Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 14, 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Commentary
Giving to the church is a notoriously difficult subject for preachers, deacons and other church leaders. It raises very hard questions. How is giving money or even time or talent to the church actually giving to God? Are there other ways to give to God besides giving to the local church? How much should people give to the church? If they choose to tithe, should they base it on their gross or net income?
Yet perhaps thinking about giving to the church in connection with the book of Deuteronomy and the first Sunday in Lent is even more problematic. It would seem far easier to preach on Deuteronomy 26 in the context of a series of sermons on Deuteronomy that would allow the preacher and teacher to explore the book and chapter’s context. What’s more, it’s hard to understand why the Lectionary appoints this passage for the first Sunday in Lent, a season during which the Church remembers Jesus’ suffering that culminates in his crucifixion.
There’s little we can do on this particular Sunday to address the challenge of preaching on Deuteronomy 26 without having first preached on some of the passages that come before it. Perhaps the best thing a preacher can do is to spend some time during the message describing its context (and maybe promising to return to a fuller study of Deuteronomy’s riches later in the year!).
It may be a bit easier to think of Deuteronomy 26 as a Lenten passage. After all, just as Lent’s events remember God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ, Deuteronomy’s author grounds its ethical invitations in the faithfulness of God. In fact, Moses doesn’t even tell the Israelites just how much of their firstfruits they should bring the priest. He simply invites them to bring “some of” their firstfruits. Apparently the offering must also somehow fit in a basket (2).
This offers those who preach and teach Deuteronomy 26 a chance to explore with hearers why Moses leaves the amount to be offered relatively open-ended. Why is there is no talk of something specific like a “tithe” here? Might it be dangerous either to or not to tell the Israelites how much to give?
Moses invites the Israelites to bring some of their firstfruits to the tabernacle as an expression of their thanksgiving to God for all God has done for them. It’s an expression of their understanding that God is the true source of life. Moses speaks of a God, after all, who doesn’t just give Israel a home in the land of promise. God has also given her the “firstfruits of the soil” (10) and “all … good things” (11).
This is, of course, a radically counter-cultural profession not just for God’s Israelite people, but also for people in all times and places. Israel easily succumbed to the temptation to join her neighbors in viewing nature and its gods as the source of life. Yet citizens of the 21st century aren’t all that different. We easily assume what we have is not a gift from God, but the product of our hard work or good luck.
Moses invites the Israelites to give because God has so richly given to them in the first place. In fact, since this passage comes at the end of Deuteronomy 12-25’s lengthy code of laws, it reminds the Israelites of their reasons for obeying all the statutes and laws God has handed down to them through Moses. They offer God not just their firstfruits but also their obedience as a way of thanking God for being so faithful to them.
This offers Deuteronomy 26’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on why obedience is such an integral part of God’s peoples’ lives. We don’t obey because that’s how we earn God’s approval. We don’t obey just because it’s good for us, our neighbors, society and the whole creation. We live obediently, including giving generously, as a way of thankfully responding to God’s faithfulness to us.
In fact, every part of Deuteronomy 26 is grounded in remembrance of God’s faithfulness to God’s Israelite people. It begins with verse 1’s “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you.” It’s an explicit reminder that Israel’s life in the land of promise will not come as the result of her military prowess or Canaanite cowardice. She will have a home there because God has graciously given her that home.
Yet that gift is no spur-of-the-moment grace. Moses invites Israelites to say when they present their produce, “I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us” (italics added). This grounds our text’s profession in God’s ancient promises to Abraham and his family.
Verses 5-9 specifically rehearse God’s historical saving actions. That description reflects Israel’s weakness and vulnerability. Their “father was a wandering Aramean” (5) who became a refugee in Egypt. The Egyptians “mistreated” the Israelites’ ancestors and made them “suffer” (6), forcing them to “cry out to the Lord,” the God of their fathers” (italics added).
Those who preach and teach this passage may want to reflect on its “eschatological” character. After all, Moses speaks it outside of the land of promise; Israel has not yet received the gift God had promised her ancestors. Yet Moses shows he’s completely confident Israel will eventually receive that gift. He doesn’t, after all, say, “If you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you.” He says, “When you have entered the land …” (1) (italics added). Such eschatology, however, always shapes current thought and practice. So how might this promise of the land invite Israel to live faithfully as she awaits it?
There is also something very tactile about this text’s invitations. “Take,” Moses says in verse 2. “Put” and “go” (3). “Place” and “bow down” (10). “Rejoice” (11). Add to those calls the invitations to “say” (3) and “declare” (5). Those who preach and teach Deuteronomy 26 may want to reflect with hearers on the relationship between such action and verbal professions. Does its actions somehow reinforce those professions? If so, how?
There may also be fertile soil for reflection in the identity of those who rejoice with Israel in God’s bountiful gifts. In verse 11 Moses says, “You and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you …” (italics added). Israel has known what it’s like to be homeless and vulnerable. When she finds a home in the land of promise, Moses challenges her continue to remember the refugees who live with her.
How, then, might Deuteronomy 26’s preachers and teachers see this as a Lenten passage? Perhaps because both the passage and season invite us to react on the basis of what we remember. Luke 4:1-3’s Gospel text is the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. It reminds us of Israel’s forty years of struggle in the wilderness during which Moses speaks the Old Testament lesson. It suggests part of the reason for Jesus’ faithfulness is his awareness of God’s faithfulness to his Hebrew ancestors.
However, the Lectionary’s choice of Deuteronomy 26 also serves to remind God’s 21st people that our own generosity is grounded in God’s generosity with us. We give because we remember how God gave us, among countless other good gifts, Jesus Christ to live, suffer, die, rise from the dead and ascend to the heavenly realm. Compared to that gift, even the most extreme Christian generosity is quite paltry.
In the chapter “God and a Grateful Old Man” in his beautiful book, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir, Lewis B. Smedes writes, “I remember how Doris and I, on three different trips to an adoption agency, came home with three very different children who now, after ‘many a conflict and many a doubt,’ nurture a warm affection for the aging parents who made so many mistakes in bringing them up.
With memories like these, gratitude comes as easily as my next breath. I remember magnificent things and I remember little things, and I feel grateful for them both. I remember that Jesus died to do whatever needed doing to let the river of God’s love sweep me to himself, and I also remember the Velcro that makes it easy to put on my sandals. I remember my mother’s weary weeping after a long week’s labor, and I remember the pleasure Doris and I had with our first garage-door opener…”
Then, however, Smedes’ gratitude take a wistful and perhaps surprising turn: “But, then, when I thank God for being so very generous to me, I seem to imply that he must be a stingy crank to many others. When I remember that a thousand times ten thousand are living out a thousand varieties of hell on earth, my joy feels self-centered and obscene to me. This is why, on my little island of blessing in this vast ocean of pain, my ‘thank you’ always has the blues.”
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