'The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
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.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.'
--Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18
You might want to mark this day down and remember it. Today an Episcopal priest is going to talk about Leviticus. Crazy, huh?! While Leviticus may be that book that we choose to ignore because 1) it has a ton of rules and regulations and 2) it contains some VERY hard passages, it also has some essential pieces that defined what it meant to belong to the Children of Israel. These passages would be picked up by the rabbis down through the years, taught and retaught, interpreted and reinterpreted, until a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus not only taught them but embodied them, as well. Perhaps none of those passages is greater or has more significance for us as followers of Jesus, than Leviticus 19: 18—“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, Leviticus DOES contain one of the most important lines in all of Scripture, it's just NOT the one that a number of so-called Christians choose to remember!
'When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”'
--Matthew 22: 34-40
On the Tuesday of the last week of his life, Jesus was bombarded with questions by scribes and Pharisees. Earlier in the day they asked him whether it was lawful to pay taxes, and if you read last week's blog you know how that played out. Later in that same day one of the Pharisees, this one a lawyer, comes to test him and asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the greatest?” This wasn’t exactly an unusual request in fact, it happened pretty regularly, as folks often wanted to know which commandments an individual rabbi thought were most important. There is a story in the Talmud that reflects this, as a matter of fact.
In that story a Gentile approaches two well-known Pharisees in Jesus’ day named Shammai and Hillel. The Gentile asks them to teach him the whole of Torah—the entire Jewish law—while he stands on one foot. Shammai calls him an idiot and drives him away using a broomstick, because, he says, the Torah cannot be crystalized. But Hillel, calls the man back, has him put one foot behind him, and begins to teach him, saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereon; go and learn it.”
An artist's depiction of the Talmudic story of the Gentile and the Pharisee Hillel.
Hillel and Jesus seem to have been cut from the save cloth, for when answers the lawyer he gives a similar response. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6: 5, which is the single most important passage in all of the Hebrew Testament. It is called the shema and says, "Here O Israel, the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind." Jesus then adds on Leviticus 19: 18, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is Detueronmy 6: 5 that Jews to this day mount on their doorposts in containers called mezuzots and on their arms and heads in boxes called tefilin. It is the foundation of the Abrahamic faiths, that God is one and that we must love God with our whole selves. It is Leviticus 19: 18, though, that is at the core of all practical spirituality, for Jews and Christians (and even Muslims!). How do we put the first commandment into use? By doing the second. How do we love God? By loving our neighbor. It's fascinating that when he is asked what the greatest commandment is (singular), Jesus puts these two commandments from separate books of the Hebrew Testament together; after all, one cannot have one without the other.
Love God, love your neighbor. It’s so familiar to us that it’s become something of a Christian cliché. Heck, in the Episcopal Church our traditional celebration of the Eucharist, which we call Rite I, still includes these two these two commandments in what is known as the Summary of the Law. Yet behind the familiarity is the radical meaning of these two commands, which, I suspect, is the reason Jesus answers that lawyer’s question the way that he does. To love God above everything else means giving to God what belongs to God: our heart, soul, and mind. These belong to God, not to Caesar or any other empire. Again, if you read last week you’ll remember how Jesus’ overall message is one that reminds people that supreme power and authority of this world belongs not to the principalities instituted by human beings but to God. This is radical monotheism, for if God is one, and there is no other Lord, then the lords of this world—Caesar and all the others—ultimately have no real power. Thus, to love one’s neighbor as oneself means to refuse to accept the divisions and oppressive systems these powers and principalities have created, between the respected and marginalized, the righteous and sinners, the rich and poor, the friends and enemies, the Jews and Gentiles. Those are just the ones we can name from Jesus' time, but we can add plenty from today's world. If we truly love God and we truly believe God is our only Lord, then we cannot help but love those whom God has created. Because it is only when we love God that other people truly become lovable to us. We cannot love others unless we love God.
Throughout the Bible we are told that human beings are not just a collection of bones and dust. We are not a cosmic accident, but we are made in the very image of God. Again, this is something of a cliché like loving God and neighbor, but we are. All of us! It is for that reason that we are, in fact, lovable. Take away that reality, make people think they are not lovable or made in God's image, and that’s when the worst of humanity shines through.
This is why, I think, the line from Leviticus is so important. What does love your neighbor as yourself mean when we don’t love ourselves? When I look at the world and see some pretty cruel people, when I see people do some pretty awful things to others and say some pretty awful things about others, I often think that they are acting not so much from a place of hate for the other person but a place of hate for themselves. Love your neighbor as yourself also means that we must actually love ourselves. We must actually believe that we are worthwhile, that we are made in the image of God, that our shame and all the hurtful things that others say about us are not enough to kill that divine spark within us. For when we give in to our shame and cannot believe that we are, in fact, good, then we are so often prone to lashing out at others. But if we can love ourselves, then it is possible to love others. For both of those kinds of love flow from the never-failing, never-ending love of God.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Love God, love each other. It's anything but simple. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do. We humans have a tendency to be pretty selfish, to horde what belongs to us, and to only look out for ourselves, especially when the chips are down. Love is pretty radical, even miraculous. To truly love God means to give everything we have to God and for God. To truly love our neighbor as ourselves is to first see ourselves as being made in the image of God, worthy of divine love, and then to see in the face of the other, especially the one who so very different from ourselves, that same image, and to remind that person that he or she is also worthy of such amazing love. To love God and neighbor means to be self-less, rather than selfish, to give what we have on behalf of those who are in need, and to look out for others before looking out for ourselves. Jesus didn’t just teach this, he lived it. Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, for the rest of us, it ain’t easy. If it was, we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we?