God’s Costly Mercy (Deuteronomy 30:1-10)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (August 17, 2009)
We complete our study with words of Moses from Deuteronomy 30. The people stand at the “verge of Jordan,” ready to enter the promised land and the next phase of their journey with God.
Interestingly, we read an account about the future. Deuteronomy 27-29 has elaborated on the obligations the people have toward God, embodying Torah (God’s commands). These chapters also speak of numerous curses should the people turn from God.
Now, in chapter 30, Moses seems to assume that indeed, the people will fail and the curses will fall. But what’s Moses’ point? Should you repent and turn to God, “the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you” (verse 3).
In this grim and almost fatalistic way, Moses makes a fundamental point about God’s purposes and God’s commitments. God has not called this people in order to show the universe God’s rigid holiness that promises punishment for those who stray. No, God called this people because God has a healing agenda, ultimately for all the families of the Earth. The failures of the human beings God has chosen as instruments for this healing work will not defeat God.
God’s mercy and human responsiveness
We must note two central elements of God’s approach here. On the one hand, God’s merciful disposition drives God’s actions. This mercy perseveres forever, as Psalm 136 tells us. Make no mistake, the outlining of Israel’s obligations throughout Torah, the surety of consequences in face of failure to meet those obligations, and the promise of restoration and fulfillment stem from God’s fundamental merciful character (see how Hosea pictures this, 11:1-9).
On the other hand, though, God’s healing work only transforms those who are responsive to it. Future wholeness is indeed a gift from God — but only for those who receive it and allow it to transform their lives. Think of the two parts of Revelation 21-22’s vision of salvation: It includes God’s worst human enemies, the “kings of the Earth” (Rev. 21:24), but it includes “nothing unclean” (21:27). These rebellious kings join the New Jerusalem only insofar as they allow God’s healing Spirit genuinely to transform them.
God’s will may be done
In Deuteronomy 30, Moses points to the future to underscore God’s commitment to this people and, that at its heart, God’s initiative toward Israel (and through Israel, the world) reflects God’s compassionate holiness that seeks to heal the world.
In making this point, Moses makes clear how indispensable faithfulness to Torah is for Israel (and for all their spiritual descendants). Our response to the commands has tremendous ramifications. But God remains faithful to God’s promises to heal and bless. For us to play a role, even in face of past failures, we must simply turn back to God.
We should read on here, to Deut. 30:11-14, for a crucial sense of perspective for what God has in mind. We have the obligations: follow the words of Torah, follow the heart of Torah, love God and neighbor, practice genuine holiness. We have the consequences for refusal to do so. We have the promise of forgiveness and restoration, linked with the continuation of the obligations. We won’t be restored if we remain alienated from Torah. But, the final word is one of comfort: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away” (verse 11).
Torah is meant to be lived. “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (verse 14).
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.