I’m about to ask you a trick question, but don’t let it catch you off guard. Do you follow everything the Bible says? Well, since you’re all good Lutherans, I bet you’re ready to say, “No way, pastor. I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good….” Which is true. No matter how hard you might ever try, you cannot keep God’s Word perfectly. That’s exactly why every week, we gather again in God’s house to confess our sin, and hear that Jesus has paid for every single sin by dying on the cross. But, that’s not what I am talking about. I told you it was a trick question. Do you follow everything the Bible says? I sure hope not.
I noticed that no one brought a goat or a bull or even like a small squirrel today, to sacrifice as a burnt offering (although, a squirrel isn’t an acceptable Old Testament offering). I am guessing that nearly all of you are breaking the Old Testament command to not wear clothes that have mixed fibers. That’s what God says in Leviticus 19:19, “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” And, this last week, I pulled up in front of family fresh, and there was a huge line, standing in the parking lot, waiting by a big truck to keep some fresh seafood. But, I sure hope you weren’t standing in that line. The Bible says, “All creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales…you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat” (Leviticus 11:10-11).
But, I’ll be honest, I love lobster. I wear clothes made of different types of fibers, and I didn’t bring any animal to burn on the altar today. And I know you are thinking, “Pastor, we don’t have to follow those commands of the Bible,” and you’re right. But, do you know why you are right? This is a huge deal, because to many people in the world, Christians say that we need to keep the words of Scripture, but then it’s clear that we don’t keep them ourselves. Part of that is admitting that we are sinners, because we are, but part of it is being able to explain how God’s Word works. We are not just picking and choosing which parts of God’s Word we want to follow. Those passages I just referenced are God’s Word. They are important, and we having something to learn from them, but we don’t need to follow them. Why is that? If someone challenged you about this, could you help them understand why you don’t follow this part of God’s Word?
There’s two ways to think about this. One is from a worldly perspective, and one is from the Bible’s perspective, and both ways are useful. First, the worldly perspective. If you go to another country, for example Singapore, you need to follow the laws of Singapore. Do you know what happens in Singapore if you litter? Caning. They literally take a bamboo cane and hit you across the back with it. It doesn’t sound too bad, but most people pass out from the pain after the first or second hit. Then, they wait for you to wake up and make sure you get the rest of the strikes. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that Singapore is one of the cleanest countries in the world. But, right now, you probably aren’t worried about caning at all, because it’s not legal in the United States. I’m not saying that you should go out and litter, that’s still illegal, but you don’t have to worry about caning if you do. Singapore has no jurisdiction in the United States—no authority or power to punish U.S. citizens. That’s a round-about example of showing how some laws in the Bible work. In the Old Testament—especially in those first, five books written by Moses—many of the laws are given to the Old Testament nation of Israel for religious practices and government. But, you don’t live in Old Testament Israel. Those laws do not have jurisdiction over you in the same way they did over the people in that land, at that time. That’s first reason. We call these civil and ceremonial laws, and they don’t apply to you because you aren’t part of that country.
The second reason is much richer. This reason is straight from the Bible, and it’s beautiful. The best passage to talk about it is from the book of Colossians: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). In the early church, they really had to struggle to figure these things out. There were many Christians who thought that they needed to continue to keep these laws. God’s Word here points out that the laws given in the Old Testament were like a shadow. They were like staring into a bright light, and you could see the silhouette of something, but not exactly what is was. But, then Jesus came. Jesus was the reality. It was his shadow they saw. They didn’t need to try and keep the law, because Jesus kept it in their place. They didn’t need to offer sacrifices anymore, because Jesus came as the one sacrifice, offered for all people of all time. They didn’t need to follow the laws of a single nation, because Jesus intended to bring all people from every nation together into his church. Those laws served their purpose, and they’re still God’s Word, but for those two reasons, you don’t need to follow them. First, you aren’t a part of that country. Second, Jesus’s work has taken away the need to follow those laws. (The fancy way of saying that is that Jesus has abrogated them.)
