The Lectionary This Week — How to Love God and Love Your Neighbor

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Reformation Sunday, 26 October 2014 (Year A)

  • Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

After several weeks of difficult and even unpleasant readings from Matthew, this Sunday’s readings — and it’s Reformation Sunday for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — give us something that, at first blush, seems a lot less problematic. Something we can find some grace in. Something that doesn’t involve kings and masters burning villages and consigning the improperly dressed to outer darkness.

The gospel reading is from Matthew 22, verses 34-46:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46 ESV)

“On these two commandments depend all of the Law [νόμος] and the Prophets.” Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and body, and loving your neighbor as yourself. These are the whole of not just the Law, the Torah, the teaching that God gives to Israel as it wanders in exile, but also of the prophetic critique God makes of Israel as the divided kingdoms are sliding toward conquest, exile, and oblivion. Israel is called to love God, and to practice love toward others, as its part in the call by God to follow. And the failure to love God, and love neighbor, will be the cause of the disaster looming over the divided kingdoms as Assyrians and Babylonians bear down upon them.

Love is that important.

We’re lucky, this Sunday, for having some real guide to what that love looks like. Too often, we’re deprived of concrete examples of what “love of neighbor” look like in daily living. But the first reading from this coming Sunday, from Leviticus 19, does a very good job of laying out in black and white what that love is supposed to look like as God’s people strive to live with each other (the lectionary reading excludes verses 3-8, but I have included them here):

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God:I am the Lord.

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:1-18 ESV)

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is about being holy — קָד֔וֹשׁ — and so it would be fair that in these commands God gives to Israel, God is describing what holiness looks like.

And it looks like generosity. It looks like grace.

All of these acts are relational. The you here in the commands is singular, and all this is spoken to the individual Israelite. The commands and prohibitions are about life together as the people of God. How I treat you, and how you treat me, matters. These commands speak to what it means to live with each, and how each us should live with each other. Especially with the most vulnerable — we aren’t to strip our fields bare, whether to maximize our own gain or to keep all of the produce for ourselves. There are people who rely on gleanings, on the grapes dropped in the vineyard, on the fat of the land, for their sustenance. Just as Israel relied on manna gathered daily — and only daily — for food in the wilderness.

Down the list, the prohibitions against stealing, lying, profaning the name of God, depriving laborers or servants — who would be neighbors — of their earnings, cursing the blind and deaf and making life unduly difficult for them, showing partiality in court, slandering neighbors, hating and taking vengeance upon neighbors — all of these things destroy trust, allow the strong to behave callously and cruelly toward the weak.

It isn’t how God treats God’s people.

Note, with the exception of not hating “your brother in your heart,” this love of neighbor isn’t about feeling good about your neighbor. It isn’t in what you think or believe about your neighbor. It’s almost entirely about how you act toward your neighbor.

Even when it seems they are solely about personal piety in which no one else is affected. How can keeping leftover meat for three days even approach sinfulness, much less the kind of sin that would merit someone being “cut off from his people”? (And that consequence for keeping leftovers is probably the reason these verses were not included in this week’s readings.) Possibly because it shows a lack of generosity, and unwillingness to share, or a belief that something must be hoarded, either because it’s scarce or simply because it’s delicious. No reason is stated here, but given what else this prohibition is bundled with, it would make sense that this is about an unwillingness to be generous. To share without fear.

While Leviticus will go on to describe holiness as being separate:

23 And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. … 25 You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. 26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Leviticus 20:23, 25-26 ESV)

in our reading for this Sunday, holiness is described as generosity, honesty, kindness, truthfulness. We are not Canaanites, and we do not live like Canaanites. Not just in what we don’t do (this section of Leviticus is full of things Israel is forbidden from doing), but also in the things we do for each other. In the ways we live together. We care for one another. We create a community where the poor, the blind, the deaf (and others) don’t just eke out a living in some neglected corner, but live with some dignity in the midst of everyone.

This is what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … [and] … love your neighbor as yourself.”

If there is a weakness in this Leviticus passage, it is the sense that neighbors are largely restricted to “your own people” (בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ). This is a legitimate concern, especially since Israel has been commanded to separate itself from the Canaanites, the people whose land they have been given, who they are conquering, the people God is driving out from the land. Is nothing owed the stranger, the foreigner, even the one set aside for destruction?

Well, I cannot speak to the Canaanites — who aren’t exterminated, by the way — but God does instruct Israel quite explicitly later in Leviticus 19:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)

The stranger, the sojourner, is to be treated the same as the kinsman. The stranger, the sojourner, is also a neighbor, entitled to the gleanings from the field, to the kindness and respect due every fellow Israelite.

(Don’t forget, however, that this talk of loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew comes as something of a break in a long series of deeds, parables, and discussions about the coming judgement of God upon God’s people Israel. And after this, Jesus gets serious — down and dirty — in describing the hows and whys of that coming judgement.)

* * *

And then after this, Jesus asks the Pharisees an interesting question: “What do you think of the Christ [the anointed one]? Whose son is he?”

It’s a fascinating question, since Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 110 to suggest that the Christ — the anointed one — cannot possibly be the Son of David, since David calls him “Lord.” At least I find it fascinating, since Matthew so clearly puts Jesus in line with both David and Abraham at the very beginning of his gospel:

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1 ESV)

So, Matthew puts him in this lineage, while he also quotes Jesus seeming to deny it. It’s a stunning juxtaposition. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it.

I think I know why Matthew roots Jesus so solidly in that lineage of Abraham and David — Jesus inherits the promises given to Abraham, bears those promises, witnesses those promises, and finally fulfills this promises. The same is true of the promises made to David. To Abraham, God promises many descendants, a land of his own, and that he will be a blessing to the world. To David, God promises to establish his kingdom forever.

Jesus is given all of these promises, and in him, they are all fulfilled. (I have come to believe that for Matthew, Jesus is Israel.) And yet, he is bigger than Abraham and Moses and David and even all Israel gathered from exile. I cannot quite put my finger on this right now. Mostly this is just churning around in my mind. But Jesus’ story, from the beginning of his ministry to his passion and eventually his resurrection, is the story of Israel, it parallels the judgement that is about to descend upon Israel in the coming war, and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.