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We don’t often read from the book of Leviticus. But, none the less, you may have found some of the words in that first reading today from Leviticus vaguely familiar. You may have recognised some of them as being reminiscent of the 10 Commandments – like "you shall not steal". You may even have recognised some of them as words Jesus quoted.
Most particularly, I hope, you recognised the words right at the end – "you shall love your neighbour as yourself" – words which Jesus quoted more than once as the second of the two greatest commandments – "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and...soul, and...mind...And...you shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus even slips the command to love your neighbour in briefly in our Gospel reading today – in Matthew 5:43. Whenever Jesus mentions the great commandment to love your neighbour, it’s from this passage in Leviticus that he is quoting.
But our Leviticus reading isn’t an account of God giving the 10 Commandments. Instead, it’s one of the many occasions when God, through Moses, explained and elaborated on the commandments and added some extra ones – what you might call supplementary ones. What God wanted wasn’t just a simple slavish following of a few rules. You had to think what lay behind the rules and what each meant; for example, not stealing meant not dealing falsely, not defrauding people, and not keeping back workers’ wages. In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is doing something rather similar. He’s taking some of the commandments and, again, explaining and elaborating on them.
We'll look at these passages in a moment. Before we do I want to go back and recall something we were thinking about last week. One of the things we did then was think about God as creator, and reminded ourselves of his great power. We even sang a song about it – one we didn’t know very well, but the words were quite easy because most of the time we just had to sing "nothing is too difficult for Thee". "Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing, Nothing is too difficult for Thee".
That’s a wonderful thought – God, you are so great and powerful, nothing is too difficult for you!
But, you know, there’s a risk for us when we say or sing words like that. God is so powerful – it’s very tempting just to think we should leave everything to him. It’s as if we could hand him the problems of the world – violence, war, injustice and so on – and imagine that like some sort of fairy godmother he can be left to sort it out.
Our readings today tell us of some of the things God cannot do on his own – things he needs us to do, things where he needs your help and my help.
And it comes about because there is one thing God cannot do, not because it’s too difficult, but because it’s actually impossible.
God can’t make you love your neighbour!
He can ask you to love your neighbour. He can try to persuade you to love your neighbour. He can command you to love your neighbour. But he can’t make you love your neighbour because love is something that must always be freely given.
If God somehow "programmed" us to love one another – then it wouldn’t be love. He could program us to do all the right things – but we wouldn’t be loving. We’d just be machines – computers, if you like, just carrying out a program. God doesn’t want a world full of machines that just do the right thing, and so that’s not what he created. He wants a world full of people who love – who love him, and who love each other. So he created people who could love. But that meant they were also people who could choose not to love – or simply forget to love.
But God didn’t just leave it at that. He did what he certainly could do – he commanded us to love. And, through Moses and eventually through Jesus – not to mention many others – he taught us just what loving our neighbour really meant. Our readings today from Leviticus and Matthew are just a tiny part of that teaching.
One of the first things we discover from our Leviticus reading is that it means caring for the poor and the stranger. In verse 9 it says:
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. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.
These seem strange words to us, not least because they were addressed to a farming community over 3000 years ago! It’s as if Sainsbury’s should let in the poor at the end of the day to help themselves to anything left on the shelves and anything that’s fallen on the floor! Today we might imagine there are more appropriate ways of helping the poor – but, whatever those ways may be, it’s important that they are done. God cares about the poor – and wants us to care. They are our neighbours; God loves them, and commands us to love them.
Then look at v 14:
You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God.
God cares about people with disabilities, too – they are our neighbours. Or what about v 15:
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 neighbour.
God wants justice – a fair and equitable system. But, while elsewhere God prescribes all manner of punishments for particular crimes, here he points out that it must never be a matter of seeking revenge or bearing a grudge. The context in which that "greatest commandment" to love our neighbour comes is interesting – in v 18:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself, it seems, particularly when he or she has been less than neighbourly! We are commanded to love our neighbour at the very moment that they have done something over which we might feel inclined to take vengeance or at least bear a grudge. Our neighbour is our neighbour, and we are to love him or her – even if he or she has failed to love us.
