by Ragan Sutterfield
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
A good farmer is one who knows what he can do and what he can’t. He can work the soil, build compost, mulch, but the growth of healthy plants is always at the mercy of conditions beyond him—the right amount of rain, the right weather at planting time, the right conditions at the harvest. The good farmer knows that a healthy crop is always both the product of hard work and a gift beyond any system of exchange.
We are brought to this paradox of gift and work by the lectionary readings for this Sunday as we wrestle with our relationship with God, the Law, and our hearts.
In Deuteronomy we begin this struggle as Israel is called to follow the “statutes and ordinances” of God. This is the work they must do in order to receive the gift of entering the promise land. But the work is not an abstract following of rules—it is the concrete witness of God’s presence with Israel. As Deuteronomy 4:6-7 says:
You must observe [the statutes] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say,“Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him.
By following the Law, Israel is preparing the ground for God’s presence and bearing witness to the gift of that presence. But Moses is well aware of the possibility that the gift will be forgotten and that Israel will think only of the work of keeping statutes, like dead taboos that have lost their meaning.
It is for this reason that Moses tells Israel to “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” It is by recollecting themselves to the gift of God’s presence, and what that has looked like in their lives, that they can continue to bear witness to that gift through following the Law.
David echoes this in Psalm 15 as he asks God “who may abide in your tent?” Who can live in God’s presence? His answer is those who “do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” Those who are righteous in this way, David tells us, “stand by their oath even to their hurt” and “do not lend money at interest.” This commitment to generosity is more, I believe, than simply a following of the statutes of the Law. It is a response to the gift of God’s presence; a gift that we cannot begin to repay.
This gift seems to have been forgotten as Jesus and his disciples meet the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7. The scribes and Pharisees see some of the disciples eating without washing their hands and they go to Jesus to ask him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Their question is centered solely on the maintenance of ethnic identity through purity laws that have become little more than exclusionary taboos. Jesus returns the emphasis to God by saying to the scribes and Pharisees, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” It is the heart, the deeper reality behind the Law, that gives it its meaning. Without that, the law becomes meaningless and the gift goes unrecognized. The conditions that prepare for the gift then become at best the monotonous preservation of the way things have always been or at worst a short cut to the benefits of the gift. Here the statutes of Israel become the markers of Israel’s ethnic identity rather than markers of the gift of God’s presence.
James rounds out the lectionary readings by again reminding us that “Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above.” It is our role to prepare our hearts for this gift so that from the ground of our hearts God can grow righteousness. In order to prepare our hearts James tells us that we need to do some weeding by ridding ourselves of the “rank growth of wickedness.” This weeding allows our hearts to become fertile soil so that we can “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”
This receptiveness, recognizing that it is God who gives us every perfect gift, is then reflected in our lives by living in a new economy, an economy of the gift. We are poor in spirit, out of power, owing everything and owning nothing. And yet because all we have are gifts we are able to openly share those gifts by caring for “orphans and widows in their distress,” giving and caring and sharing with those who are most vulnerable in our society. In this way we are recollected to all that God has done for us, the Egypts he has brought us out of. In gratitude we respond to his call, marking ourselves as members of his kingdom and economy, by keeping to the rules of his system of exchange.
August 26, 2009
by Ragan Sutterfield