When I saw that one of the Lectionary readings for this week was from Leviticus, I promptly (and, yes, sarcastically) informed my husband that we don’t hear enough sermons based on Leviticus.
Well, you know what’s coming next, right? I’ll be preaching on Leviticus this week. It’s a stunning, beautiful text. Actually, I am drawn to the Old Testament reading in parallel with the New Testament reading (which is the same thing I did with last Sunday’s sermon). Right now my thoughts are being drawn to the tensions and complements between law and love.
Obviously, as Jesus points out, merely following the letter of the law is not enough. The danger of laws or rules is that they can become ends in themselves–they are followed even when common sense and a good heart would abandon them; they are followed as a substitute for discerning and doing the true good. Many times love calls us to go beyond the law. On occasion, Love may even call us to go against the law.
Still, I wonder whether “liberal” “progressive” Christians don’t tend to give the law a bit of a short shrift. There are distinct advantages to having a set of rules to govern our lives. Rules can help us “pre-make” some of our decisions so that we do not allow our feelings to dictate what we do, how we treat people. (At a church sex ed seminar I attended as a teenager, we were told that when you are making out of the backseat of a car is not the time to decide how far you’re willing to “go”.)
There is an intriguing scene in the novel So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver. Shep’s wife Glynis, is dying of cancer. Shep laments to his father, a retired Presbyterian pastor, that Glynis’ friends and family don’t visit her anymore. They barely even call. His dad explains that, for all the faults of church folks, they stuck with people through rough times. Nobody wants to be around sick people, but church folks know they are supposed to send cards and make visits and bake casseroles–so they do. (I’m listening to this novel on tape, and I need to check out a copy of the real book so I can read this scene more carefully.)
Rules–overt or implied–can be a wonderful motivating force when it comes to living out the hard acts of love. And Leviticus presents a beautiful set of rules–very concrete rules–with deep implications for creating a just and peaceful society: leave some fruit, some grain, in the fields for the poor; be honest; don’t steal; don’t take advantage of another person’s weakness for your own gain or pleasure.
Then finally to the crux, the Law on which all other laws are based: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . . And just in case we are tempted to define “neighbor” as suits our whims, Jesus assures us that our neighbors include our enemies.
Law and love. That’s what I’m thinking about this week.