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19th February 20117 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
17 February 2017

Readings

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

In this section of Leviticus holiness has to do with social-religious relations within the community of people.

In Mark 12:31 Jesus quotes part of Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ and Maurice Andrew writes.

When the words about loving your neighbour are quoted today, however, it is assumed that there is no problem in fulfilling them but both the Gospel and Leviticus challenge that assumption.  Mark adds a quotation from Deuteronomy ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart’ before the quotation from Leviticus.

Leviticus itself follows the words immediately with ‘I am the Lord’. [1]

Matthew 5: 38-48

Warren Carter heads this section of the Sermon on the Mount ‘On Nonviolent Resistance To Evil’ and prefers his own translation for verse 39 ‘do not violently resist an evildoer’ over the NRSV ‘Do not resist an evildoer which seems to forbid self protection.  Because of subtleties in translation Carter maintains the issue is not whether to resist or not but how evil is resisted and he sums up by saying ‘Resistance yes, violence no, Jesus’ third way is active nonviolence.’[2]

Carter explains that the common practice was that acts of generosity built an obligation that the generosity was repaid.  People would behave generously to others to build up a debt of generosity to give them power over others.  Therefore Jesus indiscriminate love was a countercultural practice that undermined these social hierarchies and obligations. 

Sermon

As we look at these two challenging texts from Leviticus and Matthew it is worth re-quoting part of what I quoted from Dianna Bass last week.  ‘Every major faith asserts that friendship with God is strengthened through friendship with our neighbour’.[3]

We love God by loving our neighbour, we talk about loving God through loving Jesus and what we learn about Jesus from the Gospels is indeed an important guide to knowing God. 

The Jesus of the gospels gives us the opportunity to see Christ in others and be Christ to others.  We can see the suffering Christ in those who suffer and we can reach out to those who suffer as the healing and restoring Christ.  In this way we love an invisible God of mystery by loving others.

Our Leviticus reading outlines rules of a civilised and empathic society based on honesty and care for the less fortunate.  These rules outline a primitive welfare system that allowed people to glean the hard to harvest and least desirable portions of a crop. 

However as the heirs of the dream of an egalitarian society we know that it doesn’t take long for those that have to begrudge any help to those that have less or nothing.  Rather than promote generosity and empathy the command to love our neighbour as ourselves invoked the question from the lawyer in Luke ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29)    

In today’s reading Jesus takes that question away by building on the Leviticus command.  ‘you have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’  (Matthew 5:18b)

Hating your enemy is of course a very important military strategy because, even without a religious tradition to care for others, human being have an inborn empathic response to others.  People are even able to love silly little fluffy dogs and one noted economists even loves birds more than cats.

People have the ability to rationalise our natural empathy and see some people as neighbours and others as a threat.  Michael Leunig’s cartoon on the subject reads ‘We are good and they are bad, always.’  

As we read through the Old Testament we can quickly get the picture of the dangerous world Israel lived in. We see the liberated and persecuted slaves brutally attacking the Canaanites and resisting attacks by the Philistines only to be attacked and enslaved by the Babylonians.  Not even a wall saved them.

It is not surprising that the idea that ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) became ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ (Matthew 5: 43) in the world of that time it would seem necessary for Israel’s survival for the people to understand they were good and those who might attack them were always bad.  Furthermore, the context of the law in Leviticus, like all good laws, gives plenty of wriggle room.  Verse 18 begins by saying, ‘you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people. (Leviticus 19:18a)  So loving neighbour was about caring for those related or close and hating enemies was about survival when building a wall doesn’t help. 

But Jesus wasn’t trying to make Israel great again.  Jesus saw all people as part of the family of God.  For Jesus the Kingdom of God was at hand and was brought into being by the loving action of individuals, particularly the disciples he is preaching to in the Sermon on the Mount. 

In the first five centuries of the church people understood it as spiritual practises that offered a meaningful way of life in the world.  ‘For those early Christians not offering hospitality was a much greater failure than not believing that Jesus was ‘truly God and truly human.’[4]

So Jesus’ statement that Kingdom of God was at hand was a valid statement in his time and is it still relevant to us.  The Kingdom of God or God’s Realm is continually brought into being as people offer hospitality and regard all people as the family of God.

