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Monday, February 14, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-13, Psalm 119:33-40, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:39-38

Pastor Rick often instructs, at the end of the benediction, that we are to take care of each other. I suppose it’s a homey way of talking about being good neighbors. At least two of this week’s readings can be seen as a call to take care of each other.

Leviticus is often viewed as a fairly dry book listing lots of laws, including many laws of ritual and sacrifice that takes us into unfamiliar regions. That’s probably an accurate view; it’s not your average bedtime reading.

But there’s a surprising amount of relationship stuff in it as well. I quoted Leviticus 19:18 in last week’s blog, not having looked ahead to see that it is part of this week’s reading. The final words of the reading are, “ . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” No one had to sit around waiting for Jesus to learn about loving one’s neighbor.

Leviticus is often described as a “Holiness Code.” It calls people to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Being holy means to be set aside, blessed, for God’s use. We sometimes think of it in ethereal, spiritual, terms. A holy person walks around with feet off the ground, in sort of a trance, perfect and loving and calm in all things—or something like that. I’ve known a person or two who might have a bit of that, but most of us fall short.

Here, though, we see that holiness is described in concrete, earthly, relational terms. Leave some grain in your field or grapes in your vineyard so those who are in need can gather it. (vss. 9-10) Don’t steal from or defraud your neighbor. (vss. 11-13) Treat everyone fairly. (vs. 15) Every verse touches on different human relationships. To be holy is to love one’s neighbor in concrete ways. Notice also who the neighbor is—not only the poor, but the “alien.” (vs. 10) Even foreigners are to be treated fairly and lovingly. Whatever our views in the current debate about immigration, let us never forget that we are dealing with human beings who are God’s children.

The Gospel lesson, continuing in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, takes it a step further, instructing us to love our “enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) It’s difficult enough to love those who are family and friends. How do we learn to love across deep lines of division, whether they be religious or political or international? Jesus says such loving is a way of showing that we are “children of your Father in heaven,” the one who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteousness.” (vs. 45) The grace of creation is there for everyone. Why should our love not flow as freely?

Jesus also notes that love is not given in order to receive reward. Trading this for that is a common practice in many human relationships—and such exchange is appropriate to the smooth running of a social order. It’s good that we greet one another pleasantly and shake hands—or should we bump elbows to avoid the flu? The deepest kind of love, the kind that flows from God, though, is not calculating. It doesn’t say, “What can I get out of this? Does this person deserve my attention and care?” It simply says, as God does to us, “I’m here for you no matter what.”

Earlier Jesus has addressed another aspect of relationships that challenges this notion of exchange—this time the exchange that is involved is revenge and retaliation. It’s sort of a dark cousin of the Golden Rule, this time saying, “Do unto others what they have done to you. Get even.” That, after all, is the old teaching, still quoted by some to justify such things as capital punishment. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s there even in Leviticus. (See chapter 24, verses 18-20) But Jesus, continuing the pattern of “You have heard . . ., but I say to you,” offers an alternative to retaliation. Do not resist; turn the other cheek; give more than is taken from you. (Matthew 5:39-42) These become illustrations of ways to love your enemy.

We’re called not just to love our neighbor. We are called to treat our enemy as if he or she were a neighbor, because, in God’s scheme of things, he or she is. Are we able to travel this road? I find it a challenge.

Paralleling the holiness code of Leviticus, Jesus concludes this teaching with the instruction to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Be perfect; be holy? The Greek word used here is perhaps less intimidating than it might seem, although still full of challenge. To be “perfect” is to live up to what we were intended to be, to fulfill our purpose in life, to be complete, to arrive at the end for which we were created. I think that’s more than challenge enough. The key here, though, is to see that loving our neighbor is our purpose for being. We are only complete when we enter into that kind of loving relationship with those around us.

Finally, some brief comments on the other two readings for this Sunday. Their connection to the direction I’ve taken in this blog is not immediately obvious, but it is not absent.

The reading from Psalm 119 continues that long chapter’s emphasis upon the Law not as a rigid code but as a delightful indwelling reality that turn us toward God and one another. This is the chapter that includes the words, “I treasure your word in my heart,” which many of us may have learned as “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.” (Psalm 199:11) In today’s reading the Psalmist seeks to “keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” (vs. 34) One who observes God’s Law will avoid “selfish gain.” (vs. 37) Twice the Psalmist prays that it may “give me life.” (vss. 37 & 40) Is it too large a step to make this a prayer that the Law be a “living” thing rather than a dead code, undergirding and building neighborly relationships?

When we turn to I Corinthians we continue with the themes of previous weeks—wisdom and foolishness, belonging to God rather than debating the merits of various human leaders, etc. The central message is that Jesus is the foundation for our life together. (I Corinthians 3:11) The debate about leadership is linked with the teaching about wisdom and foolishness by suggesting that we may easily end up arguing about which leader is “wisest.” (vss. 18-21) The leaders are presented as all being part of one community, belonging to Christ and to God.

There’s much to be considered in a passage like this, especially in a community where we are moving toward a transition in leadership. Right now, I’d simply like to connect it with the theme of loving our neighbors. Taking care of one another is what we do, because we all belong to—are part of—the same reality. We are neighbors not because we live near one another, not because we share common views. We are neighbors because we all live and move and have our being in God’s Cosmic Love. Loving our neighbors (and our enemies) is an expression of our true identity, so let’s go out and be who we really are.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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