8th Sunday after Pentecost

July 10, 2016


Leviticus 18:1-5, 19:9-18 8th Sunday a Pentecost Ascension / Good Shepherd 10/7/16

Walking to which tune?

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

“You shall not oppress your neighbour or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.

“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbour: I am the Lord.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:1-5;19:9-18 ESV)

When we travel overseas we are advised in numerous ways and not least by our governments that when you’re in another country you are to live by that country’s rules. The laws of the land apply in the laws of the land to all in the land and ignorance is no excuse nor is the naïve claim ‘Well, I can do that at home’ usually granted much weight though consular officials called to help its citizens in foreign lands tend to hear it quite a bit. The media picks up the more salacious events with often a disparaging tone of ‘how backward’ when it comes to matters such as dress, affection in public, or drinking in public but the media is also known to lead a charge of ‘everyone should behave like us in this country – no foreign stuff here’ when people seem to behave in ways not socially or legally acceptable here. It is very much when in Rome … or when in my house. We understand this. We teach our children to be aware of such matters and we experience such things in small ways when we engage with, visit, talk with people of other cultures and religions. But we insist on the principle that the rules of the land – the law – the legal code is the foundation for our relationships.

What we often fail to remember is that the law of the land is arbitrary and it changes from time to time. The law of the land presents us with a boundary between what is legal and illegal – which is designed to shape our behaviour so that we all get on. The idea, of course, is that if everyone plays by the same rules, we will all benefit – individually and collectively. We debate and amend and change these laws – what we regard as criminal – for all sorts of reasons – and because the laws of the land are so powerful, foundational, determinative we can easily slip into thinking that the law defines what is right and moral and good – the reality we want and should strive for.

There has been considerable movement in the law regarding our relationships and sexual behaviour. So in 20131 Spain raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and the minimum age of marriage from 14 to 16. When the change came into effect what was legal on one day became illegal the next day. It is not illegal to commit adultery though it may produce legal consequences. When I was in high school it was not illegal – though it was not overly approved of – for a teacher to marry a student – today it is simply illegal for teachers to be in any relationship with students other than the professional teacher-student relationship. People who support monogamy don’t support polygamy but those who support polygamy don’t necessarily support all open relationships – even polygamy has its rules and laws – legal pronouncements underpinning what is happening. We know that morality and laws talk about similar things – our social behaviour – how we relate to others – but they are not identical now – if they ever were.

1 I understand the changes were proposed in 2009 and came into effect 2013.

I’m not about to call for a revolution or incite anarchy but I do want us to consider why do we behave the way we do and our First Reading today – from Leviticus – a book that many in society today like to mock and disparage and one which Christians themselves can find hard going and often irrelevant –

sets out a framework that we – people in a relationship with God – would do well to remember.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.

The people of Israel were in the wilderness having been rescued by God from Egypt and made God’s people at Mt Sinai where he established a covenant with them. Their relationship with God was lived out in the way they worshiped and how they related and behaved towards each other. For all the social, legal, moral pressures of their past in Egypt and their future in what they would call the Promised Land – a land not empty of people but which had many nations or city-states – God’s people were called to follow him in their behaviour.

A lot of the Leviticus from this point onwards are the rules and ways God wants his people to live. Our reading picks up behaviour that reflects the agrarian context – don’t reap everything, leave produce for the poor – but it also deals with what we would call more universal behaviours – not stealing; no fraud or deceit; no oppressive economic behaviours towards your employee; caring for the disabled; truth in speech in and out of the courtroom. This all makes sense and we can nod and say, ‘yes, these things are good to do’.

But God goes further than just our outward behaviour – sometimes he targets our attitudes and inner responses. We often like to claim those as our own. We are our feelings, so to speak. Did you notice the last few verses which talk about not hating your brother and reasoning with him which you can do from ‘hatred’ or concern and care? What about bearing a grudge and vengeance? Ok, some of what causes that might be for the courtroom to resolve but it might also be upset from the bedroom and is for the couple concerned to resolve – and God is recognising that we will live in conflict at times but he wants us to behave despite those conflicts in a certain way because the only person’s behaviour over which we have any control is our own – so our First Reading concludes ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord’.

God calls his people to follow him.

That principle – that disciples follow their teacher – that worshippers follow their God – is still the same today in all religions. Similarly all citizens are to follow the laws of their land. Where there is similarity between discipleship and citizenship then perhaps the disciple doesn’t have to think too much about negotiating how do I actually live here and now. Where there are differences between discipleship and citizenship then the disciple very much has to think about his or her behaviour and how they live personally and socially and what they teach their children. Christians have been doing this from the beginning because that is how the first disciples of Jesus – that first generation we meet in the New Testament – had to live in the Roman Empire. Living is always about working out what to do in the here and now – not an abstract one – but my one – my here and now with the person or people or situation before me. And for Christians we also have Jesus with us in our here and now – hidden and unseen – calling us to follow him. For the baptised it is following him as his disciple not switching off our minds, not as robots, but as people loved by God who seek to live out our faith in the way we behave towards those around us. For the unbaptised – the non Christian – Jesus calls them to follow him because he can help them live not according to this world or society but according to him who promises life in all its fullness – which, by the way, is not usually worldly success or worldly accolades – but peace and hope and joy and love even in times of suffering.

Christians have always had to battle the peer pressure of the social and legal ways in the countries in which they live – and the culture it produces. I suspect these are skills and reflections Christians in this land don’t exercise too much because of the history here and its past and current links with Church and State. But the followers of Jesus are always in the wilderness on their journey home and thinking about how to live here as we journey – and living as disciples – is one of the marks of discipleship.

Are the laws of the land wrong? Hardly. They are designed for justice and social harmony as currently understood and Christians have always been called to be obedient and serve where they find themselves. But the 4th Commandment always gives way to the 1st Commandment and so we live as citizens of heaven and thus as foreigners here – and that sentence applies all over the world. We live to follow God.

All religious people do and so Christians are nothing special. However when we look at the Christians’ God – at the cross and empty tomb – listen to words and encounter water, bread and wine – as well as struggling sinners who seek to love and serve those around them – when we consider that God, then we do meet someone special indeed.





Bible References

  • Leviticus 18:1 - 5
  • Leviticus 19:9 - 18