What were some of the things your parents or guardians told you growing up to keep you safe that you thought were silly? “Don’t get into the cookie jar.” You thought they wanted to make your life miserable by keeping you from that sweet, delicious goodness when they likely just wanted to make sure you didn’t climb on the counter and potentially get hurt. I remember my parents being very adamant about telling us, “Don’t play out in the street,” and if we did, well, we would go to timeout or be denied ice cream after dinner. It seemed so unfair because the street provided so much more area to play in and we would make a stink about the rule. But, of course, any wise person would know our parents told us this to keep us safe from passing cars, especially because we lived on a busy street.
One of my mom’s catchphrases when any of us kids started driving was, “watch out for idiots and don’t be one!” We would chuckle and respond with, “Oh, mom!” But, in all fairness, it was a funny way of making us practice awareness of others and ourselves.
Perhaps that line is a fitting paraphrase for Moses’ words to the Israelite people in Deuteronomy 30:15-20: “Watch out for idiots and don’t be one!” Before you start to think I’m too crass to be offering commentary on biblical passages, let’s look more closely at the passage.
In this biblical account, Moses is offering final words to the Israelites before he bids them farewell and sends them into the promised land. Deuteronomy is a long oration by Moses, God’s chosen leader for the people of Israel, preparing the people for a new season of their lives—a season that they’ve long awaited for for 40 years! I imagine the scene like a big family waiting to go into Disneyland but the gates aren’t open yet. I can just hear it: a small child in the crowd shouting, “Can’t we go in already?!”
But these (nearly) final words from their trusted leader are, perhaps, the most vital for them as they are just inches from what they’ve waited for all these years. He is, quite literally, offering them the choice between life and death. The Common English Bible reads in verse 15, “Look here! Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong.” Notice that Moses isn’t confronting them in regards to their ethics (right/wrong) but, rather, with a choice between a good life and it’s opposite: death and what is wrong. Though there are many areas in our lives and, yes, even in our faith that are gray, the choice here is black and white. Life with God is good (right, even, if we want to take the ethics route) and life without God is no life at all but a path to destruction.
The forty-year journey Israel was about to finish had been done on their own. The only people they had to interact with were their own people, and that alone can lead one to walk away. Moses knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that temptation to walk away from God dwelled thick in the air where they were heading. Not only that, but anyone 40 years or younger had not experienced much life among other nations in their lifetime. We don’t have to read many verses further to know things didn’t go as hoped: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)
The decision seems so clear, so simple, and what we might call a “no-brainer.” Who wouldn’t want the good life Moses is offering on God’s behalf? But, as we know all too well as fellow humans with the Israelites, the decision to walk toward other gods—toward earthly pleasures, wealth, power, etc.—is just as easy if not just a little easier. The difference? The ability to determine the long-term effects of our choices.
As pastors and shepherds, we hold the responsibility of helping our people navigate this journey we call life. This includes setting before them, like Moses did for the Israelites, the options and the outcomes of those options (at least to the extent we know). The exceedingly beautiful part of this, however, yet sometimes the most aggravating, is the truth we can proclaim about these options: we have the choice. As one author puts it, we get to be “co-creators” of our own narrative. God does not strongarm God’s creation into submitting but lays before her a choice. The outcomes of those choices are both tremendous and severe, terrific and terrifying. Of course, God does not want us to choose sin, idolatry, and death, much like our parents and guardians don’t want us to fall off the counter or run into a busy street. But the will of the human is strong, determined, and ultimately free.
If you are preaching this text come Sunday as I am to my congregation, there are many things you could say. First of all, I hope you pray for wisdom in preparing, that your words would be Spirit-led. But no matter what you preach to your people, make sure they know that the God they worship is a God who loves them deeply and wants a good, abundant life for them. Encourage them with the words God gave to Moses for the Israelites: “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.” (vv. 19b-20) God does not abandon God’s people. That is a good word!
I even give you permission to steal my mom’s catchphrase to really drive the point home: “watch out for idiots, and don’t be one!” Disclaimer: I or any associated parties are not responsible for offense taken by use of this phrase.
Blessings on you, shepherd, as you serve this week.
 Stephen G. Green, “5. Choose Life,” in Deuteronomy: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2016), pp. 278-278.