Light from the Sidra

Ki Tetze ('When you go out') 29th August 2015 14th Ellul 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19. Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

Drastic action

Kids. Who’d have ‘em? You give them the best years of your life, you feed them, clothe them, provide for them and then they turn into teenagers. Hormones begin to surge round their rapidly changing pubescent bodies. Suddenly our sweet little angels turn into obnoxious, surly, highly-strung couch potatoes who refuse to do a thing they are told. What can you do? Ground them? Stop their pocket money? Stone them to death?

Stone them! The Torah took no prisoners. Ki Tetsei offers a sure-fire solution to the problem of rebellious sons: death. To our modern and post-modern minds the Torah, this teaching appears barbarous. What society stones its erring children to death? But before we get too carried away, let’s remind ourselves that this seemingly inhumane solution to teenage rebellion must have shocked the ancient Israelite society that received the law. And it was meant to. All Israel was to hear this and fear (Deut 21:21).

The Torah is not talking about some kid who’s a practical joker or a teenager who won’t clean his room. The son in view is an utter delinquent whose hardened, insubordinate behaviour can’t be corrected in spite of everyone’s best efforts. He’s a repeat offender: ‘when [his father and his mother] discipline him, but he does not hearken to them’ (Deut. 21:18). He’s a picture of insubordination – ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ (Deut 21:20).

This was a serious problem that would have a profoundly destructive effect on the family and the wider community (incidentally, ‘a glutton and a drunkard’ – a very serious charge in ancient Israel – was an accusation levelled against Jesus by some of his opponents). Such a son would inevitably squander his inheritance after his father died and would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. But the parents were not to take matters into their own hands; they were to confer with the civil authorities who were responsible for maintaining an orderly, functioning society. Once they had taken that step, the parents were no longer in the picture; they were not taking charge of their rebellious son’s punishment. Instead, the community carried out the exercise of social responsibility. And when they took the drastic action of stoning the delinquent, it was as a tragic last resort to deal with a serious social problem.

We have to read the Torah as a whole. The Torah was based on love. The drastic answer to lawlessness in Deuteronomy 21 was part of a system of precepts that could be summed up by the ‘golden’ rule, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. But the primary and most important principle was love for God. Israel was to be his showcase to the world. As such, they were to be an example to the nations in their way of life. Any evil within the nation, therefore, had to be purged, which was the purpose of the commandment in question. It wasn’t just that the son rebelled against his mum and dad; the son – whoever’s son he was – was a breaker of the divine commandments and sin against God is always worthy of death.

On the surface, this week’s Haftorah appears to have little to do with the Sidra. But Isaiah 54:1-10 presents a rebellious Israelite nation under the judgement of God. For a while God had abandoned Israel, he had poured out his wrath on his people and hidden his face from them. But through Isaiah HASHEM promised that a day would dawn when he would show Israel ‘eternal kindness’. Just as the earth had recovered from the deluge of Noah so, after divine punishment, the nation would experience the ‘kindness’ of HASHEM and know his ‘covenant of peace’.

Everyone has heard of the parable of the ‘prodigal son’, the story of a young Jew who tells his father he can’t wait for him to die; he wants his share of his father’s inheritance there and then. When dad hands over the money, the son leaves home, squanders the entire sum and is reduced to feeding pigs. The starving son then comes to his senses and heads for home to throw himself on the mercy of his father.

In Jesus’ story, the son is a classic example of a child who rebels against his father and mother and becomes a ‘drunkard and a glutton’. But in Jesus’ story, instead of hauling his son up before the village elders as the Torah demanded, the father gave his son what he asked for and allowed him to go his own way. The people who originally heard the story must have been scandalised beyond belief, especially when the father forgave the son for throwing away his inheritance. But the father was God and the defiant son was none other than rebellious Israel. The nation had turned its back on its God but the Father of the nation was showing ‘eternal kindness’ and was about to establish his ‘covenant of peace’ through the blood of the Messiah.

The irony of the situation was that those who were regarded as beyond the pale by the religious establishment – the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers – were finding their way back to their Father’s house while the religious leaders of Israel looked on with distain and refused to sit down with them at the Messianic banquet.

People say, ‘Why doesn’t God stop the evil in the world?’ Well, consider this: if HASHEM were to purge the world of all evil today, who among us would be left alive? We’ve all rebelled against him but instead of punishing us, God has declared an amnesty. Whoever turns to him through Messiah Jesus will be accepted and welcomed to feast in the kingdom of God. Whoever continues to stand on their dignity pleading tradition and mitzvot and refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the anointed of God will find themselves excluded from the Messianic kingdom and cast into outer darkness.

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