The Book of Deuteronomy is not just a book of laws, it is a covenant. In ancient Near Eastern societies, covenants or treaties were often made between kings and their vassals. These treaties consisted of a preamble or historical prologue contextualizing the covenant, the terms of the covenant itself, an invocation of witnesses, blessings and curses, and provisions for the recording and periodic reading of the covenant to remind the people of their agreement.
The Book of Deuteronomy follows this ancient Near Eastern treaty form, but it is unique in that it is not a covenant between the people and a human king, but between the people and God. This is the beginning of a long tradition in which the people of Israel see themselves as primarily or even solely obligated to God, rather than to any human ruler, native or foreign.
The passage we read today is from the section of this covenant that outlines the terms under which the Israelites pay “tribute” to God. In a human king/vassal relationship, a portion of the goods and resources of the subject people were owed to, or even seized by, the king. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites owe the first fruits of their land to God. They “pay” this tribute by bringing these fruits to the temple and participating in a liturgical ritual that ends in a feast in which they, along with the priests and any others with them, enjoy the fruits of their harvest. This is very different from having a portion of one’s harvest taken away by a distant king!
- Offering the first fruits of each harvest to God served to remind the ancient Israelites to whom they owed their primary loyalty and allegiance. As we enter the season of Lent, it is worth reflecting on this. To what or to whom do you believe you owe your ultimate loyalty and allegiance? Who or what receives your “first fruits,” the first or best part of your time, your skills, and your material goods? Does your answer to the second question follow from the first, or are they at odds?
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
The reading from Deuteronomy includes an affirmation of Israel’s history with God that is almost like a creed (“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”). In Deuteronomy, it is because of the things God has done for Israel in the past that the people continue their relationship with God in the present. Psalm 91 is another confession of faith, but instead of remembering God’s past care for God’s people, the psalmist expresses trust in God’s care in the present. The faithful person characterized in this psalm confesses, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust,” and this trust forms the basis for the rest of the psalm.
- In what or in whom do you put your trust? Another way of asking this question is to ask yourself, what in your life provides you solid ground to stand on, without which you would not feel safe or whole?
In Romans, confession of faith is in the future tense. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that god raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
When Paul defines salvation this way, it is important to remember that “confessing” had a meaning for early Christians (such as those Paul was writing to in Rome) that is quite different from the meaning we generally assign to it today. Early Christian martyrs were called “confessors” because they publicly confessed their faith in Jesus Christ even when doing so meant risking death; even when all they would have had to do to save themselves was remain silent. Confessing that Jesus is Lord was for them a real act that could lead to persecution and death, and early Christians were able to face death because their faith in Jesus’ resurrection was so deeply ingrained in their hearts that it had become the whole basis for their actions, superseding even their natural instinct for self-preservation.
Confession of faith, then, is not an abstract assent to a theoretical principle, but the articulation of that which we believe so deeply that it is the basis for the entire way we live our life.
- If you had only a few words in which to articulate the basis out of which you live your life, what would you say? Do your actions match up with this articulation? Have you ever been in a situation in which you felt you had to speak the truth, when remaining silent might have been easier or safer?
Although all the readings for today deal in some way with a confession of faith, the gospel account is perhaps the most striking, since it portrays Jesus confessing his faith as a response to temptation. Jesus has just been baptized and is led by the Spirit into the wilderness with the words of God still ringing in his ears: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22b).
The devil picks up on this immediately. “If you are the Son of God,” he suggests, “command these stones to become loaves of bread and feed yourself … worship me and receive all the kingdoms of the world … throw yourself down from here and see if the angels catch you.” The temptation the Son of God experiences, upon the revelation of his divinity, is a very human temptation: to use his power not for others, but for his own gain and glory. Jesus resists this temptation also in a very human way: grounding himself in the scriptures he has known since childhood, he confesses through them the nature of the God who is the core of his entire being, and says no to the temptation to be false to his own nature.
- How and to whom do you confess your faith? Is it important to speak, as well as to live, your faith? Is there a way in which confessing your faith can change the way you live? Can confessing your faith can help you to resist “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302)?