Sermon for October 29, 2017: Back to Basics (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5

Listen Here:

When I looked at the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, I thought about not preaching at all. That’s because today’s lectionary message is simple enough for children to understand, challenging enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives, and clear enough to settle most religious debates. It can answer almost every theological question you can think of – from the reasoning behind having women priests to the question of the place of social justice issues in the church. It is, in my mind, the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is so basic that it doesn’t seem to require interpretation at all – but perhaps some commentary on it is merited, if only because it is so important.

Today’s Hebrew scripture is from Leviticus – and it is the only passage from Leviticus that appears in the Revised Common Lectionary. That is interesting, because Leviticus is one of the books of the Bible that is frequently used in “proof texting.” “Proof texting is “the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing.”[1] That’s because Leviticus contains lots of rules, so if you’re looking for a bible passage that says we should behave in a certain way, Leviticus is a good place to look. Leviticus is one of the five books of Moses – the Torah- and contains the Jewish holiness code, from which today’s reading is taken.[2] There are six hundred and thirteen commands in the Torah – and over three hundred of them are prohibitions – and this passage is no exception. In just six verses, there are six “you shall nots.”

The focus of the reading, however, is on two “shalls” in the reading: “You shall be holy” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two statements bracket the reading and form the core around which the rest of it depends. They would not have been unfamiliar to Leviticus’s readers. “Old Testament law shares many concerns with other ancient Near Eastern law codes, of which the most famous is the much earlier Code of Hammurabi.”[3] These codes concerned themselves with how people should live together, and this passage “[explicitly links] holy living with justice making…[This] call to holiness, here defined primarily not in relation to cult or temple but rather to life in community, is an invitation to inclusive wholeness.”[4]

Paul was all about community wholeness. The reading we heard today is from Thessalonians, which is thought to be Paul’s first letter, and thus the oldest existing book of the New Testament. In it, Paul speaks of his failed evangelism at Philippi, “distinguishing between apostles, who preach the gospel out of love for others, and traveling philosophers of his day who preached to manipulate for personal gain.”[5] It is clear which kind of evangelist he believes he is and which type he wants his followers to be. Paul tells us that if we choose to love others even when they are cruel to us, we will find our own happiness.

It is the same choice conveyed by the psalmist in the very first psalm in the biblical canon. We can choose to walk in the counsel of the wicked or to delight in the law of the Lord. “The psalmist does not assume that his listeners are inclined toward making the right choice. In fact, the structure of the psalm suggests a keen awareness of the human proclivity to make the wrong one.”[6] He knows what we’re up against when we try to do the right thing. He knows that it is hard to put aside our own self-interest and fears. “It sounds good, but there are [just] so many traps and opportunities to forget or to totally fail at being a loving or good person.”[7] How do we do it?

We do it by relying on God – and on our Christian community. “We forget that we cannot live this life by ourselves. We cannot be the people God desires us to be and that we desire to be without complete surrender and dependence on God. It is not right behavior and action that win us God’s favor. Rather, the realization of our need for God in our lives softens the places that wickedness comes from and empowers us to be a loving people.”[8]

Jesus recognized that need – the need to put God at the center of our lives. When the Pharisees asked him which of the six hundred odd commands of their Torah is the most important, he didn’t even blink. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy and the “Shema,” the prayer that observant Jews say every day. He followed this with a second quote, this one from the Leviticus passage we read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This was the first time that these two ancient scripture passages had been cited together. “In quoting the Shema, Jesus points out that the aim of the law is to orient one’s entire life toward God. However, one cannot love God without loving what God loves! One cannot love God and oppress or exclude any of God’s creatures – even one’s enemies. While the scribes and Pharisees used the law to place severe limits on those whom they were obliged to recognize as their neighbors, Jesus joins these texts in order to smash all the limits and boundaries of neighborliness…To love God is to love in the [same] way that God loves – indiscriminately. To love God is to love what God loves- everything.”[9]

This is Jesus’s answer to the Pharisee’s pop quiz: that all of the laws they have so dutifully memorized and so firmly enforced are only relevant insofar as that through them we can demonstrate our love for God and one another. “Love is [the] test of one’s true understanding of the law…Jesus’s pithy summary of the law is strikingly similar to the answer that Rabbi Hillel gave to the same question. When a man challenged Hillel to teach him the whole of Torah while standing on one foot… [he responded], ‘That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.’”[10]

One could say the same about the Bible. It is, more than anything, a treatise on how to be in relationship – with God and with one another, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is proof that we can live as God wills, by measuring our own words and actions against the standard of whether they are in the service of loving God and our neighbor. It is the core of our identity as people of God.

Which is why Jesus is sure to identify himself as the true prophet of God, the one who alone fulfills the law and the prophets. It is through Jesus that we come to know God. “God’s purposes are larger than any single people. The Messiah’s mission transcends the salvation of any particular group. Those who love God must love all God’s creatures, even at great cost to themselves and their own privileges. Those who follow the Messiah must subordinate all particular interests, identities, and purposes to the Savior’s universal mission. Jesus refuses to identify love of God with rigid religious requirements or to identify faithfulness to himself with loyalty to a particular community of people.”[11] God is for all people and for all time. Times change. Contexts change – but God does not- and God’s message is simple: Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world. AMEN.


[2]Marvin M. Ellison, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 198.

[3]Christopher B. Hays, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 199.