‘If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away … I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.’
‘What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’
In light of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the destruction being rained down on her people by Russian troops, the passages set for Holy Communion today make for challenging reading. The Old Testament reading is taken from Moses’ instructions to his people on the eve of their entering Canaan to (attempt to) capture its cities and disinherit the inhabitants. Moses sets before them two alternatives, the way of life and the way of death.
Note that the instruction to know God’s blessing and conquer the land echoes the foundational mandate given human beings in Genesis 1: be fruitful and multiply and conquer the earth. And that is the root meaning of ‘the land’ here: the environment over which humans are to exercise delegated authority, as opposed to the seas and the sky. But if the people called to possess this piece of the earth choose the way of death, rather than the way of life, they themselves will not long live in the land they are entering to possess. And here, the root meaning of ‘the land’ is different: here it echoes the soil from which the human is made by God. It is possible to possess the land (earth) in such a way that you lose the breath-animated soil given you as your personal possession. Or, as Jesus would put it, ‘What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’
Russians and Ukrainians are cousins. And Russians have entered Ukraine and taken possession of the land as an inheritance for generations, following the way of life. There are many married couples in Ukraine where one is of Ukrainian heritage and the other of Russian heritage, and whose children are Ukrainian of both Ukrainian and Russian heritage. There is a long history, albeit often interrupted and disrupted, of peaceable co-existence. And in these days, we are witnessing a very different possession, one according to the way of death, one that seeks to claim the land even if all Russia is left with is a pile of rubble where beautiful cities once stood, and an earth stained red with the blood of Russians and Ukrainians mixed together. And this, they may achieve. But if they do, they will not be able to hold the land, any more than outside troops have ever held Afghanistan or Iraq. But, more, they will lose their own personal soil, their humanity. And if you should lose your humanity, what manner of possessions could you ever hope to exchange to redeem it back?
Lectionary texts in full:
‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’
Moses, Deuteronomy 30:15-20
‘[Jesus told his disciples] ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
‘Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’
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