Sermon preached for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church .
Lev 19:1-2, 9-18
The Lord said to Moses, Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.
You must not steal nor deceive nor lie to each other. You must not swear falsely by my name, desecrating your God’s name in doing so; I am the Lord. You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight. You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord.
You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord. You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Some years ago, when I was a new driver, I came across a fascinating study in human behavior. It was late—probably 10:30 or so, and the roads were deserted. I was still a ways off from a red light, and the car ahead of me was just reaching it. The car slowed down and stopped, as expected. Then, after about a minute, while I was pulling up behind him, it slowly and deliberately went through the red light and continued on its way.
I was utterly baffled. We’ve all blown a red light on occasion when we’ve misjudged the length of the yellow, but this guy had stopped entirely, and made the decision to consciously go through the red light. As a type-A rule-follower, this mystified me. I watched his taillights disappear around a corner while I waited patiently on an entirely deserted road for the light to turn green.
I still don’t know what went through the driver’s mind that evening, but I have learned since that you can fairly reliably divide people into a few categories when it comes to laws: there are those who follow laws because they are laws, and those who follow laws because they can see their tangible function. I tend to be the former. My friend on the road that night was the latter; he or she must have reasoned that the point of obeying red lights was A) to avoid collisions with other cars and B) to avoid legal repercussions from the police. On a deserted road, he wasn’t likely to run into other cars or the cops, and so he discarded the need for the law and rolled on ahead.
Of course, there are also folks who don’t follow laws at all, but we’ll leave them aside for the moment.
I am still a law-follower, but I’m glad for what I witnessed back when I was seventeen; it’s pushed me to think more about the “whys” of the various laws I follow. My impetus is still to follow rules and laws, but I hope less blindly than I used to.
It is well-known to sociologists that the folks who fill church pews on Sunday mornings tend to be the kind of people who like laws. Even if they don’t follow all the laws of the country and of their faith, they like knowing they’re there, knowing where the boundaries of behavior are. There’s a safety to laws—as long as you color inside the lines, you’ll be alright. The cops won’t be mad at you, and neither will God.
I count myself squarely in this camp. I feel a lot more comfortable once I know the rules of a place, written and unwritten. I like to know that if I follow a preset checklist of behavior, I won’t get into trouble.
Which is why I found myself actively getting angry at Jesus this week. Or at least, at Jesus’ words, as recorded in Matthew’s sermon on the mount.
I tend to read the lectionary texts for each Sunday in order, and so I got to the Leviticus first. Leviticus is the holy grail for law-followers—a whole book of laws—six hundred thirteen in total. We only get a glimpse of them in today’s readings, but it’s a pretty decent selection. On my initial reading, I made this enlightened summary: “don’t be sleazy.”
And in fact, a lot of the Levitical laws do have a “don’t be sleazy” air to them; sleaziness here defined as the kind of self-serving behavior that may not be the worst of the worst but nonetheless does harm to others. This may be because Leviticus directs its commands to landowners and employers, who perhaps have the most opportunities to be sleazy, and need the most reminders to treat others with respect and compassion. Leviticus reminds them that they should they should leave a bit of their harvest behind for those in poverty and for immigrants in their country; not to be late with their employee paychecks; not to practice cronyism in the courtroom; not to make fun of folks with disabilities. It also covers some of the basics: don’t steal, lie, swear, seek revenge, hold a grudge, or hate others.
I have to say, I like Leviticus. On a good day, I can actually follow Leviticus pretty well—or at least the rules we read today. Part of that is because I am not a landowner and don’t spend a lot of time in court, and so I’m off the hook for those. And part of it is because I work pretty hard not to be sleazy, and believe with my whole heart that that is an attainable goal.
And so it was, reading the lectionary texts for today, that I flipped from Leviticus all the way to Matthew feeling pretty self-satisfied with my rule-following self.
Which probably put me in the exact right position to read Matthew’s sermon on the mount. Most of the people in the crowd below that mountain were rule-following types. Some may have been stricter than others, but in general, they heeded the Torah, the law. After all, they had come, some of them a fair way, just to hear this famous new rabbi talk about the law. They loved the law, because it came from God, and it gave them boundaries to work within. The law kept them out of trouble.
