Loving God By Loving Others (Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:17-38)
Soon it’s Valentine’s Day. This day takes a hit as being invented by the greeting card industry to sell its wares. But, in spite of all that, it is a day that celebrates love and if churches can’t do that (albeit with our own spin on it), then we’re in sad shape. The Bible uses the word love quite a bit in both testaments, and the love it celebrates in many ways is not primarily a feeling (as you know), but describes an action that people take to embrace, affirm, nurture, and identify themselves with the needs and values of someone or something. Without such affirming, embracive, dare I say, generative, actions, people have very little for which to live in this world.
When he was asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus (and many rabbis who were his contemporaries) identified two: Deuteronomy 6:4 (our call to worship), which speaks of acting in support of God’s purposes, standards, and values in the world (which is what the Bible means by “righteous”), and Leviticus 19:18b which speaks of acting in support of what is important to our neighbours with as much dedication and tenacity as we do to support what is important to us. Our core values centre in love for God and love for neighbour. On this depends, said Jesus, all that the scriptures intend to teach us about living. And when, in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus was asked, “So, then, who is my neighbour”? He responded, as you know, with the parable of the Good Samaritan to make the difficult point that our neighbour is the one who needs us just then, and it may be someone who we might even call our enemy. It is not intended to answer every question, so that we can say, “Until I answer all the questions I can’t do it.” That just means, “I don’t want to do it, and won’t.” The parable simply says, love this one today, right now. Don’t worry about next time. The parable implies that we fill the first commandment about loving God full of meaning by doing the second about loving the one who needs us right now.
Today’s Old Testament Lesson comes from Deuteronomy 30, where this same principle is put as “choosing life.” As I said a moment ago, without affirming, embracive, and generative actions, people have very little for which to live in this world. And, here’s the thing: God’s people have to “choose life” anew, loving God by loving neighbours every day and, certainly, in different ways today than we did yesterday.
The Book of Deuteronomy is fascinating. Its purpose is to take ancient tradition of Moses and the founding of Israel, and adapt it to a later day, probably centuries later. The author said that the tradition must be re-tooled for “today,” whenever that is. The word “today” occurs four times even in this short passage. Deuteronomy re-tells Israel’s founding-stories to update the words of Hebrew faith to “today” (probably the seventh century BCE). The difficulty of this, for us, is that the words of Deuteronomy are just as foreign and odd to us as the earlier ones it seeks to re-interpret. It doesn’t come to us in words or concepts that are the way we say or do or think things. The most important thing to learn from Deuteronomy, however, is not how it updated things to an ancient “today” but to use it as a method to update things to our own “today.” We must be aware of what the nub of the ancient meaning was (rather than get bogged down in detail), so that we can thoughtfully fill these texts full “today,” and figure out how to love God through loving others in our world.
This is a hard job, and we can’t duck it by retreating into rote repetition of lists of old words from old “todays.” Old Israel got into trouble trying to love God by loving others by such over-concern with ancient words and just doing things as they’d always done them before.
Some folks outdo ancient Israel by thinking all we need to do is repeat the words of the Bible as they were understood by our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. They find a time back a few hundred years and retreat there, like that little song we all sang “Gimme That Old Time Religion” which misunderstood the religion of mostly rural, southern Americans in the 19th century as the same as that of “the Hebrew Children, Paul and Silas,” and that will “take us all to heaven.” All this is, a dead end because for it to work, we would have to live in a culture that has changed radically. We don’t live in the world of biblical culture and it’s not God’s will that we do. When Christians attempt to do that we look silly. And we are. That’s not how to love God by loving others “today.”
To go back to that ancient world for a bit, but skipping forward several centuries from Deuteronomy, at the appropriate moment (Paul said it was “in the fullness of time”) a Galilean carpenter who moonlighted as a rabbi (or was it the other way round?) named Jesus came on the scene. In Matthew chapters 5-7, we have Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship that we call the Sermon on the Mount. We also read the first part of this morning’s Gospel last Sunday. In it, Jesus said something that every creative Bible teacher has to say sometimes. In essence, “I didn’t come to wreck the Bible for you.” I’ve said that literally dozens (maybe hundreds) of times in classes and churches because people often mistake teaching that doesn’t just repeat what everyone else has said, and go along with popular tradition, for not being faithful to the Bible.
