Turning Aside from the Way Ordained

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matt 7:21 (NAB)

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Deut 11.18, 26-28, 32
Rom 3.21-25, 28
Matt 7.21-27
(view the readings at the USCCB site)

Very interesting how the two reading cycles converge in today’s liturgy – which they certainly don’t always do. The first reading is not on a cycle, but is usually an Old Testament reading that somehow typifies, or at least contextualizes, the reading in the Gospel cycle. The Gospel reading today is from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus finishes by making a startling distinction between effective and vain forms of encountering Him. I sometimes hear people refer to this as the difference between giving lip service and real service to God, but I don’t think that goes far enough.

True, in Mt 7.24-27, Jesus clarifies the distinction by differentiating between those who act on His words and those who don’t, but I don’t think this is just about the need to put faith into action. It is about faith being rooted in truth, in God’s will. This seems very clearly illuminated in the first reading.

Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, God has placed before the people His words, and invited them to respond. Paralleling the “act on them”/”not act on them” distinction in the Gospel, we see the options to obey or not obey the commandments, bringing about blessing or curse.

The curse in Dt. 11.28 is identified with three phrases: not obeying the commandments; turning aside from the way ordained; and following other gods not known. There’s no distinction made between the first two terms – disobeying the commandments is turning aside from the way ordained – but the third term is given as a reason: to follow unknown gods. In other words, turning aside from the way ordained is said, by the LORD, to be done for the purpose of following other gods.

I think it’s important not to miss the significance of the assumption this verse is pregnant with: that one does not fail to obey the commandments except to follow other gods – perhaps even that one cannot turn away from the way ordained (The Way) without following other gods. So not only is following the LORD without obeying the commandments excluded a priori, but so is any semblance of agnosticism – at least among those who have heard the commandments, the “words.” This is sensible enough: having encountered the truth, one can accept it or reject it, but one can hardly claim to be unaware of its existence.

I think the NASB, HCSB, NIV and NJB get this verse wrong by translating it: “turn aside from the way… by following other gods.” (To its credit, the NASB does put “[Lit: to follow]” in the margin.) I’m not suggesting that following other gods is not in and of itself a turning aside from the way ordained – it’s a violation of the 1st Commandment – but the wording in these texts envisions sin (turning away) following from idolatry, instead of the other way around. There may be a reciprocal relationship between them, but I think the text is trying to tell us here basically that pride goes before a fall; the desire for falsehood precedes the lie.

Many of the loosey-goosey translations seem to botch this passage at least as badly. I see far too much leaning in them toward the wrong-headed idea that fidelity to God is about worshiping the “right” god, and, conversely and even more so, that worshiping the “wrong” god is what constitutes a sinner – and especially an enemy. This is an overly simplistic reading, and I think both the Matthew reading and the Romans reading witness against it.

Just a few verses earlier in Deuteronomy, we read: “be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them” Deut 11:16 (NAB). The word that the NAB here translates “lured away” is often translated as “deceived.” Idolatry is enticing, but it is by means of embracing falsehood (deception) that one is brought to idolatry. When Jesus says “I never knew you [evildoers]” to those who protest: “we cast out demons in your name,” we see the fruits of religious self-deception at work in those who may be very much in conformity to the exterior norms of a life of faith, and even impressively so, but who are not transformed themselves to a life of fidelity to God’s Word, which amounts to taking the truth as a yoke to bear, without regard to personal cost – that is the knowledge of Christ that unfolds in the life of the disciple. We cannot turn back from that path without “exchanging” gods.

This is essentially what Paul is getting at in the Romans reading as well, though he comes at it from a very different angle. Paul had to deal not only with practitioners of religious self-deception, but with teachers of it. The issue is complex, and deserves much more time than I can give it here, but we are still talking about the difference between approaching the spiritual life as an exercise in religious conformance, and approaching it as a humble – and grateful – subject of the encounter with ultimate truth. We are not made right with God through the practice of religious activities – ritual or charismatic – but through persevering faithfully in the ever-unfolding encounter with truth, as God has revealed it in the person of Jesus Christ.