In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
It seems to me that there is a pervasive belief – an assumption – that once someone becomes a Christian, everything will be alright. I’m not saying this is a strong belief – I think we believe this to varying degrees – but it seems to be a very common one. I think this is why, in fact, some people “become Christian.” If I believe in or accept Jesus Christ, life will be better.
Do people actually think this? Maybe I’m wrong.
One of the things we touched on earlier but haven’t gone into in any detail about is the notion that a large chunk of Deuteronomy – the second speech of Moses, which encompasses chapters 5-26 – is essentially an explication on the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue. Roughly speaking, chapters 6 – 16:17 expand on the first four commandments and chapters 16:18 – 26:15 expand on the last six commandments. Most of us are familiar with the notion that the first four commandments talk about right relationship with God and the second six, right relationship with one another. So some see a similar arrangement in the book of Deuteronomy.
There’s also an important notion regarding the suzerainty treaties that we talked about before. Again, we won’t go into it in detail, but essentially, what we’re seeing here is what is called the stipulations section of such a treaty. In other words, though the covenant – like a suzerainty treaty – is administered by a superior party (that is, God), the lesser parties (that is, us) have responsibilities as well. So what we’re seeing in this part of Deuteronomy has to do with the stipulations that the Israelites are to adhere to in order to see the blessings of God. As we’ve talked about, failure to meet these stipulations does not negate the covenant – this can only be done by God. However, it does point to whether or not the Israelites will see the blessings of God. We’ll probably talk more about this at a later point.
We’ve understood this concept by recognizing that the covenant points not to specific behaviours, necessarily, or meeting certain requirements – rather, we are suggesting that the laws and regulations of the covenant are designed to form Israel into the people of God. Or, in other words, there is an extent to which the covenant laws are disciplines of spiritual formation so that the people of God can learn to live the life of God – life as we were meant to live it.
Now this doesn’t mean that, in the life to come – the new heavens and the new earth – we will be sacrificing bulls and goats on an altar in a central temple. But it does mean that we will live in right relationship with God. And it also means that we will live in right relationship with creation and with each other. Things will be better.
So one of the things that we see in Deuteronomy are laws and instructions that, I think, are designed to teach us – and to form us into – how we can live in right relation with one another.
Our passage today is from Deuteronomy 24. Now there is an extent to which the passage that we’re considering today is purely arbitrary. As we know, chapter and verse numbers are a later insertion into the biblical text. Likewise, paragraphing and certainly subject headings, can vary dramatically between different English translations.
So, we’re looking at chapter 24 purely because it’s a convenient section of text. It’s simply a passage that illustrates some of what we’re talking about – that is, laws concerning community. It’s neither representative of everything else that’s happening in the section (i.e. the last half of the Decalogue) nor comprehensive. But I’m hoping it gives us some idea of what we’re talking about – that is, what it means to live as God’s people in the time and place where we find ourselves.
We’re going to run through the passage very quickly and then we’ll think a little about what this might mean for us. (If we have time, I’d love to get your thoughts and suggestions).
Now the first part of this passage has specifically to do with marriage and divorce. It’s actually one of several passages talking about marriage and divorce. And it’s passages like this one that the religious leaders likely had in mind when they questioned Jesus. They ask Jesus:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”Matthew 19:3
In our passage today, we see that Moses says: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…”
In short, in Jesus’ time, there was a vigorous debate about what exactly is meant when Moses says, “…something indecent about her…” And what’s going on is that the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus regarding orthodoxy. Jesus’ response is as follows:
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”Matthew 19:3-9
Essentially, what Jesus is saying is that God’s intention is that for a man and a woman, when they get married, to be married. But he makes an important observation – that Moses permits divorce because of the state of humankind, even though that’s not God’s intention for created order.
Now we could go on about this passage (in Deuteronomy and Matthew), but that’s not what I’m getting at here. I think what we’re seeing in our passage today, and what Jesus recognizes, is that the law is given to a sinful people.
Now what the Pharisees might be getting at is something like, “Moses said it in the law, and therefore it must be okay – even God’s will (in some way).” But I think what’s going on is something closer to, “Recognizing that we are a sinful and broken people, how then do we pursue holiness? We know that God’s redemption will come fully and completely in the future, but how do we live now, in the midst of a fallen world, to honour and glorify God?”