Jesus went on to say further that, instead of wrecking the Bible (for that’s what he meant by the law and the prophets), he came to fulfill it, by which he meant to fill it full of meaning for his “today,” just as Deuteronomy had proposed. He suggested that such was worth doing that because the scriptures are permanent as long as the cosmos lasts. But that doesn’t mean that we can simply go around repeating the same ancient words and assuming that everyone will get them. That would, of course, mean repeating them in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and most people wouldn’t get them then. We’re also not called on to repeat them in 17th century King’s English. We’re also not called to repeat the words that great saints and teachers have used to explain the words of the Bible. Jesus meant that people need to “fill the words full of meaning for today. That’s because, in the end of the day, the goal of reading, thinking about, and teaching the Bible isn’t just knowledge of ancient history. Jesus said that the goal is enabling our “righteousness” (which as I just said means acting in support of God’s purposes, standards, and values in the world) to exceed that of those very religious people in Jesus’ day (and their contemporary descendants) who did and do think that just repeating the old words and interpretation is enough, just knowing the old doctrine is enough, as long as it’s a certain kind of interpretation or doctrine. But, it’s not enough because, in religion as in music, when we say “I know what I like,” I mean “I like what I know.” Learning to love God by loving others entails being able to learn new applications and understandings of the scriptures in ways that fill them full for living today, not simply repeating what’s always been said.
What Jesus did next in the Sermon on the Mount was to give some examples of the way in which he fills the scriptures full. There are four of these in our scripture today. I obviously can’t go into depth about each one of these this morning (although I did make some suggestions in TEE). Everyone in Jesus audience had heard of the old traditions about murder, adultery, divorce, and being honest. Jesus pushed beyond just repeating the old words. He filled them full for his “today.”
As we work at these examples, we need to do more than just repeat Jesus’ words and well-worn interpretations. There’s nothing wrong with repeating his words, but we’ve got to go on from there to interpret them in ways that make sense today not in the year 30 or 500 or 1600 or 1850 or even 1965. We also do not help people to understand how to love God by loving others simply by yelling the old words louder, and saying, “See that settles it for faithful Christians like me.”
We dare not ignore Jesus’ teaching paragraph about filling the words full of meaning for today. I rather think Jesus would be surprised to know that good disciples in the name of being faithful to him are still simply repeating his words without thinking about how these words could be filled full of meaning in their day, rather than Jesus’ day, even 25 years in his future, let alone 2000. We must see how Jesus fills the Bible full of meaning in our day.
In the examples that Jesus gave, he made several points. Let me take two of the four examples. First, what Jesus said about murder was that, it’s an incredibly bad thing, but among disciples attitudes count as much as actions. Jesus said that God takes violent, abusive words and attitudes as seriously as we do murder – which is pretty seriously. In essence, Jesus said, “So, you think the commandment means you can do anything but murder your neighbours? Well, it also means you cannot hate and abuse them, or despise and ignore them. So it’s harder than you think to love God by loving others!”
About adultery he said, “The act of adultery is a horrible thing, but what about the people involved? Now you need to know that, in Jesus’ day, adultery had nothing to do with violating the personality and reputation of the married woman, but of the married man’s family honour, because marriage had nothing to do with individual’s feelings, but with two families wedding their honour together for political and economic reasons. The adulterer trespassed into a family in which he did not belong, and that demanded satisfaction and revenge, and could lead to wholesale slaughter of whole families. Jesus did not undo the old ban on adultery, but he said that the problem was deeper. It went to devaluing and objectifying a partner in the community and putting our own gratification above anything else. Jesus noticed the woman. Love God by loving others with a care as passionate as your own care for yourself. Notice people.
What Jesus says about each of these things is that the interpersonal dynamic is crucial to loving God by loving others. He focused on the good of the good of the community over and against just “keeping the rules.”
As I’ve said, Jesus’ culture was one in which individuals counted for little, and in which the most important thing was making sure your family had all the honour it could, and other families had all the shame they could receive. It was a very contentious society. Jesus’ sayings, at the least, intend to defuse the contention even by taking shame upon oneself. We could learn from that in today’s political climate, where it wouldn’t hurt to think of defusing the feuds that occur – albeit in a very different way.
How do we love God by loving others today. I have already made the rather dangerous-sounding proposal that we do not do it like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and scream, “tradition!” and simply repeat ancient words of the Bible (even of Jesus in the Bible). How do we fill them full of meaning today? Thinking through gracious, loving ways to act on his words is the task that awaits communities of faith today as we live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural world. I would suggest that to do this means undertaking the work with great humility realizing that we may err in our application and have to think again. The work will also need to be undertaken with great care, understanding that this isn’t easy, but loving God by loving others has never been easy. In this I am comforted by the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:6 who averred that God makes us qualified to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.