Love Your Neighbor

by Rev. Kevin Daugherty

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm: Psalm 1
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46

Today’s Scripture passages give us one of the most important messages of the Bible and of Jesus. Our passage in from Matthew 22 gives us one of the clearest and most basic examples of what it means to be a Christian. It is this passage that we refer to in our ministry’s about section concerning the basic principles of Christianity. In Matthew 22 (and it’s parallels in other parts of the New Testament), we learn about the basic core message of the Bible. It’s really boils down to two key principles:

  1. Love God.
  2. Love your neighbor.

Now, of course there is a lot more to the Christian religion, and a lot more contained in the Bible, than these two points. However, these two points are the foundation upon which all the rest of it should lie. As Jesus said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18, which says to “love your neighbor as yourself”. This same passage from Leviticus is also listed in this week’s lectionary. This section of Leviticus doesn’t just say to love your neighbor. There is more being said here. Here is the lectionary portion in full:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

“‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.

“‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor franklyso you will not share in their guilt.

“‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.'”

Pay attention to some of these other commandments here. We are to practice justice, and not show favoritism, slander, hate, or bear a grudge. Instead of such things, we are to love our neighbors. There is an interesting social aspect to love here. When we as Christians usually talk about Christian love, we think of it as interpersonal. It is the love between family members, friends, or church members. It is love that is expressed on a very small scale. In this Leviticus passage, love is a socio-political concept that affects the nation. We see this stated further in the rest of the chapter. For example:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Here, we have an economic dimension to loving your neighbor. Our property is theirs. There is a community of goods among God’s people so that the vulnerable are protected.

Here are some others from the same chapter:

Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Once again, we see a socio-political and economic dimension to loving our neighbors.

For Jesus to cite this chapter is very intentional. I think that for Jesus, love doesn’t just mean that we are polite to other people. Love also means that we maintain justice in the land, and protect the most vulnerable among us.

In addition to these commandments, this chapter from Leviticus has some very strange and archaic laws. For example:

Do not mate different kinds of animals.

Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.

Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

When we see laws such as these, we can be tempted to simply dismiss large portions of the Bible. However, Jesus does not. He knew that a new covenant in his blood was being revealed, but he still found fulfillment in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even though the book of Leviticus is full of laws that were only relevant to the priestly tribe of Levites, and were largely limited to a specific time and place, Jesus still found one of the most important parts of his message there — we are to love our neighbors. This is an important example for us today, as many are tempted to emphasize these kinds of laws and forget that Jesus said that the most important one here is to love your neighbor.

As we go about this week, we should consider Jesus’ teaching here to love our neighbors. We should consider how the context in Leviticus gives this love a social dynamic, and we should consider how the context also speaks to Biblical interpretation. According to Jesus, the Law and Prophets hang upon love, not wearing clothing woven of two kinds of material. 

In addition, consider saying this prayer, which I think reflects the spirit of Leviticus 19 very well:

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.