Learn By Heart

Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Date: Pentecost XIV (Proper 17) + 9/2/12

In today’s Gospel Jesus responds to the confusion of the Pharisees and scribes over the proper interpretation of and faith in the word of God’s law. He exposes their presumed faithfulness to be nothing but hypocrisy. But today we see that Jesus does not merely slam them (or us) with a word of judgment and walk away, but continues to reveal the Heart of God’s law to us, the true, graceful, life-giving intent and purpose of God’s law. It’s not the mere outward observance of the law but the inner conversion and renewal of the heart that redeems and saves. “Nothing outside a person…can defile him…. What comes out of a person defiles him…out of the heart.” The issue is the heart. The issue is sin. What people need is that for which Psalm 51 prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10).

This is the teaching of God’s law from the beginning. In our text from Deuteronomy 4, when God commanded His people to listen to and to do according to His law He added the warning, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Dt 4:9).

In our text Moses was preaching to the second generation of Israelites after release from slavery in Egypt. To all these people, therefore, only the annual Passover, that is, the story or word, kept the memory of that miraculous deliverance alive in them. To all these people the only life they had ever known so far was what we today call the seemingly endless “wandering” in the wilderness. They were told that they were on the way to a land promised to them by God. But, like us, they weren’t there yet.

Moses continued to lead and to teach. That’s the word he used. “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and judgments that I am teaching you.” (How appropriate to encounter this lesson today as the academic year of our schools begins). Moses taught them by continually and repeatedly impressing God’s Word on them. He concludes this chapter with the words, “Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time” (Deut 4:40).

It is not Moses’ word but God’s word as in chapter 5 God says to Moses, “stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the [just decrees] that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess” (Deut 5:31). God means to give long life and blessing through His Word to each generation as Moses the teacher says in chapter 6, “that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long” (Deut 6:1-2). Again in chapter 8 we read, “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers” (Deut 8:1).

I was talking with my good Roman Catholic neighbor last week when he confessed that, when it’s time for the sermon his eyes usually shut. Then he “absolved” himself by saying, “Every sermon is the same anyway.” Well, he’s actually more correct than maybe he even knows. And if these words to and of Moses seem like so much repetition to you today, it is because Moses’ teaching, God’s teaching is meant for more than merely the mind and outward obedience. In chapter 30 he tells the people, “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6).

Because it is not just Moses’ word or the word of some human philosopher or guru, the Word of God is commanded to be kept as it was given, as the inviolable word of God. It is not to be weakened by omissions or turned into mere human opinion by adding to it. “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it.” Interestingly, last Sunday I noticed that the Epistle reading for the day on the Roman Catholic television program “Mass for Shut Ins,” the reader seemed to have skipped the first two verses. The optional reading begins with the words, “Husbands, love your wives,” but skips the first words that begin, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph 5:20, 25). In our day current politically correct so-called “sexist” sensitivities actually change God’s Word by simply omitting part of it, in violation of commands such as Jeremiah 26, “Thus says the LORD (to the prophet): Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD all the words that I command you to speak to them; do not hold back a word” (Jer 26:1-2). The proverb says, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov 30:5-6). Even the New Testament ends with the solemn warning, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev 22:18-19).

This is why we need to hear the Word of God, His Law and Gospel, more than just once but continually: so that it penetrates to the heart. This is why the use of memorization of the catechism is better called “learning by heart,” because it is not a matter merely of learning information but of living by the power of God’s Word. As we live the life of faith our circumstances change and we change so that aspects of God’s Word and of the catechism can suddenly take on new, deeper meaning than they’ve had before. And this happens all the days of your life.

For this reason Martin Luther even referred to hearing and meditating on the Scriptures as a “sacramental” action, that is, that God’s Word works and gives what it says. “The gospel is to be taken sacramentally, that is, the words of Christ need to be meditated on as symbols through which that righteousness, power, and salvation is given which these words themselves portray.”

Therefore when we read that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem we are being called to believe that he was born there for you and that by such faith you are here born again. When we hear that Christ died we are called to believe that He died for you, that by His death He conquered death and sin for you so that you too will conquer sin and death and “live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.” The believing heart says, “This is most certainly true.”

Again, Martin Luther wrote, “Christ on the cross and all his suffering and his death do not avail, even if, as [some] teach, they are ‘acknowledged and meditated upon’ with the utmost ‘passion, ardor, heartfeltness.’ Something else must always be there. What is it? The Word, the Word, the Word. Listen, lying spirit, the Word avails. Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times, it would all be in vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.”

God keep you, and keep you alive and give you eternal life through His Word.