Friday, February 28, 2014

Getting Specific

Getting Specific
Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Mt. 5:38-48[1]
  Much of our faith falls in the category of what most people would call theoretical.  For example, How do you really prove God’s existence?  How do you explain the Trinity?  Who’s ever experienced the afterlife?  But there are other aspects of our faith that are quite specific indeed.  When our faith talks about how we’re to live, it gets down to specifics.  Like measuring the quality of our faith by how we treat the weakest members of society.  Or insisting that our words and our actions match.  Or defining the character of our hearts by the quality of our words and deeds.  When it comes to these kinds of themes, our faith is quite specific.  Maybe too specific for our comfort levels.
  Take our lesson from the Hebrew Bible for today.  If you read Leviticus 19:1-18, you’ll find all the Ten Commandments repeated there, except for the last one.[2]  But what’s really interesting is that the commands are more specific.  Instead of just saying “you shall not steal,” this chapter also says “you shall not deal falsely” (19:11), “you shall not defraud your neighbor” (19:13), and interestingly, “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (19:13). In other words, outright theft isn’t the only kind of “stealing” that the command prohibits!  And when it comes to “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” this chapter may step on some toes.  It says, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God” (19:12).  In other words, the dishonesty of the people of God influences the way others think about God’s character![3] Talk about getting specific!
  But this interesting chapter is also where Jesus got the “second greatest command,” “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  We like that command.  It sounds nice.  But I’m not sure we’ll like it so well after we hear what loving your neighbor means when the Bible gets specific.[4]  Loving your neighbor means that “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest” (19:10). Rather, “you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (19:11).  Rather than using all our material wealth for ourselves, we’re to reserve a portion to help those in need.
  Loving your neighbor also means that “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (19:14).  Instead, they should be treated with dignity and given the respect due to all human beings.  Loving your neighbor means that “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people” (19:16).  The way of love insists that we not talk about others in a manner that diminishes their character. Beyond that, loving your neighbor means “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people” (19:18).  This Scripture gets quite specific about the kinds of actions that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” covers.[5]
  Again, we might be tempted to think that Jesus and the Apostles might give us a break when it comes to being so specific about the actions that loving your neighbor demands of us.  But I’m afraid that’s not the case.  In the context of Leviticus, it is very likely that “loving your neighbor” meant loving fellow Jewish persons.[6]  It didn’t apply to foreigners in general, except those who sought refuge among the Jewish people.  And so Jesus recites the command “you shall love your neighbor” along with its traditional counterpart, “and hate your enemy” (Mt. 5:43). 
  But Jesus won’t stand for that. When it comes to loving your neighbor, Jesus insists that it applies to everyone, everywhere.[7]  He says to “love your enemies” (5:44).  And when you do that, when you can see the person you’ve considered an “enemy” as a “neighbor,” then the whole structure of friend and enemy is dismantled.[8]  Instead of allies and foes, we’re simply left with human beings who are all children of God. And because they are all children of God, they all benefit from God’s love equally.  As Jesus put it, God gives the life-sustaining gifts of sun and rain to all equally (Mt. 5:45).  And if God takes such a generous approach, then those of us who claim to be people of faith can do no less.[9]
  I think that’s what Jesus meant when he called his disciples to “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  It doesn’t mean that we have to be as morally and ethically flawless as God is.  That’s impossible.  But what it does mean is that we are to be constantly striving to give the same generosity to others that we’ve received so freely from God.[10]  I think that’s what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Beginning with the Apostles, serious Christians throughout the ages have sought to discern what that means in terms of specifics.  And we continue to follow that commitment to getting specific when we try to live out the generosity we’ve received from God toward those around us.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/23/2014 at First Presbyerian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Although the first, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is not mentioned specifically, it seems to me that it’s implied in the call, “I am the Lord your God.”
[3] Contrast Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus, 227-28, where he argues that this identification should not be made, but rather the Holiness Code is simply focused on “lying oaths” here.
[4] Joel S. Kaminsky, “Loving One's (Israelite) Neighbor: Election And Commandment In Leviticus 19,” Interpretation 62 (Apr 2008): 125: In the context of the covenant relationship, “loving one's neighbor was not simply (and perhaps not even primarily) an affective state, but rather an obligation to act properly towards such an individual.”  Cf. Similarly, Milgrom, Leviticus, 234; and Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 59.
[5] Cf. Walter Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” New Interpreters Bible, I:1136, where he says, “To be holy is ... to imitate God. To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. That is why, in this great chapter on moral holiness, the emphasis falls on social justice.”
[6] Kaminsky, “Loving One's (Israelite) Neighbor,” 123-24. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:804.  Unfortunately, he argues that this is also true of the “love of neighbor” in the New Testament. He says it applies to “the circle of the community of Jesus Christ gathered by the Holy Spirit.”  Even though he recognizes the fact that Jesus included “the enemy” in Mt. 5:44-45, he says, “Even here, however, there can be no question of any extension in principle of Christian love to a universal love of humanity.”  Contrast Milgrom, Leviticus, 226, where he asks, “Are we to infer that the Israelite is free to lay aside any of the ethical rules in dealing with him? Here is where abstract logical reasoning leads astray. The forgotten factor is that the H school probably had no contact with foreigners.”  In other words, the fact that “love for neighbor” was applied only to fellow Jewish persons resulted from the limited contact the circle that developed the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus (“the H school”) had with foreigners.  But he argues that making that a principle of ethics leads us “astray”!
[7] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads Of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003): 282.
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 202: “We are not the enemies of our enemies; we are ‘the children of our Father in heaven’, ... . If we do not react to enmity with enmity, we creatively make it possible for our enemies to turn away from their enmity and to enter into the life we share.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 175: “One should not become the enemy of one’s enemy, but should liberate him from his enmity.”
[9] Cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 555-55.  Contrast Kaminsky, 128, where he distinguishes between "the perfectionist ethic found in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount" with "the much more realistic ethic found in the Levitical code" which "never commands one to love one's enemies, a rather unnatural act."
[10] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 562, where they say, “To obey Jesus words ... is, therefore, to love utterly: no more can be asked.”  They further observe (p. 563) that “The motivation for being ‘perfect’ in love is grounded in the Father’s ‘perfect’ love, in his giving without measure.”  See further ibid., 560, where they suggest that what actually lies behind the “be perfect” of Mt. 5:48 is the “be holy” of Lev. 19:2.

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