Sermon for Sept. 2, 2012, 14th after Pentecost, 22nd Ordinary, Year B
9 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.
19 You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Following the Love Trajectory
Many people think Leviticus is one of the worst books in the bible. We are in the process of reading the whole bible in 90 days, so many of us have just read it, but I’ve been told that this is the book that kills the enthusiasm of would-be whole-bible-readers.
I understand – but this book sets in motion a crucial trajectory of thinking about God and what God wants of his people that finally leads directly to Jesus himself. This is powerful and important, so let’s look at these texts before us.
The Three Sisters
To begin, I’m wondering if you have heard of the “Three Sisters”? The native American Iroquois gave the name “Three Sisters” to three plants that they grew together in their gardens: corn, beans and squash.
The Iroquois discovered that they flourished together, and now scientists understand why. The corn provides an natural pole for the beans to climb, and by climbing, the beans helps to stabilize the corn plant. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil, thus enhancing its fertility. The squash provides natural mulch, reducing weeds and moisture evaporation from the soil. It’s like God made them to work together.
But, in the book of Leviticus, God forbids the Three Sisters. Leviticus 19:19 says clearly:
“…you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed;”
Many of us here today are wearing clothing made of blended fabrics, but this is also forbidden by God in the next phrase in the same verse:
“nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.”
It made sense to somebody back then
Clearly the book of Leviticus, with its rules like these, is from a different time and reveals a different view of the world than the one we share. The ancient Israelite was aware that there were different kinds of animals, plants, fabrics and people, and had a strong aversion to mixing different “kinds.”
For another example, to the ancient Israelites, a good animal was one that both split the hoof and chewed cud, like cows do. Animals that have one, but not both characteristics, like pigs, are therefore bad. The same is true for fish – they need to have both fins and scales to be pure, which is why shrimp, lobster and oysters are not kosher.
The ancient Israelites believed that they were keeping pure by following this strict separation scheme. Where they got the scheme remains a mystery to us. God, they understood, required holiness of his people because God himself is holy, and so, with their understanding of purity and impurity, they believed that God wanted them to avoid the impure.
God’s concerns, as expressed in Leviticus, however, were not just limited to purity and impurity issues. God’s concerns also included the well-being of people. It should not be surprising that a group of people like the Hebrews, who had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, especially wanted to make laws to protect the poor,
the vulnerable and the needy, which is exactly what we see in Leviticus.
The verses we read today reveal a concern for the poor and the non-citizen who were protected by laws such as the gleaning regulations. Farmers had to leave the corners of their land un-harvested and could only make one pass through their vineyards at reaping time, so that there would be food left over for the poor to glean (which is exactly what is happening in the book of Ruth that we will get to in our reading this week).
The dignity and rights of all of the people, but especially the vulnerable were protected by rules about justice in the courts. Partiality, either to the poor or to the rich was illegal.
These are people-concerns. These kinds of laws worked together to produce a community of people, bound together by covenant, creating conditions under which all could flourish and the weak would neither be forgotten nor abused.
These laws in Leviticus went beyond the formal legal system. They included personal relationships. They range from laws about actions to laws about mental states, like emotions. This is as up-close-and-personal as it gets!
“17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;”
The summit is reached by this famous command (which people are often shocked to find in the Old Testament):
“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.”
This is the verse that Jesus quoted as one of the two greatest commandments in the whole Torah (or “law”):
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12)
Distinguishing between conventional and moral laws
This is amazing. You see, the book of Leviticus does not distinguish more or less important laws. They are all equally important; they all come from the Lord through Moses. Leviticus does not even distinguish purity laws, like laws about mixing seeds and fabrics and kosher food laws, from laws about moral behavior; laws about the ways we are to treat each other. Leviticus did not distinguish the command to love your neighbor as yourself from laws against eating pork – but that is precisely the distinction that Jesus did make.
Children vs. Psychopaths
I have to tell you about something fascinating I just learned about moral psychology. Studies done with children show that even young children can distinguish between “conventional rules” about things like the need to raise your hand in class before asking a question, and moral laws that the teacher also enforces, like: “in conflicts, use words, but don’t hit.”
When researchers ask the children, “What if the teacher said ‘Today we are not going to raise our hands, we can just ask questions whenever we want to,’ would it be OK not to raise your hand?”, the children agree that if the teacher removed the rule, it would then be OK not to raise your hand.
But when asked if it would be OK to hit each other if the teacher removed the no-hitting rule, children know that it would still not be OK to hit. Children can distinguish between merely conventional rules from moral rules.
(Turiel E (1998) in Handbook of Child Psychology, The development of morality, ed Damon W (Wiley Press, New York), pp 863–932, cited by Marc Hauser http://youtu.be/963yf616npc @ 11:15)
That distinction is apparently not made by criminal psychopaths. Psychopaths are people who typically don’t feel empathy, remorse, guilt, or shame. Studies of their answers to similar kinds of questions, show that they make no difference.
Researcher Marc Hauser sums up the findings, saying, “Unlike healthy adults, adult psychopaths will typically judge as equally forbidden transgressions in
which a person wears pajamas to a restaurant (conventional) and a person who gratuitously hits a waiter in the restaurant (moral).” Both, to psychopaths, are equally wrong.
(cited by Dr. Marc Hauser http://youtu.be/963yf616npc @ 11:15)
Jesus vs. Pharisees
It is an incredibly important moral insight that conventional rules, like purity laws, are not nearly as important as moral laws about how humans treat other humans. This is exactly the distinction that Jesus made that the Pharisees did not make, and was the source of the conflict between them. For Jesus, the primary concern was about people.
But Jesus did not come up with this insight in a vacuum. Leviticus itself sets in motion both trajectories of purity and what we may call the “love trajectory.” For the Pharisees, the purity trajectory won, so forget about helping the man laying on the side of the road bleeding – blood contact makes you impure. The bible says it, and that settles it.
For Jesus, the love trajectory wins, so you go over to the suffering man and do what the Good Samaritan did: you rescue him even if it makes you ceremonially impure.
The End of the Purity Laws
In the end, those purity laws, and temple laws about sacrifice and festival days all vanished. They have all been fulfilled in Jesus himself, who was the final sacrifice, the scapegoat who ended the need for that whole system.
In its place, we are left with the essence; the core duty that defines us as a faith-community: we say, along with the scribe who was speaking with Jesus that day:
33 ‘to love him [God] with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this
is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And we hear Jesus say to us as he replied to the scribe:
34 “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
What does God want from us? To follow the Jesus trajectory. To love our neighbors – all of them, without exception – as ourselves. And just who are our neighbors? Only people who wish to escape the obviously limitless claim on our moral behavior that this commandment makes ask that question.
Everyone is our neighbor. Everyone is welcome at our table, because it is the Lord’s Supper table, and everyone is the subject of our concern. This is the way of Jesus. He calls to all of us: “follow me.”
“Three Sisters” see: http://www.reneesgarden.com/articles/3sisters.html