[Scriptures for the day are at the bottom of the post]
They say parenthood is ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love’. One of the things a parent tries to do is teach their kids about life and prepare them for adulthood. Kids need to know what’s expected of them, and how to be polite, and how to get along with other people, and what’s right and what’s wrong.
And we sometimes run into trouble when what other parents teach their kids is not what we’ve taught our kids. But on the whole, as parents, we do our best to give our children the very best — and that’s something that comes from deep inside us. We teach them what we know. We tell them about the mistakes we’ve made. We give them advice. We guide them. And in the end, if all goes well, our efforts result in healthy, reasonably well-adjusted adults who have a lot in common with their parents. Kids learn more from us than we realize, and they take after us more than they know.
Our relationship with God is like that. Our reading from Leviticus today contains a lot of rules and regulations. And our temptation is to read this like a rule-book… or like lawyers who are facing a tough judge, and are looking for loopholes.
Instead, let’s look at this passage as if it’s our own parent speaking — because it is. God, our parent, is teaching us what’s expected of us, and how to get along with other people, and what’s right and what’s wrong. And these words come from deep inside God. They are an expression of who God is. And as we learn them and do them we become more like our parent in heaven.
Think about the Ten Commandments for a moment: God rested on the Sabbath, and tells us to do the same. God is a God of truth; and likewise God’s children should not bear false witness. God never desires anything that belongs to us. Likewise we should not covet. You get the idea. The commandments are rooted in God’s character, and when we obey them we become more like our heavenly parent.
So, understanding God as our parent, let’s look at today’s reading from Leviticus. God starts out by saying “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Whenever I read this I hear it both as a commandment – “be holy” – and as a promise: (“you shall be holy.”) Because we’re not there yet. Someday we will be. As God’s children, we will take after our heavenly parent, but we’re not there yet.
And then God goes on to say what holiness looks like. God begins with verse 9:
“When you reap your harvest, you shall not reap to the very edges… you shall not strip your vineyard bare… you shall leave them for the poor and alien.”
I love this verse! It comes into play in the book of Ruth. You may remember the story, which takes place after Moses but before there was a king in Israel. Back then Israel was a farming society. And when harvest time came, the reapers would leave behind some of the grain crop – the wheat, the barley – and the poor people of Israel would follow behind the reapers and pick up whatever they left behind. It made it possible for the poor to stay alive.
One day Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi came back from Moab where they’d been living for many years. Naomi’s husband had died, and Ruth’s husband had died, and they had nothing; they were poor. And so Ruth went out and joined the poor people picking up the leftovers in the fields. And she worked hard – the Bible says she reaped all day from early morning until evening, and then threshed the grain, and when she went home the first night, she had gathered and threshed more than half a bushel of grain in one day.
The owner of the field, a man named Boaz, noticed Ruth’s hard work, and told his reapers to leave grain behind just for her to pick up. Long story short, Ruth and Boaz end up getting married and they become the great-grandparents of King David.
If Boaz had not been obedient to God’s command to leave grain behind for the poor and the alien – which Ruth was both, poor and an alien – he would never have married her, and David would never have been born. Sometimes the smallest obedience makes the biggest difference!
And it makes me think about how we might be obedient to this command today. Does it still even apply to us today? I think it does in a way. We don’t farm any more, but what we do have is money and time. I think it’s possible to think of money and time in terms of “don’t reap to the edge of your field”. Don’t spend every last dollar on our own households. Don’t use every minute of every day in pursuit of more income. Set aside a few hours every month to volunteer – maybe at a homeless shelter, or a hospital, or a soup kitchen. The meals we feed to kids here at church – that fits too!
Another thing we might do is set aside a few dollars every month to help the poor and the alien. And because it has become so easy to just write a check (or fill out a computer screen) one of the things I challenge myself to do is to give in ways that fill small needs that larger charities miss. For example, there are local refugee families who can’t afford diapers. There are homeless people in our city who are out in the cold and need hats and gloves and hot cup of coffee. There are places in the city that provide these things, and are happy to accept contributions of diapers and hats and gloves and coffee. These are the gleanings of our harvest… we don’t even miss them… but they can make all the difference to someone in need.
Leviticus then goes on to repeat some of the Ten Commandments: you shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie to each other, you shall not profane the name of your God, you shall not defraud your neighbor… again, these are all things that God would never do to us, and as God’s children, if we take after God, we won’t do them either.
