Love and the Law


The Seventh Sunday of Epiphany
19th February 2017
Hilary Keachie, Intern
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

Our first reading today comes from Leviticus, the 3rd book of the Old Testament, and perhaps one of the least understood or appreciated. It’s reading Leviticus where people often start to feel that the Bible is archaic, legalistic, or just plain irrelevant. Law after law after law, some of which are confusing and many of which are not immediately applicable to our time and place.

Why is this ancient, confusing and sometimes boring law code part of our Holy Bible? I think some context about this book is helpful in order to appreciate what it tells us about God and God’s relationship with us, with his Holy People.

The people of God are at a point in their history when they are figuring out who they are as a people, and the best way for them to live together in community. They have escaped 400+ years of slavery in Egypt, and are journeying through the wilderness of the Judean desert toward the Promised Land. So God, who has chosen this particular group and who loves them very much, gives them guidance, a sort of set of ideals for how best to live with each other, and how best to be in relationship with God. God gave Moses the famous 10 Commandments, to pass on to the people, but God didn’t stop there, God continued to give commandments, or laws, a total of 613.

The sheer number can seem overwhelming and perhaps onerous, until we remember that the Law was not a way to earn God’s favor, but actually a sign of God’s abundant grace and love for the people.

Holiness is a big theme in Leviticus. Our reading today begins with God saying: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” But what does it mean to be “holy”? The Hebrew word literally means “to be set apart”, it’s a mark of distinction showing that we belong to God, that we have been chosen by God for a sacred purpose. So, first and foremost, holiness is about relationship. It’s about God’s established and desired relationship with us.

Now, with this great honor also comes some standards and requirements about how to live, enter “The Holiness Code”, the name often given to this particular section of Leviticus.

Interestingly, holiness is described here not as something static, but rather, something dynamic, constantly requiring our vigilance and care.

Many of the early chapters of Leviticus are devoted to bodily purity or holiness, how to keep the messiness of the human body in check so as to not pollute the sanctuary of God. These chapters seem perhaps less relevant to us in today’s world where we have easy access to clean water, to indoor plumbing, to fancy soaps and shampoos.

But perhaps in a community where water was less available and where bathing, even hand washing, more infrequent, this was partly just good sense for hygiene and illness prevention.

Washing was, and still is in many traditions, also an important way to help people to prepare for their encounter with God. In our very liturgy, you will see the priests’ hands washed before Communion. We know that our priests’ hands are not physically dirty, and yet, this has been part of the tradition for thousands of years.

There is also the ethical behavior side of holiness. I think that perhaps we are more comfortable talking about the ethical requirements, but ironically, the bodily impurity is much easier to take care of. Take a ritual bath, no problem. But how do we counteract uncleanness of the heart?

The verses we heard today outline various rules for how best to live in community. They warrant going into some detail because they are actually incredibly relevant to our every day lives.

These are not the big, well-known commandments, “thou shalt not murder” or “honor your mother and father”, but what that means is, these are injustices that we have let slip into our everyday encounters, attitudes and behaviors, almost without realizing, and they are impacting our ability to live in right relationship with our neighbors, our families and people half-way around the world.

The first commandment starts “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field… you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” God calls us to leave part of our harvest for the poor, first indicating God’s love and compassion for the most vulnerable in society.

But it actually goes a step further. It’s not that we should harvest everything and give a portion to the poor as an act of charity. We are commanded to leave part of fields for them to physically harvest themselves, so they are not forced to beg. This is not optional charity on the part of the landowner, it’s not about us feeling good about yourselves, or assuaging our consciences. God is ensuring that the poor are given a small measure of dignity. This is what it means to be holy.

God also remembers the alien, the people who are from other lands, the foreigners, and calls us to show them the same compassion and dignity. This is radical, outward looking compassion. Everyone, not just those in our particular community, everyone, has the right to nourish their bodies, to get their daily bread.

In a non-agrarian society like ours, where most of us don’t have physical fields, what does this command mean? Perhaps it means recognizing the innate human dignity of each person, and seeing them as precious, loved children of God.

