that life would flourish for all people. If we take out the threat of punishment, the idea of the looming God waiting to unleash wrath on the misdoers, and hear, instead, a loving God urging people toward that which is good, it changes how we see Jesus and how we see God. And, it changes the way we are to act in this world.
Moses – and Jesus—saw the world, the communities, in which they lived. They saw what good choices would be and what bad choices would be. They named them --- but they did not take away choice. How would the church’s role be changed if our mission were to say: “Choose what is good! And God tells us what is good, what leads to life – for all people. We know you can do it! And see where the wrong choices lead you. Are you sure you want to go there? The consequences are severe.”
As God’s people, we are the body of Christ in our world. His example is not one of coercion, but of persuasion based on and in God’s deep abiding love. The world needs to know that loving God in a world that knows too much punishing judgement.