The film Trainspotting opens with John Hodges’ cynical poem that uses the same phrase, “Choose life”, that we read of in Deuteronomy, in a bitter rejection of life and its meaningless choices:
“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big Television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electric tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage… Choose your future. Choose life.”
Deuteronomy 30 is set in the context of Moses’ speech to God’s people – the Israelites – as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. First, Moses reminds them of their history, how God cared for them in the wilderness. Then he sets out what God requires of them in their new land and new life. He also gives them a warning:
“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them… when your silver and gold is multiplied… then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God”.
Finally, Moses gives them two alternatives, as they enter this new and prosperous life: Obey God’s commandments and Choose Life, or ignore them and face destruction.
The truth is, when our lives are going well we forget God. We stop depending on Him, and we choose a way of life that ignores God and his commandments.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7, Jesus presents an upgraded version of the commandments of God. “Commandments 2.0”, so to speak. They arise out of the old version, but a new dimension is present. There is more interaction – a deeper engagement – it’s about inward attitudes, not just outward actions.
The Sermon on the Mount, like Moses’ speech, concludes with a choice – two possible responses to Jesus’ challenge to live by God’s commandments. There are two ways. The Wide Gate and easy road – chosen by most, but leading to the destruction of life and community that we see in the world around. The other – the Narrow Gate, which Jesus himself agrees is a difficult road – leads to life. Jesus’ Jewish disciples will have heard the resonance with the choice in Deuteronomy – Choose life.
The Sermon on the Mount is discomfiting. Why? Because it undermines our desire to live life as we want to. It sits uneasily with our individualism and our desire for autonomy. Possibly we feel it a beautiful ideal – but not realistic in today’s world. Too demanding for modern society and busy lives.
Our society is based on a strange paradox. We welcome some norms while resisting others.
We follow the norms of the world: dress codes, fashions, lifestyles, home makeovers. Every few months, the lifestyle industry proclaims the new season’s colours and trends. The High Street follows suit, and we fall into line. Advertisements and style gurus call us to conform – and we do. Maybe we like the security of being part of the crowd. Perhaps we respect and admire our role-models. Possibly it helps us get on in real life – “where it matters”.
This conformity, and the individualism of “I have the right to live as I choose” make it difficult to give up control – to obey God, rather than the World or our own desires.
Today’s society is an explosive cocktail of influences which generate self-will and self-centredness. Society promotes individuality and personal progress, and our inner nature from childhood demands things are done our way. It is hardly surprising that Frank Sinatra’s song “I did it my way” is often chosen for funerals. It captures the mindset of our times.
Yet we often resist God’s norms.
A recent survey found that nine out of ten people admit to regularly going a whole day without performing a simple act of kindness for someone else. Almost a quarter can’t remember the last time they went out of their way to show kindness to another human being. We are often self-centred. Not God-centred, or other-centred.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ defines norms for the Kingdom of God that cut through our self-centredness and self-will. But out human nature and our social conditioning resist! We are uncomfortable with God laying down rules for how we live our lives – prickly about being asked to obey them. But a citizen of a country recognises its laws. If we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, then we must recognise and live by its principles. And the Sermon on the Mount is the Magna-Carta of the Kingdom of God.
Why do we welcome the World’s norms and resist God’s? Because one promotes “me” and “I” and “mine”? My progress, my good life, my wellbeing? That is fine, in its place. Yet God overturns our personal and private lives, and desires. He calls us “to love Him with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind… and to love our fellow humans as ourselves.” This is not easy – in one fell swoop it dethrones self. Suddenly I am no longer the most important person in the world.
Matthew 5 talks of murder and anger, adultery and lust, divorce – things that seem normal today. Yet they destroy life and community. Jesus starts with the Old Testament command: “You have heard that it was said …do not murder….” Imagine the scene. Jesus pauses, and looks questioningly at the disciples. “Ah”, they must have thought, “I am not a murderer.” As expected. So Jesus continues with a “but”. “But”s are warnings that something is about to unravel. “But,” he says, “I tell you, if you are angry… insult… speak offensively… you are equally guilty”.
That would have thrown the disciples. It was about them. About us. Our anger, our insults, our unkind remarks to and about others. Resolving this anger, says Jesus, takes priority even over worship!
He then addresses adultery. As with murder, our instinctive response is “not me” – until Jesus adds “But I say to you that looking lustfully at a woman is adultery of the heart.” Especially in our world, filled with gratuitous sexual images (on TV, in movies, the internet, even ads for chocolate), that cuts deeply.
Jesus was addressing his disciples. Yet the principles of the Sermon on the Mount have the power to transform societies. They require “loving your neighbour as yourself.”
Gandhi understood this. When the former British Viceroy of India asked him how to solve the problems between Britain and India, Gandhi picked up a Bible, opened it to Matthew 5, and said: “When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world.”
In Deuteronomy 30, God says: “Choose life”. Why? “So that you may live, loving the Lord your God and obeying him, and holding fast to him – that means life to you and length of days.” This might seem dated. But living without anger or bitterness, living with forgiveness, living with integrity – this is crucial to living well. Many modern illnesses are caused by emotional states – the stresses and turmoil of modern life can kill us! That’s why, at Skainos and in West Belfast, Stress Reduction classes are running. Many such course address the anger, unforgivingness and bitterness that corrode people’s wellbeing. Our world is littered with damaged communities, broken marriages and families. Would not the values of God’s Kingdom make an amazing difference to the brokenness of our world?
The Sermon on the Mount clashes with the World’s values. It always has and always will. The first Christians tried to follow its principles. As Acts says, they turned their world upside down. And they died by its principles – as the first martyr Stephen did – praying for forgiveness for their enemies.
This is why it was powerful. People saw the transformative power of the gospel of Christ and the Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount has never been easy or “practical”. Not then. Not now. It is never the easy option to forgive those destroying you. It is never easy to seek reconciliation. It is never easy to avoid anger or insult when we are enraged. “Love your enemies” does not sit well in a world where war, violence, anger, revenge, and punitive justice is the norm. Which of us believe that Osama Bin Laden deserved forgiveness? We often pursue justice without forgiveness. Even as Christians.
Are God’s norms too idealistic and impossible? If they were, Jesus would not have asked us to live them out, by choosing the way to life. We are human and we will sometimes fail, but that does not mean we abandon God’s Magna-Carta altogether.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says he came that we might have life to the full. Choosing to live by the values of God’s Kingdom transforms not just our lives, but the lives of our communities and societies, and eventually our world.
May we always have the grace to “Choose life”