Love Your Enemies, and . . .
Old Testament: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
Leviticus is a book devoted to spelling out the “laws of God” - and there are a lot of them. This is rich ground for those who are all about perfection. The passage this morning comes from a particular section of Leviticus known as “The Holiness Codes.” It is distinctive in vocabulary, and grammar, scholars believe it was inserted from a different source.
In general, many of the specifics in the Holiness Codes are not embraced by the larger portion of those who practice either the Christian or Jewish faith. Sometimes specific laws appear to be concerned with challenges or threats that no longer apply. Sometimes, the Codes are assumed to be largely applicable to the priests, and not to the general population.
When we deal with controversial areas of the scriptures, there are anxious folks who want to confront liberal, mainline, protestants about selective reading of the scriptures. I can accept that criticism. I do my level best to be aware of what I give greater and lesser honor to when reading the Bible. The Bible has a great variety of types of literature, and is meant to inspire, not legislate. Even this morning, as we saw in Deuteronomy last week, the intent is to encourage the faithful to grow closer to God. To use the scriptures as simple rules defeats the intent of building our spiritual relationship with God.
What we pulled out of Leviticus this morning reminds us that as the people of God, we should care for those who need things we can contribute. We allow and encourage the poor and the stranger to help themselves to the fruits in the field we intentionally leave for them. I know, is that weird or what? We leave wheat, grapes, and corn in the field so that the poor and strangers can go into “our” fields to take what they need?
This is the kind of “rule” that does not get much attention on “Meet the Press” or the other Sunday morning news shows. This is the kind of expectation that is hard to institutionalize. But it is no less a part of the heart of God.
So we have found the Sermon on the Mount to be comforting in the past weeks. What do we have this morning? "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Oh boy, here we go. Do we have enemies in our personal lives? I believe that few of us live in a constant pitched battle with enemies. Do we have enemies as a church? The church in the US really does not routinely confront challenges. Do we have enemies as a nation?
Trying to give a clear answer to that question - in this time - can be difficult. It is difficult because we feel - to some greater or lesser extent - a threat from terrorists in the world. But the nature of terrorism makes it hard to name, agree on, or even confront terrorism in a meaningful way. As soon as we try to draw lines and name names, we are confronted by the complexity of the world and the diversity within the human family.
The time that I spent visiting the Holy Land has helped me to more clearly focus on the issues of security and safety in a theological way. We expect our elected government to provide us with security from violence in the public spaces and in our homes. Where it gets sticky, is trying to decide how to modify or interpret the laws of God and man, when we seek the “feeling of safety.”
Jesus tells us this morning to “turn the other cheek.” When I get included in the invitation as a visitor to the National Security Council, along with the Director of Intelligence and the Pentagon’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even I am not ready to offer that “turn the other cheek” guide our national security policy. I say that I wonder if this demonstrates a greater lack of faith or a imagination on my part. This might be a more serious concern about my devotion to Jesus than selectively reading the scriptures.
I know, you let me go to the Middle East with a Peacemakers Tour, so you may have expected me to return with more answers than I left with. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I learned a great deal, and met respected members of the peace community - active in the effort to find a peaceful way for the Palestinians and Israelis to live together in their ancient and holy land.
The truth on the ground is hard to believe. Like many nations in the world, the State of Israel has a government that is more conservative than it was in the recent past years. This government finds a greater feeling of safety from stringent laws, vigorous enforcement, and an aversion to criticism.
As I view the dramatic pronouncements and actions of the new Administration in Washington, there is a high value put on the feeling of security that is enhanced by laws, militarized enforcement, and little desire to debate values or tactics.
In Sunday School last week we talked about the contrast between the rules of Leviticus, and the commands of Jesus in the gospel. After we talked only a short while about the guidance from the gospel, it was suggested that we turn back to the laws of Leviticus, that seemed so much easier than what Jesus really expects of us. We laughed together, but recognized these are hard words for us today.
It may have once seemed that nice people follow Jesus, by being nice. When the times get a little bit harder, we recognize that Jesus wants us to be in favor of justice for all of God’s creation. Justice is not always easy and comfortable and nice. Justice makes us want to ask hard questions.
The Palestinians suffer under the occupation of their land by the Israelis. The situation is a continual assault. Travel is restricted, even within the West Bank, by the military who must authorize all movement. The Settlements claim the tops of the surrounding hills, a constant visual reminder of their occupation. The Peacemakers we met with - were careful to say that not all settlers are the same.
Some of them are religiously motivated people who want to be near and preserve the Holy Sites associated with the roots of their faith. Some of them are vigorous Zionists, anxious to displace all the people who are not Jews, since they feel it is “God’s will” for them to control all of the land. Some folks simply want to enjoy the subsidized modern housing, when they cannot afford even a rundown apartment in Jerusalem.
The hope for a two-state solution is kind of a laugh if you realized the investment Israel has made in the settlements within the West Bank. It is highly unlikely that would abandon that property, and the restrictions placed on the Palestinians make it very unlikely many could afford to “buy them out;” even if there was a will to restore boundaries. The bad news is, I do not have the wisdom to bring about world peace.
But I do know where peace begins. Peace begins with respect for each other. Peace begins when we accept that we are intended by God to share with each other.
It is easier to sell fear and mistrust. It is easier to label others and load those labels with broad generalizations. Those labels rarely survive scrutiny and debate, which makes it useful to retreat behind stringent laws and limited criticism.
The law of God is intended to be an invitation to see creation as God does, recognizing the potential for good, and wanting what is best for all of creation. At the heart of forgiveness, is love for neighbor.
How in the world would Jesus’ admonitions lead us to win the war against our enemies? In truth, victory over others is the opposite of what is being preached. We only defeat our enemies in the kingdom of God by making them our friends. Friendship cannot grow when we indulge our passion for labels, and restricting others, while refusing to see our own weaknesses and sins.
So today I set before you; the anxieties of the world, driven by an urgent need to feel safe, and a stark contrast with a gospel of love and prayers for the ones who persecute you. We have our hands full, you and I, trying to discern God’s will for us in this day and age. Here we are, trying to grow in wisdom and maturity in the faith, only to be confronted by apparent contradictions between the kingdom of God and the ways of nation states in a violent world.
It helps to know, Moses addressed the Hebrew children when they were in Exile, with no place to call their own. Leaving the fields with fruit for the strangers had genuine appeal to a people in Exile for 40 years.
It helps to know that Jesus preached this message while living in an occupied territory. It helps to know, that God - through Jesus and all of his prophets - understands that the powers of the world often pose a direct threat to the security of our way of life. Jesus fully understands the contrast that faces us, and stands with us in our distress. Amen.