Do we live in a world where the kingdom or realm of God is at hand?  Or is our world a world of hate where, ‘We are good and they are bad, always.’  Is our world a world where we have to have might to be right?

More than two thousand years of Christian history indicates that Jesus had a point.  An even longer period of secular history tells us that might is not right and the ‘we’ that is always good conquered by others who presumably have their turn at being right.

As those quests for rightness and power oscillate from one power of rightness to another thousands of people suffer.  But the state of war, or even just the fear of an aggressive ‘other’ can cover the inadequacies of government and create a cult of a ‘dear and adored leader.’

In George Orwell classic 1984 the world was divided into three with two groups in alliance fighting the third.  Who was the enemy and who was an ally changed from time to time but the continued state of war answered questions about poverty and housing so government was much easier. 

In our world where wars are continually raging and leadership and public opinion focuses on excluding people labelled in some way as ‘other’ it is often hard to imagine that the kingdom of God is at hand.  It is even harder to imagine that we can be part of bringing that reality into existence. 

Compared to the principalities and powers of this world we just seem insignificant and irrelevant.  However the reality is that the crucifixion and resurrection demonstrated that it is the principalities and powers that are irrelevant. That small group who heard the Sermon on the Mount changed the world by spreading the network of shared hospitality through time and across the world.

The section we read this morning is spelling out some of the detail of open hospitality and critiquing what seemed a perfectly sound legal code.  An eye for an eye is reasonably universal in terms of tribal codes and limits vengeance taken to match the hurt given.  But suppose the blow that took out an eye was accidental, then reciprocal action can be seen as an act of violence that requires further vengeance.  That is how vendettas begin and flourish.  Jesus’ instructions look to restoration of relationships rather than reciprocal revenge. 

Some of Jesus’ words are hard to comprehend but if we think them through they make perfect sense in terms of building a just community.   ‘Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’ (Matthew 5:39)   That sounds bizarre but as we saw in the introduction Warren Carter translates the Greek original as ‘do not violently resist an evildoer.’  Carter suggests that Jesus is proposing resistance through active non violence.  I am not competent to comment on his translation but I would suggest that although non violent resistance has its place addressing the driving force behind the evil could well be more productive. 

On the surface we could say that non violent protest action brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa but it was backed up by trade sanctions and sporting boycotts.  The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, who had a large shareholding in the South British Insurance Company, forced that company to cease trading in South Africa.  I imagine there were other corporations that yielded to similar pressure.  However what has made the biggest contribution towards the emergence of a new South Africa is undoubtedly Bishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

It is now a real joy to see South African sports teams of mixed race enjoying each other’s company.  But as an immensely proud sporting nation ourselves, it is a worry to see people appearing in those teams whose genetic history built them to run down antelopes and throw things at immense speed and accuracy.

As we read further we find that Jesus suggests that if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  (Matthew 5: 40-42)

That also sounds a bit bizarre and leaves us wondering if we would have anything left for our own survival.  However if we think of it as a collective response to people’s needs it starts to resemble the welfare state that represents many New Zealanders best aspirations.  A community where the least of us are valued and those who have contribute to giving those who have not a chance.  It is a strategy of peace making, of removing the desperate situations that leads to violence.  Nations and international aid agencies can rebuild lives and empower communities.  But without going to the extremes in this gospel passage individuals and congregations can also re-empower people and offer new beginnings. 

We can go the second mile, we can even risk being exploited with no real discomfort to ourselves except to our pride.  However we should also remember that throughout history individual Christians have taken Jesus’ plea in these readings literally and have given everything to the service of others.  St Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa are obvious examples.

Our own Father Michael Lapsley as a member of an Anglican order lost his hands from a letter bomb while opposing apartheid in South Africa and metaphorically went the second mile by setting up an organisation to promote reconciliation worldwide.  These people are beacons of our faith who have let their light shine and inspire all of us to do what we can. 

Lights that call us to reflect on the words of the Sermon on Mount and listen to God call us through those words.  Call us to our own mission of open hospitality, of caring for others and transforming our lives. 

However we care for people and offer hospitality to others it is in that caring and hospitality that Jesus calls us here to meet him.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp135-137.

[2] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),pp.150-158.

[3] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening.  (New York 2013: HarperOne), p.128

[4] ibid.

 

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