Lent – not for a season but for all and every reason – Saturday, 1st Week of Lent – Deuteronomy 26:16-19/ Matthew 5:43-48
The people of Israel were on the threshold of entering the promised land having wandered in the desert for forty years. Moses gathered the people so that they may learn and obey carefully what God wanted to say to them (5:1). This very lengthy exposition ends in 26:15, a verse before the text of today’s first reading.
In this lengthy exposition, Moses recounts God’s faithfulness and the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. He sets forth His expectations for their life in Canaan. Now the time has come for Israel to ‘own’ the covenant for herself. ‘Owning’ the covenant requires Israel to pledge her loyalty to the One who, in a very real sense, created her.
Moses clearly functions as a mediator between the LORD and Israel. In a style consistent with covenant agreements, he summarizes in the presence of both parties what Israel has acknowledged as one partner to the covenant and what the LORD has declared as the other partner. There appears a striking mutuality of covenant partnership and obligation. Like wife and husband, Israel and the LORD are speaking vows to each other.
Moses reminds the people of the solemn agreement that has been made between God and them. “You have obtained this agreement from Yahweh.” And the agreement is that he will be their God only as long as they “follow his ways, keep his statutes, his commandments, his customs, and listen to his voice”. It is a mutually binding contract. He will be their God on condition that they observe his laws and customs with all their heart and soul. If they do that, they will stand out among all peoples as a people consecrated to their God and outstanding in their virtue.
Several things here are exceedingly interesting. Here is the ratification, on the part of both parties, God and Israel; a ratification equivalent in every way with the solemn acceptance of God’s covenant in Exodus 24:7. This additional ratification was necessary for several reasons. First, a new generation was at hand. Secondly, Moses would die within a few days of this speech, and a new leader in the person of Joshua would be in charge of Israel’s affairs
But there is infinite tragedy here also one that will unfold over the pages of the Bible. When one considers the high and marvelous things that God promised this nation of Israel, on condition, of course, that they would indeed do what they had so solemnly sworn to do, and then when one considers the shame that ultimately overwhelmed this once glorious people, it brings a catch in the throat and tears to the eyes.
What really happened, afterward? Israel refused to exterminate the Canaanites, and to destroy their idols, their pillars, their groves, and all the false paraphernalia of their evil gods. They rejected God’s role over them, demanding a king like the surrounding nations. Their kings quickly led them into paganism. The nation was divided, and Ephraim usurped the place of God as the lawgiver for God’s people. The whole northern Israel became “joined to his idols.” Israel became merely another Canaanite (Hosea 12:7), just as crooked and evil as its earlier residents. God judged Israel and delivered them to the Assyrians, and northern Israel became the “Ten Lost Tribes.”
Lent has often become for us a time for ‘agreements’ with the Lord. Yet it is a covenant that the Lord desires with us not a contract. For many, Lent is a period of ‘good behaviour’ yet the Lord is looking for goodness in who we are. Let us continue to honour the love of the Lord not just for a season but for all and every reason.