And then Jesus launches into a sermon that must have made them squirm in their seats. It certainly does for me.
It actually starts well before where we pick up our reading today. Over and over, Jesus says, “you have heard it said, but I say to you,” as he draws the boundaries of the law tighter and tighter. You have heard it said don’t murder, but I say you can’t even insult someone. You have heard it said don’t swear by God, but I say you shouldn’t need to swear at all. You have heard it said, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, but I say, if people want to hurt you, make it easy for them.
All of a sudden I find myself not only unable to follow these laws, but not even wanting to.
And that makes me angry.
Jesus here is striking at one of the core facets of my identity, and the core of his first hearer’s identities too—the part of us that works to follow rules so that we won’t get into trouble.
I want to follow the rules, Jesus! But you are making this too hard.
Of course, there are beautiful stories out there about people turning the other cheek and loving their enemies in real, powerful ways. I don’t want to suggest it can’t be done. It can.
But it is hard. And more often than not, loving our enemies gets us into trouble, not out of it. Because there’s no guarantee that when we turn the other cheek, it won’t get slapped too.
So if our main motivation for obeying rules is to stay out of trouble, then what Jesus offers us is pretty terrifying. Either we obey God and go into the fray of the world vulnerable… or we disobey God. Which feels unthinkable.
At this point I got so stuck in my reading of Matthew that I retreated back to Leviticus, where things seemed easier and safer. And I noticed what I had never noticed before—a brief refrain running through the rules. I wonder if you heard it?
“I am the Lord.”
It gets repeated again and again. “I am the Lord.” It seems like an odd interjection at first glance, or maybe a reminder of on whose authority these rules are given. But there’s more to it than that. At the opening of the chapter, God says to the Israelites: “You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
All of these laws—all these rules—they aren’t designed to keep us out of trouble. They are designed to make us holy—holy like God. And just as God’s holiness is expressed in justice, compassion, and what feels at times a bizarre respect for us, and what we are capable of doing in the world, so our holiness is expressed in justice, compassion, and respect for others. We are to treat people as God treats them. That’s asking a lot more of us than just not being sleazy. Although not being sleazy is a pretty good start.
Now that Leviticus had opened my ears, I heard Jesus echoing the same idea. “I say to you,” he says, “love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.” In the ancient world, to act as someone’s child meant to take up the family business; to behave the way the patriarch did. So to be God’s holy children means to love the way God loves—and God loves even those who hate God. God loves those who would slap God in the face if they had the chance. As Jesus says, God “makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous,” not because God doesn’t care about how people behave towards each other, but because God always holds out hope that we’ll respond to the gift of sun and rain and begin anew.
Loving like God loves does not keep us out of trouble. Jesus knows that better than anyone. Jesus’ love, for all those the religious elites labeled unsuitable, got him crucified.
So if we are rule-followers, we have to ask ourselves why. Are we following the rules to stay out of trouble? To please other people? To make ourselves feel good about our moral superiority? Or are we following the rules because our identities are rooted in God’s holiness, and God’s extravagant love?
If we want to follow the rules because it makes us feel good, then failing to follow these rules hurts. It hurts our pride. It hurts our sense of self-worth, our sense of identity, even. And make no mistake: we will fail. I have yet to meet any human who is as completely and extravagantly loving as God, all the time, to everyone. We are too broken for that. Some of get closer than others, but none of us are God.
But if we want to follow these rules because they draw us closer to God; because loving our enemies helps us see them as God sees them; because leaving extra for the poor and the immigrant helps us break down those very labels; because being generous to those who ask helps us feel a little more a part of the family of God—then we need not be so harsh with ourselves when we mess up. Because if we root our identity in God, that identity cannot be shaken—we belong to God, no matter what. If we let hatred or arrogance creep into our heart today, well—tomorrow the sun will rise and the rain will fall on the just and the unjust, and we will have another chance to move from one group to the other.
So let the sun shine, and let the rain fall. It’s how new things grow.
Under the power of God’s love, new love grows.
Why do we follow the law?
Because it guides us closer to the heart of God.