Faith that Will Last (Deuteronomy 6:1-9, 20-24)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (August 10, 2009)
Our study of the early years of the covenant community will end with two lessons from Deuteronomy. We have been brought to the verge of the promised land. Moses provides some core exhortations to prepare the people for the next step in their journey — putting Torah (Scripture, or Law) into practice in a stable community in the land (Deut. 6:1-2).
In a nutshell, the key to Israel’s success (and this certainly applies to our faith communities today) lies in a double command with two mutually reinforcing parts: Love God with your entire being and pass on this love to your children.
Love God above all else
Moses makes it clear that the several elements at the heart of faithfulness inextricably connect: love God, obey God’s commands and pass on your love and your obedience to your children.
This faithfulness will keep the people alive and thriving in the land God has given them. Without faithfulness, their presence in the land will be forfeit. God’s gift of the land is not unconditional and set in eternal concrete. The underlying reality here must be understood in terms of God’s purposes in calling this people, freeing them from slavery, giving them Torah and now placing them in the land.
We go back to Genesis 12 and Exodus 19 to identify God’s purposes: God has done this work so that these people might bear witness to God’s creative and merciful love, and in doing so bless all the families of the Earth. This witness and blessing lie at the heart of the entire story. Because of God’s initiating love, God may reasonably call upon Israel to love back. Such love is all encompassing. When Moses calls upon Israel to “hear,” he means “orient yourselves toward the content of what follows.”
What does it mean to love God with our entire being? Jesus makes this clear for Christians (Matt. 22:36-40; see also Paul’s statement, Rom. 13:8-10). Loving God finds its definitive expression in the concrete love of the neighbor. But when Jesus states this, he’s only echoing Torah (see Lev. 19:17-18).
Teach your children
For Israel to thrive, they must practice Torah. So, Moses makes a strong point here of the call to keep faithfulness alive in the coming generation.
We see a key issue raised in 6:20: “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ …” It matters profoundly why they ask such a question. Do they ask because they observe living faith in action and want to understand what underlies it? Or, do they ask because they keep hearing about rules and regulations that don’t seem to make sense? That is, the only way to teach obedience to God successfully is for the present generation to practice it.
And when the children ask, tell them this about the decrees: They shape our response to God’s liberating actions in freeing the people from slavery (6:21-23), placing us in the land (6:23) and giving the commands as a gift (6:24).
We follow God’s commands because they are the way to life.
We may, today, identify with Moses’ concern for the sustenance of faith among our children. He gives one principle that should govern how we respond to this concern. The way to keep the faith alive is to seek God’s truthfulness, obeying the heart of the commands — not to place the priority on strategies for keeping our institutions intact. Obey Torah ourselves; everything else will follow.
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.