Who are the vulnerable ones in our world, and in our lives? Perhaps it means taking extra time with the elderly neighbor who wants to talk, even when we feel pressed for time. Perhaps it’s the way that so many volunteers patiently help the guests in the Refugee Center improve their language skills or draft a CV.

The passage continues with “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” The last part of this command is particularly interesting to think about. It recognizes that some people live paycheck to paycheck, and need their wages at the end of each day. Again it shows God’s incredible concern for the poorer members of society and really outlines the specific situations in order for them to be well cared for.

But, today, what does this mean if maybe we aren’t an employer, or maybe paying people each day isn’t actually necessary? Perhaps it means paying attention to other people’s needs, not necessarily waiting for them to ask for help, but rather doing everything in our power to help them live with dignity, even when it inconveniences us.

Finally, the closing verses: “you shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kind; 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.”

There is a lot in those verses. God specifically calls us to take non-violent confrontation, not to sulk which allows our anger to escalate, but to take initiative to sort out the particular issue. How practical this law is! It feels like the community is struggling with how to live with one another, and God knows them, just like God knows us, and God knew what exact, specific guidelines they needed.

It’s much easier to sulk or bear a grudge, but God knows that that behavior does not help us or anyone else. So we must work through our anger and frustrations, we are called to rebuke our neighbor for the sake of justice and compassion, and most of all, we are called to love our neighbors as yourselves.

Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are love God and love your neighbor, that all the other laws hang on these two. While the overarching commandments are great and certainly memorable, they are also kind of vague and in our every day, practical life, sometimes I think it’s even more helpful to have the specifics, guidance for how to act in any number of difficult situations that we will inevitably come up against.

And that’s the joy of Leviticus. Concrete realities and daily life. Knowing that God cares about our every day.

In our Gospel today, Jesus takes the ethical requirements of Leviticus a step further. The context has changed. The laws for how best to live within the specific community are no longer enough because the disciples are now being charged with going out into the world, leaving their families and communities, to preach the Good News to people who didn’t always think this is such “good news”.

They were certainly going to be facing people who had very different opinions and worldviews, people who would feel threatened and angered by their message, people who would persecute and harm them. Jesus needed to prepare them for this work, for how they would respond to this violent and oppressive world.

Jesus responds with love. Love not just for our immediate neighbors, but love even for our enemies and those who persecute us. Love that means not just donating the extra coat hanging in our closet, but giving away our only cloak, physically going without for the sake of someone we might not even like. Love that means not fighting back, even if it makes us appear weak or incompetent.

This is radical, world changing love. This is no easy task. How do we love those who want to hurt us, or even more, hurt our loved ones?

I deeply wrestle with what this passage means for me, and for many whose reality is quite different than that of the early Christians. How much easier it is to proclaim love your enemy if we aren’t facing daily persecution, oppression and violence.

But there are so many in our world, too many, who know this kind persecution much too well. I think of the Muslim community in Quebec City, Canada, who last summer had a pig’s head hung on their Mosque door during Ramadan and just two weeks ago, were shot at, killing 6 and injuring many more, while praying. They were persecuted and killed because of their faith.

I think too of the countless vulnerable refugees who are turned away, treated with suspicion or contempt, considered “the enemy” when they are just trying to live in safety.

“Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you.” This has got to be one of the hardest things to do.

Who is our enemy? Who might you name in your own life?

Maybe it’s helpful to think of the term enemy in more complex ways. Perhaps it’s the colleague at work who seems, for no reason, to oppose every decision you make. Perhaps it’s the family member whose inappropriate comments have ruined many a family party.

How do we love them? And how do we help each other to live this radical love?

It’s not going to be perfect, at least not perfect in the societal definition of the word. We are human, and that means that inevitably, we will make mistakes, act selfishly and forget to love unconditionally.

But just as Leviticus claims us as a holy people, a people chosen by God to be in relationship with Him and with each other, Jesus claims us in the Gospel as a perfect people, a people united with God through Christ, a people redeemed by God’s immeasurable grace and love.

God loves us so much and that abundant, radical love gives us the framework and ability to love others – the grace to forgive, the courage to be hospitable, the strength to be weak.

And so we proclaim with confidence: Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Amen.

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