Guidelines and Grace
 — Rev. Tom Jones

October 26, 2014

Leviticus 19: 1-4, 11-18
Matthew 22:34-40

May wisdom and love guide our spiritual growth this morning, as we recognize our own needs and the things that lead to greater cooperation and trust within our community. Amen.

Last Sunday we read a passage from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, where the Pharisees asked Jesus if they should pay taxes to Rome, & Jesus replied, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that belong to God.” Yesterday as I was putting some groceries away in the kitchen, my 4 year old nephew, Jonah, was taking each item out of the grocery bag and giving them to me, and proudly announced, ”I’m the Givernator!” I think that new term summarizes what we are all called to do, to give others love & support, to give our hearts to God’s priorities, to become God’s Givernators!

The gospel lesson for today follows the passage from last week, with the Pharisees still questioning Jesus in an attempt to set him up or trick him into saying something they could use against him. This time their question is, “Which is the greatest commandment?” According to the Pharisees at that time, all of the commandments were equally important, so asking which is the most important becomes a trick question. Jesus gives them two commandments, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” However, we quickly realize that we must clarify what it means for any person to love; is it just a warm fuzzy feeling, or an absence of hatred, or an absence of apathy, or does it imply some specific behaviors? Love that is just a nice feeling degenerates into sentimentality and irrelevance very quickly. Love of God, self and neighbor must include commitment and action. Yet, we are still left with questions about how does one actually put love into practice; what is it we are supposed to do, or to avoid? It may seem to some people that the United Church of Christ does not have any expectations or commandments, since we are often talking about loving all people, even our enemies, no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey. Does that mean we are supposed to tolerate virtually any kind of sin or misbehavior? If God is just going to forgive us in the end anyway, and we don’t even have a creed that states what we all must believe, then how do we ever figure out what we are supposed to do, or not to do?

OK, I realize that I am not just “preaching to the choir”, I’m preaching to a UCC congregation, and we all know that there are values we do share, and we do base our faith in scripture. We do have an expectation that each member of every church should educate themselves about what the Bible says, as well as the history and culture of the people who wrote it, interpreted it, and learned how God has always been speaking to God’s children. We believe that the clergy should be educated and continue their education throughout their ministry, but we also believe it is every Christian’s responsibility to learn how to apply biblical truth to their own lives. So, I may think it is very insightful to realize that when Jesus calls us to love our enemies, it does not mean we have to feel affection for them, but we are called to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. You may say that the true importance of loving your neighbor as yourself is that it implies you must love yourself and make healthy choices about how you treat yourself physically, & spiritually. Someone else may say the importance of loving God, self and others is that we not become narcissistic or treat ourselves better than others. I think that this broad diversity of theological interpretation makes our denomination and our congregation a stronger, more vibrant, and more mature spiritual home. Rather than having no standards, I’d say we have standards that take into account all of our individual needs & differences.

However, the danger of just leaving it up to each individual to decide what constitutes loving God, self & neighbor adequately, is that we may excuse ourselves from making a serious commitment to honestly loving with all our hearts, minds, & strength. We could weaken the concept of “tough-love”, or confronting ourselves or others when we go astray, and being human, we do stray, even if our sins do not make the evening news. Sometimes the most loving thing a parent or friend can do is to realize when they should avoid stepping-in to rescue someone from the natural consequences of their impulsive or irresponsible actions. Can it actually be a loving act to step back and pray for someone you care about, but not to fix their problems for them? Love is clearly much more than just pleasant feelings; so what are the relevant guidelines or commandments that help us know what it means to be a loving person?

I suspect that just as we need the grace and forgiveness of Jesus interceding for us to bring salvation, we also need to balance God’s unconditional love for us with the Law & the prophets of the Old Testament. We may struggle more with the law & the prophets, because they seem too rigid, too judgmental, or we just don’t like to be told what to do. The Book of Leviticus in particular may seem to be out-of-date, trivial, & irrelevant to our modern lives. So, let’s look at this passage the lectionary paired with the gospel for this morning. Many of the chapters in Leviticus begin with the words, “The Lord spoke to Moses…” followed by rules for ritual cleanliness, dietary guidelines, and how God’s Chosen People would define their identity as distinct from other nations. However there is a shift between the first 16 chapters of Leviticus, where holiness is seen as being one of God’s attributes, which can possibly be attained by some priests, and the concept of holiness in chapters 17-26, which focus on God calling all of us to be holy, because God is holy. In Leviticus 19 we can see this concept of holiness extending beyond the priesthood and the sanctuary into the entire community. Our passage from chapter 19 today highlights the fact that we do bring holiness into our community relationships. This puts the focus on how we act in everyday life, not just how well we follow certain rituals in church. The Pharisees in Jesus’ time thought they could achieve holiness by following laws about avoiding contact with anyone or anything that was unclean, while Jesus put the focus on treating people with compassion & brought holiness into all of our relationships. As Americans in the 21st century, I think we seem to worship the idol of rugged individualism, and lose sight of how important our interactions are with others in our community. We operate under a system of laws in our society that separates civil from criminal, and excludes religious practices, while the Torah combines all of these areas of law, and Leviticus 19 includes rules about behavior as well as one’s attitude & emotions. The commandments in today’s passage cover what people do in their own homes, in their occupations, what they are thinking, and how they worship together, as holiness should shape everything about our lives.

When Bill read the passage from Leviticus 19 this morning, it may have sounded somewhat familiar, as it echoes the Ten Commandments. However, similar passages are not exactly the same. Differences arise from different times, different cultural or world events. The Ten Commandments in both Deuteronomy and Exodus were written at different times, as the people moved from being nomadic herdsmen to a more settled agrarian society. This section of Leviticus may have been written after the Babylonian exile, and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event that changed how people thought of themselves and their understanding of God’s Word. There is a new emphasis on relationships with each other and with God. The Ten Commandments start with rules about how we are to worship God; Leviticus 19 opens with the commandment to respect and revere your parents. The wording is also changed compared to the fifth commandment, as it lists reverence for your mother before father, which gives special honor to mothers. These are ways the biblical authors are linking holiness with our everyday lives. Their description of what we are to do and what we are to avoid helps us put into practice the commandments to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Another way we can understand the ancient Hebrews’ perspective about holiness and sin is in how they associated internal, emotional feelings with their behavioral expression. We may initially be tempted to view their holiness code as being rigidly judgmental, as it covers their psychological state, as well as their actions, while we only outlaw behaviors, not attitudes in our legal system. Since the people Moses led connected internal feelings to their behavioral expression, the concept “to covet” always involved the attempt to actually take what one strongly desired, thus the word “covet” can be translated as “to steal.” Similarly, our passage for today prohibits seeking revenge as well as bearing a grudge, linking the psychological state with its behavioral consequence. I suspect their point was a recognition that when you start going down a path of resentment & vengeance, tragedies are more likely to occur.

I hope you may have a little more positive feeling about the holiness codes in the Torah, and not assume that we are so modern & sophisticated that these ancient rules are irrelevant to our lives. I think we all may agree that every time we hear about another school shooting on the news, we realize that the commandment prohibiting murder is still a necessity for all humanity. Apparently we have not mastered all of the essential commandments that teach us how to love God with all our hearts and soul and minds, nor how to love your neighbor as yourself. And yet, we also see that God’s faithfulness endures in spite of our human failures. God reaches out to us in grace, helping us to grow, teaching us how deep our compassion could be, if we were to sincerely accept the vision of living our lives according to God’s call to be holy, because our God is holy.

May it be so. Amen.