Our Sunday readings teach us about the holiness of love, the connection between love and holiness.
In the reading from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will say, “Love your enemy . . . that you may be children of your heavenly Father. . . . Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The connection between love of God and love of neighbor is absolute.
The reading from Leviticus says the same thing, and straightforwardly. “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. . . . You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” To be holy, to be united to God, is to love, not hate.
Now, if you are paying close attention, you will notice that the Lectionary has left out a big chunk: we skip from “be holy” in Leviticus 19:1-2 to “love your neighbor” in verses 17-18. What is in between?
The rest of the Gospel reading might make you worry about what else we might find in Leviticus. This is where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. . . . You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
There is nowhere in the Gospels that so seems to pit Jesus against the Old Testament as this Sunday’s reading. Many people, reading only this, think that the Old Law – given above all precisely in Leviticus – is about hatred and revenge (along with a bunch of really annoying ceremonial rules). Thank God Jesus has saved us from the horrible Old Testament!
But remember that last week we heard Jesus say that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and in last week’s Gospel reading Jesus went to some length to show that his moral teaching is really about intensifying the Old Law, not replacing it. “Thou shalt not kill” becomes “whosoever is angry with his brother.” He does not reject the Law, he doubles down on it.
This is essential to understanding what Jesus says about this week’s Old Law teachings. “An eye for an eye” is not a command of revenge; it is a command that limits revenge. It means, if someone pokes your eye out, you can’t go kill his family, and you shouldn’t be poking out people’s eyes unless they’ve done the same to you. A well-meaning but thoughtless bumper sticker tells us, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” To the contrary, “an eye for an eye” means that if you have two eyes – which most of us do – you have no right ever to poke anyone else in the eye. The Old Law was limiting revenge, not commanding it.
So too when it says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” This is a command to love, not to hate. It is a command to hate only your enemy – and it explicitly says that your neighbor is not your enemy. Jesus goes even further, but if we all loved our neighbors and only hated people who (a) were really our enemies and (b) were far enough away not to count as our neighbors – well, we’d be be pretty loving people.
All of this just means that the Old Law is not so ugly after all. Take some time to flip open Leviticus – or the Psalms – and find what it teaches about loving your neighbor. In the part our reading skips over, for example, Leviticus tells God’s people to leave some grain in their fields for the poor. We could learn a lot about love from the Old Testament. We could gain a good foundation for Jesus’ teaching by obeying the Old Testament’s strict law of love.
The reading from First Corinthians takes us deeper into this teaching on love in two ways.
First, practically, it tells us to renounce our own wisdom. How much peace there would be if we held our own opinions a bit more loosely!
But second, and more theoretically, it tells us that we are God’s temple. All I can say is that if you read the whole letter, you will find that it is not speaking primarily about us as individuals, but us as a community, a “people.” The “you” in the reading is plural; the temple is singular.
God dwells among us when we live as community; we worship him only by coming together. This is the deepest meaning of “Church,” and the deepest meaning of the commandment to love.
How does your love or hatred of your neighbors express itself when you come to worship?