I might be over-reaching here, but in short, I think it speaks to God’s recognition of our fallen-ness.
At any rate, I don’t want to spend too long on that, so let’s carry on. I want to take a look at several of the instructions that seem to share a common theme.
6 Do not take a pair of millstones—not even the upper one—as security for a debt, because that would be taking a person’s livelihood as security…
10 When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. 11 Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. 12 If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. 13 Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the Lord your God.
14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.Deuteronomy 24:6-15
What we have here are a series of instructions regarding, one might argue, finances. Specifically, how to do business with others. Obviously, there’s something here about dealing with one another fairly and with kindness. But what’s also embedded in these scenarios is something easily missed.
When we’re talking about holding a debt over someone, making a loan to a neighbour, or having a hired worker, all of these scenarios assume a power differential. What we’re talking about here is not a completely equitable society – that is, not all people are equal. This may be for any number of reasons. It may be luck, it may be circumstance, it may be due to industry on the part of one party. Nevertheless, one party has power and position over another. And what we’re seeing is that this power is not to be used to take advantage of the other or to suppress the weaker power.
Now again, I don’t want to go too deeply into this, but it’s worth thinking about in a largely capitalistic society. In a capitalistic society, we assume that a person should be allowed to succeed or prosper based on their effort, their ingenuity, and their industry. And we assume that this effort shouldn’t be hindered by government (for example). Now these verses aren’t saying anything about whether or not this is a good system or a good situation. What it does seem to be saying is that when you are in a position of advantage, don’t use that advantage to increase your power and position over others. More specifically, it seems to be saying don’t use your power to keep others down.
Now the final group of verses that I want to think about occur at the end of this chapter. They say:
17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.Deuteronomy 24:17-22
Now these verses share common themes with the previous verses inasmuch as we’re concerned with kindness and generosity. However, the relationship demonstrated is different. Whereas, in the previous verses that we looked at, there is a specific financial arrangement involved, in these verses, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship at all. With a debtor or with an employee, there’s a specific relationship involved here. Some agreement has been reached, either implicitly or explicitly, that governs the relationship. However, when we’re talking about the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, there’s no established relationship. Nobody owes anybody anything.
With an employee, a business owner owes something to the employee – whether it’s good working conditions, fair and timely wages, or whatever. With a debtor, one owes them the chance to pay back the loan with reasonable conditions. (however we think of it). But the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow are effectively strangers (to me).
But what we’re seeing here is a theme that is pervasive throughout the Old Testament. In fact, the phrase “foreigner, fatherless, and widow,” is one that is repeated over and over again all through the OT. (ESV – Sojourner, fatherless, and widow; KJV – Stranger, fatherless, widow; NASB – Alien, orphan, widow). It’s a theme that echoes what we know about God’s purposes – to redeem all of creation. That God cares for those that no one else cares about. So we, as the people of God, should care about those that no one else cares about.
Now we could go on about those few verses as well, thinking about what justice means and what social justice means. We’re reminded of passages like Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
So What Now…?
What I want to say, as we wrap up, is that all three of the groupings we looked at today (and apologies, b/c I recognize I left out a couple of verses) have to do with things that shouldn’t be. Divorce (broken relationships), power differentials, and the poor and social disenfranchised are all things that should not be in God’s economy. They are things that are the result of sin and a fallen world. And they are things that, I believe, will be done away with in a fully redeemed creation.
These sorts of things are dealt with in the law not, I would argue, because they are okay. But rather they are addressed precisely because of a recognition that we are called to be God’s people in a broken world. They are things that are examples of practices that demonstrate the kingdom of God in the midst of our fallenness.
I’m not sure if people actually believe that, when we become Christian, everything is supposed to get better. But I do believe that everything will get better on the final day when Christ comes again in the fullness of his kingdom. And I also believe that, until then, we are called to, and invited to, do something about all of it – not necessarily in an instrumental way (we don’t bring the kingdom; only Christ does that), but in a proclamatory way.
These verses don’t seem to be saying, the world is broken, but live as if it’s not. Rather, they seem to be saying something along the lines of, because the world is broken, do your best to live as ones redeemed. Do your best to announce healing, peace, and justice. Do your best to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Yes, the world is broken – but what are we going to do about it?