And who is our neighbour? Not just the person next door, as we all know. Our neighbour is the poor person, the stranger – the alien, as our reading puts it – perhaps we should say, the immigrant. Our neighbour is the disabled person, the person who needs justice – and the person who upsets us.
As with the first reading, we are looking at a tiny part of a much larger story – or, in this case, a much larger discourse by Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount. And we pick it up as Jesus says, in v 38:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
The rule "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" was one of the many additional laws the Jews had, and it was intended to limit the amount of vengeance, or retribution, one could exact. But Jesus, following the same theme as we picked up at the end of the other reading, insists we should renounce any right to vengeance or retaliation altogether. Our attitude needs to be one of love – whether the neighbour we have encountered is a violent aggressor, someone who, rightly or wrongly, is aggrieved enough to take us to court, or the oppressive soldier who, in Jesus’ day, was entitled to compel anyone he chose to carry his pack for a mile and often made the mile a rather long one!
But, as if that wasn’t enough, Jesus goes on to broaden this still more; v 44:
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
So it’s not just a matter of still loving those who occasionally upset us – love has to extend to even to those who are out to harm us, even destroy us. Who does Jesus think we are?
Perhaps that’s a silly question – but there is no doubt who Jesus wants us to be, because he goes on:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Jesus wants us to be God’s children – and that means we act like him. God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good – he loves them all, and he wants us to love them all, too.
Of course, it’s all a very tall order. How can we possibly manage to be like that? Do we even want to be like that? Some of us may not be so sure. And many people have come to the conclusion that Jesus' demands on us here are so great that our only possible response is to say "sorry, God" and admit we cannot possibly meet Jesus’ standards. We are imperfect people and we need forgiveness and redemption. Our response must be to turn to Jesus in repentance.
But, while that is true, we mustn’t lose sight of the overall picture. God didn’t give us these commandments just to make us feel small and repent. He actually wants the world to run that way and, as we saw earlier on, he needs our help to do it. Maybe it can’t happen straight away – perhaps it’s more of a goal to aim for. If Jesus is really laying it on when he gives us these almost impossible commandments it is to make a point – love is what matters. God just isn’t into the kind of world where those who upset us or annoy us get zapped – the kind of world he wants is one where everyone is loved and cared about whatever they do!
To put it another way – God, as we saw earlier, wants a world of justice – a fair and equitable world. That almost certainly means there has got to be punishment for wrongdoers and protection for the rest of society. But punishment does not have to be vengeance – it can still be to reform, to correct and to protect. And, to punish someone doesn’t mean we don’t care about them and love them. As someone has said, we can hate the sin without hating the sinner.
So how do we react to all that? What should loving our neighbour mean for us? It may be daunting to think about the most difficult things Jesus – and Moses – said, about loving enemies and setting aside any claim to vengeance when we are wronged. But let’s not forget the other things we looked at – caring for the poor, the stranger, the disabled person – and working for a just and equitable world. These are all things we might not find quite so difficult – but do we actually do anything about them?
And, when it comes to the more difficult neighbours there are to love, let’s remember that, even though it’s hard, it’s not impossible. Some have done it – think of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King. But most of us don’t have to deal with enemies who are out to destroy us – we might just have a few scores we want to settle. Is it time to give those ideas up? When we look at Jesus' – and Moses' – command to love our neighbour, maybe our response should be not, "It’s so hard with some people" but, "Where and how can I begin?" And remember, God doesn’t leave us alone without the help of his Spirit.
Note  Song "Ah Lord God" - Kay Chance © 1976 - Complete Mission Praise no 6.
This sermon was given on 25th May 2008 - the 1st Sunday after Trinity. © Copyright David Gray 2008.
Page last updated 26 May 2008.
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