And then God gives us something new to chew on. God says: “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” — because back in the day, holding back wages till morning meant somebody wasn’t going to eat dinner.
Along these lines, this past week I finished reading a book about the relationship between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. For anyone who’s not from Pittsburgh, Carnegie and Frick were the kings of steel — and they were also the men in charge of the Homestead steel plant, the birthplace of union labor after the murder of striking workers. I can’t help wondering if either of these men ever read this verse! The obligation of an employer to treat employees fairly starts right here in the word of God. I think this must be one of God’s most-frequently-violated laws. Even to this day too many people can’t afford to live on what they make. And far too many people here in America and around the world are trapped in something worse: human trafficking. The fair and humane treatment of employees is not a political issue, it is a moral issue – it’s right here in God’s word.
Then God mentions a few more things: “do not revile the deaf” – even though they can’t hear you – and “do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” – even though they can’t see you. God hears. God sees. And God says “you shall fear the Lord your God”.
Bottom line of the whole passage: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving God and loving neighbor are the two laws on which all other laws depend.
One other thing from our passage in Leviticus. Notice how at the end of every paragraph it says “I am the Lord”? This reinforces God’s parenthood and God’s legal guardianship over us. But I think it’s more than that. Without going into a long explanation, from the point of view of people living back in those ancient times, the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are written in the form of a treaty – and they would have recognized it as such, just like we would recognize a sales contract today. It was a binding agreement between the Kingdom of Heaven and the people of Israel, guaranteeing rights to each and outlining the responsibilities of each.
And then remember when Moses met God at the burning bush, and Moses asked, “If I tell the people God sent me, and they ask ‘who sent you? What is his name’? What should I tell them?” And God answers, “I AM THAT I AM. Tell them I AM has sent you.”
So at the end of each paragraph we see: “I AM – the Lord”. It’s like God is initialing the contract. God signs off on each command individually – so there’s no mistake. These are God’s legal requirements of us all.
And the law is summed up in love for God and love for others. “I AM the Lord”
Turning now for a moment to the words of Jesus in our reading from Matthew. Jesus takes the law of Leviticus and goes even further. He says: “You’ve heard that it said, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your father in heaven…” Again, there’s that parental example. We are God’s kids… and this is what God, our parent, does. God sends sunshine on the evil and the good. God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Why? Does God do good things for the evil and the unrighteous hoping they’ll change their ways? No. I mean, God does hope they’ll change their ways, but… God does what God does because it’s who God is. God is love… and if God ever stopped loving, God would stop being God. If we are God’s children we also will be generous and loving because it’s who we are as God’s children.
This commandment isn’t easy. And when commandments get tough, the first instinct is to try to split hairs by asking questions like ‘who is my neighbor?’ – which Jesus answers later in the story of the Good Samaritan.
But in this case – especially with some of the issues we’ve got going on in our contemporary society – I wanted to double-check the Greek anyway, and see what kind of wiggle room we’ve got. And the answer is “not much”. The translation is almost word-for-word with very little variation or shading. Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said. In verse 43, the word ‘neighbor’ is defined as someone nearby; and the word ‘enemy’ can be defined as a personal enemy, a national enemy, or an enemy of God. In verse 47 the word translated ‘Gentiles’ might be better translated foreigners. So verses 43 and 47 taken together point to, but are not limited to, our need to love people who are different from us, or who live in foreign lands.
And then verse 48 says, “Therefore be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word ‘perfect’ here does not mean sinless. That’s a ballgame only Jesus can win. But the word implies maturity or completeness. In other words, our heavenly Father is perfect, and we are God’s children… and our job is to become spiritual grown-ups.
For today, though, we are still spiritual children… clomping around in our parents’ shoes. Did you ever do that as a kid? Get into your parents’ closet and try on your parents’ shoes and go clomping around the house? I couldn’t imagine at that age how my feet could ever get that big. But we grew into them, didn’t we? And we will grow into God-likeness… someday. That IS the word of God, and the command of God, and the good news of God… for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Leviticus 19:1-2 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.
Leviticus 19:9-18 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. 10 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: I am the LORD your God.
11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
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 neighbor. 16 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.
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 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.
Matthew 5:38-48 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/19/17