Matthew 22:34-46; Deut. 30:15-20
I was driving through Amherst County last week and saw a billboard which in huge letters proclaimed, “Choose Life – Deuteronomy 30:19”. Under the heading was the picture of an unborn fetus. Nothing else needed to be said.
The billboard reminded me of an incident many years ago. Everyone was home, we had finished dinner and the kids were working on their school assignments. The door bell rang. The late night visitor was a nineteen year old woman who was very active in our church. Jennifer had entered college but never had her heart into it. Now she stood at my door, weeping. Jennifer told me she was pregnant. Her father wanted to drive her to Midland for an abortion. His intention was to keep everything quiet and not make a scene. The mother was hysterical and had been ranting about how much this would destroy the reputation of the family. Her younger sister was horrified that an abortion was being considered.
I sat on the couch and witnessed the pain of this young woman as she grappled with a future she never imagined possible. I took her hand said something stupid like “As your minister, how can I help you?”
Through her tears she blurted out, “I don’t need God. What I really need is a friend.”
As much as we try to simplify this thing called faith, our broad strokes concerning the will of God often take us further and further away from that which is relevant. Jesus understood the complexities of the human condition. When confronted with questions for which there seemed to be only one right answer, he always engaged his audience in a conversation that pressed beyond the obvious. In this morning’s scripture the Pharisees asked Jesus which commandment was the greatest. The Pharisees always led with an easy question before following with a second designed to erode the authority of Jesus.
Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind.” Before the Pharisees could respond with a second question Jesus added, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the gospel of Luke the follow-up question was, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan, which turned out to be a lot more information about existing social mores than they cared to hear. In our reading this morning, Jesus took to the offensive by asking his own unanswerable question. It was as if Jesus was saying, “Let’s not engage in Bible drills unless you want to seriously grapple with the complexity of God’s word.”
Choosing Life is serious business. The concept of Life created and Life sustained is at the very center of our understanding of God. This is closely followed by the maintenance of life, a process not to be attempted in a vacuum. Being a neighbor, or a friend, can hardly be reduced to simplistic or inflammatory statements found on billboards or car bumpers. It is real life stuff, with real life decisions resulting in real life consequences involving more than just our isolated circle of acquaintances.
Serious dialogues must go further than slogans and rhetoric. Biblically speaking, what exactly does it mean to Choose Life? Two sincere, devout Christians can read the Bible, pray earnestly, yet come to opposite conclusions Some, such as our well meaning friends in Amherst County, would insist this is the answer to anyone who might be considering an abortion. But what would happen if I were to engage with our Amherst friends in other pro-life discussions such as the abolishment of capital punishment, or any discussion concerning death of civilians in war, or euthanasia, or perhaps even the death of our planet due to our thirst for industrialization or our desire to be independent of foreign sources of energy? How open or consistent would any of us be in these discussions? Can we be pro-life on one issue and favor death in another? How are these discussions influenced by our faith? How are we informed by the Biblical text? Might it be safer to keep God out issues which easily turn political? And of course the white elephant in the room is misuse of the Bible in order to support conclusions we have already reached. I suspect we have all been guilty of that.
What did the author of the book of Deuteronomy have in mind when he placed the words “Choose Life” on the lips of Moses? Perhaps the best way to find out is to go back to the text. Moses was preaching his last sermon. The sermon was being offered to a people who are preparing to reenter the Promised Land. Note I said re-enter. This text was first heard by exiles in Babylon preparing to return to Jerusalem. The question which most concerned the exiles was why Jerusalem was destroyed. Their rabbis accused their ancestors of putting their self-desires and appetites ahead of what was good for the community. In other words, they forgot the commandments. This amnesia led to the death of a nation.
Critical questions concerning priorities were put to a people preparing to leave Babylon. “Will you choose life or death? Will you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and your neighbor as yourself? Will you give thanks to God in and outside of worship? Will you acknowledge your desire to be self-serving? Will you exhibit justice and fairness toward the weak and the poor? Will you honor your elders? Will you respect your neighbors? Will you lead your people with energy, intelligence, and imagination? Will you help the friendless and those in need? This is God’s way. Will you choose God’s path?” (stop)
Each week I go to the Charlottesville Prison and listen to a young man who has blown multiple chances to live a productive life. How do I assess all the complications that led to his bad choices? As a friend, what hope do I offer?
I go to the nursing homes and hospitals and listen to folks in the last days of their lives. Each person and each situation is radically dissimilar. I know each person understands the concept of life differently. How can I begin to know what to say when I conclude our visit with prayer?
Last week I had the chance to sit with a professor of missions who shared his last two years living with Palestinian just outside Jerusalem. He spoke of the daycare attended by his three year old and how she fondly remembers her friends named Mohammed and Joseph. One is Muslim, one is Christian, both are Israeli by law and Palestinian by birth. Neither will grow up with the rights of their Jewish neighbors. Where is the justice in that?
If I love God with my heart, soul, and mind, who is my neighbor? The simple answers I desire quickly become complicated in the light of Godly expectations. Then, just when I think I have it all figured out, the door bell rings, and once again I find myself sitting on the couch.
Am I responsible for my friend’s choices? Or am I only responsible for my response to her choices?
Sometimes God’s word provides us with a powerful answer to difficult question.
Sometimes God’s spirit provokes us to examine even deeper questions.
Sometimes God’s silence compels us to quietly sit on the couch and listen…….. just like we would with any friend.