Deuteronomy 30.15–end and Luke 9.22–25
Take up your cross…
Today’s Gospel reading, for the first day of Lent, presents us with a challenge. “If anyone wants to be my follower,” says Jesus, “he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. It’s very tempting to preach on that text today! But, if I go too far along that road, I’ll have nothing left to say on the Second Sunday of Lent – when these words will once more be placed before us!
So instead, let’s focus – unusually for me, I admit – on the Old Testament reading of the day. Deuteronomy is a very important book. It is one of the five books of what the Jews call the Torah – loosely translated as the ‘Law’. These five books are the basis for all Jewish law, and stand as an ethical and moral code against which all human laws can be compared and judged. In chapter 30, we find ourselves standing with the Hebrew nation, at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert, and just moments before they are to embark on their campaign to take possession of the Land they believe God has promised to them. Moses addresses the people, telling them that at the age of 120 he can (in a lovely phrase) ‘no longer get about’! So he appoints Joshua to lead the people on. But before they can go, Moses sternly warns them.
What we sometimes miss is that Joshua – or ‘Yeshua’ – is the same name which is given to Jesus. The name ‘Jesus’ is just an anglicised version of Joshua. In other words, we can see the advance into the promised land, with Jesus / Joshua at the front as a metaphor for our own journeys. When we are ready to move forward, to claim the good things God has in store for us, it is Jesus who will lead us on.
But Moses’ warning to the people is stark. He offers them a simple, binary choice: on the one hand, there is life and prosperity. On the other hand, there is death and adversity. The path that the people will take relies entirely on one simple factor – whether or not they will obey the commands that God has given them…commands for how God should be worshipped, and for how his people should live together. These commands are all written down for us to read – they are there, summarised in the book of Deuteronomy. And so, the choices presented to the Hebrews, all those centuries ago, are presented to us too. We, too, are offered the chance of life and prosperity, or death and adversity, depending on the extent to which we choose, as a society, to follow the Laws of God.
What are these laws? Well, it would take a very long time to read them all! But we can summarise some of the main themes – and in doing so, think about the extent to which our own society reflects the ethical and moral standards they set out.
Some of the laws are essentially what we would think of as common-sense. Laws, for example, about keeping the camp clean, and laws excluding the eating of certain foods – most of which can make you very sick if not properly stored and prepared. Other common sense laws are around who one is permitted to marry – to keep the gene-pool strong. There are laws about what should happen to lost property, the use of accurate systems of weights and measures, and the establishment of courts of justice to decide about disputes. All these common sense laws were designed to just bring some basic fairness into human society – and by and large we would recognise them as being relevant to today.
But, in many other areas, I suggest, we find that our society is a long way from the kind of world that Moses and the Hebrews thought was in accordance with God’s will and purpose. For example, the Laws of Moses demand that the poor should be aided, and that foreigners should be treated like family. The Laws of Moses prohibit the charging of interest – especially to one’s own people. They also establish laws of ‘Jubilee’, by which debts are cancelled, and land returned to its original owner at regular periods – to prevent the accumulation of excess wealth by crafty businessmen. Taxation is regulated by the simple expedience of a 10% share. Everyone pays it – and there are no tax havens nor complicated tax avoidance schemes to line the pockets of the accountants and their clients. There are laws about the payment of fair wages to hired servants, and the humane treatment of slaves.
The primary focus of all the Laws of Moses are on how a community should live together. It accepts that some will succeed and prosper, while others will struggle and be poor. But basic fairness is at the heart of all the community Laws of Moses. No-one shall be destitute, no widow shall go hungry, everyone will pay a fair share to the common purse, and no-one will be permitted to exploit another person for their own gain. The needs of the whole community are paramount – and while some will prosper more than others, a balance is struck – and a whole community enabled to thrive.
Is this, however, what we see in our society? Do we reflect the principles of the Laws of Moses? A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies makes for interesting reading. During 2020, frontline workers survived on minimum wages, furloughed workers had their wages cut by 20% (unless they work for this parish!), countless workers lost their jobs altogether, and 2.4million people have so far died of Covid-19.
At the same time all this misery, a small group of 647 billionaires increased their personal net worth by a combined one trillion dollars. That’s a one with nine zeros after it. Or, a thousand, million dollars. That’s a hard number of conceptualise, isn’t it? So let’s try this. If you stacked up a trillion dollars in a pile of $100 notes, the pile would be 631 miles high.
How stunningly different our society is from the just, fair and proportionate one of which the Hebrew Bible conceived. We have permitted this inequity to flourish – by the votes we place at elections, by the shopping choices we make, and by our silence in the ears of legislators and politicians who frame our laws. Moses was not silent. He offered the people a choice between life and prosperity for all, or death and adversity for many.
This Lent, perhaps we will take time to consider our complicity in the systems which have allowed the second of these paths to be the road we’ve chosen to travel…