But, before you start thinking that you don’t have to keep any of the laws in the Bible, I want you to know, not all of the laws in the Bible were given only to God’s Old Testament people. Some of his laws were given to all people of all time. Meaning, there are still laws you should keep, and when you don’t, repent. Sometimes, we call this the moral law. These are laws that you are already familiar with, probably from the Ten Commandments, like do not murder, do not steal, do not worship any other God, but the Lord, etc. These laws apply to everyone, and God makes that clear when he talks about them in Scripture. He didn’t just expect the Old Testament people to avoid murder, can you imagine what that would be like? In fact, God even went so far as to take these laws and to write them on your heart. He gave you a conscience so that you know these things are right or wrong. No one needs to tell you not to stab someone in the face. Your conscience will make sure you know that’s wrong.
So, now that I’ve put all of you to sleep talking about the exciting topic of the abrogation of the Mosaic covenant, I want to ask you a question. If what I just said is true, why do we have a reading from the book of Deuteronomy today? And, are the words we’re going to hear for all people of all time (moral law) or are they just for God’s Old Testament people (civil or ceremonial law)? I don’t think that it’ll be too hard to figure out.
17 Do not deprive the alien 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 alien, 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 alien, 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 alien, 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)
Were you slaves in Egypt? Do the farmers in our congregation need to worry about leaving some of their crop in the field so that people who can’t afford to buy food can come and pick it? When was the last time you went out to beat an olive tree or harvest your own grapes? Hopefully, you have figured out that these words are for God’s Old Testament people. These are civil laws that God gave to them, but they don’t have jurisdiction over us.
So, why are we reading them? If we don’t need to follow them, then what’s the point of having a sermon on them, aside from listening to your Pastor geek out about obscure theological points? Remember how I started how with a trick question, and told you not to be caught off guard? I hope you weren’t caught off guard, because you still need to follow these words—not as an Old Testament Israelite, but as a Christian. You don’t need to worry about how you glean, or harvest grapes, or whatever, but there’s a lesson behind these words that is exactly what you should do. You can think about it this way. God’s civil and ceremonial laws were just for the ancient Israelites, but they were sometimes just forms of God’s moral law. You can think of it a little like modeling clay. The clay is still clay no matter what shape you make it into. God took the clay of his moral law, and shaped into a specific law for his people of that time, but the clay was still clay. The moral law didn’t change; it just had a shape for that time.
The law that God wants you to follow is this: if you remember love, then love. In these words from Deuteronomy, God gives specific instructions to his Israelites. He wants them to show love for those who needed it most in Israel—the widows, the orphans, and foreigners. God knew it would be easy for the Israelites to forget about these people, or to oppress them, or even to take advantage of them. And because God likes to pour out his love on the poorest, most helpless people, he makes a special point of making a law for these people in Israel. Having said all of that, I hope that you realize that God still cares about those sorts of people. He still wants you to be caring about orphans, widows, and foreigners. If you don’t believe me, he even points this out in the book of James: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
When was the last time that you thought about who the person in our community or congregation was that needed help the most was, and decided to help them? Have you really considered the fact that there are widows and widowers in our congregation who are still hurting for their loss? There are people, whether they are children or not, whose parents are gone that have never stopped grieving. We don’t very many foreigners in our congregation, but maybe that says something about how we show love, too. There are many foreigners in our community. How come there aren’t so many in our congregation. The truth is that the lesson behind these verses really is pretty anti-American. In America, you don’t leave stuff behind for people who are less fortunate than you. You make sure you get as much as you can. In America, generosity towards strangers is looked down upon, because you need to take care of you and yours first. There are people all around you that need love, that need to be blessed by you, that need to see God’s love behind your love.
That’s really what God wanted the Israelites to do. God wasn’t giving them an arbitrary command here. He wasn’t saying, “Follow this command, or else.” He gives them the great motivation. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:22). He was saying, “O Israelites, you used to be slaves! You used to have nothing. But, I gave you everything. When you were poor and helpless, and I brought you from that country and gave you one of your own! Remember the love I showed you, then go love others.” That was the motivation for the Israelites. Here’s the motivation that God gives to you: “O Christians, you used to be slaves! When you were the most poor and helpless, when you had nothing to save yourself, I was generous. I sent my Son to give his life. He gave you everything. Remember the love I showed you, then go love others.”
I hope that you are thinking about someone right now. I know I am. I can think of people that God wants me to reach out to and love however I can, because he has loved me. God has been so generous to us. Let’s be generous in whatever way we can with others. If you are thinking of someone right now, find a way to show them love as soon as you can. Don’t put it off. Don’t wait until it’s too late. There’s no need to be stingy; your God isn’t. He’s generous with you. Remember his love, then go love others. Amen.