Like a Good Neighbor

Like a Good Neighbor

Leviticus 19:13-18

by Daniel Harrell

I’m one of those people who know’s he’s going to forget something, so he writes himself a note. But then he forgets to read the note. Early yesterday morning I was due to bike 30 miles in support of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network on my trusty 1993 steel framed Bianchi Eros. For cycling geeks, 1993 was the last year Bianchi bikes were manufactured in Italy. Fantastico! I raised close to $5000 for the ride (thanks to you who supported me). More than 200 cyclists rode a glorious loop up at glorious Elm Creek Regional Park up in Maple Grove. I was almost there for an on time start when I realized I didn’t read my note and forgot my bicycle helmet. Left it in the garage. Helmets are mandatory for any cyclist. It’s the single most valuable component for riding a bike. Just the other day I saw a cyclist slip on a wet spot and go down on his head on the West River Parkway. His helmet saved him. Still, I was going to be on a park trail. Couldn’t I do without my helmet just this once? 

Heading north on 169 at 6:30 in the morning, I thought about it for a second. But then I remembered a conversation last week with a friend about my being a single parent. “You’re not a single parent,” she told me. “You’re an only parent.” I turned around and drove back to get my helmet.

Though I got a late start, yesterday morning was beautiful and the ride was invigorating. I ended up pedaling alongside another widower who’d lost his wife four years ago and, like me, had been sustained by a vibrant and compassionate Christian community who carried him through it. How did people endure such awful loss without a community of faith? We commiserated over our losses, shared our griefs and our hopes, cried some tears and hugged one another. I thought of the late Catholic writer Henri Nouwen who remarked: “In every arrival there is a leave-taking, in each one’s growing up there is a growing old; in every smile there is a tear; and in every success there is a loss. All living is dying, but when we can see life revitalized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.” And we can give thanks for it.

I rode among strangers, hundreds of others who’d lost loved ones to pancreas cancer, but our common loss and love made us neighbors. We’ve dubbed this as the year of the Good Neighbor for Colonial Church—practice, in a sense, for what God calls us to be our whole lives. Neighborliness is literally next to godliness. Last Sunday, Jesus famously addressed the answer about what’s most important in life. His answer? No surprise. He opened his Torah and spoke what every good Jew already knew: “Love the Lord God with all you got.” And then: “love your neighbor as yourself.”

These two greatest commandments to love God and love neighbor both originate in the Old Testament. Turn to the New Testament and they practically meld into one. As we will eventually see, the New Testament authors will go so far as to sum up both commandments with the single “love your neighbor” since, they reason, if you don’t love your neighbor whom you can see, how can you love God whom you don’t?

For Colonial Church, loving God by loving our neighbor is summed up in our first Core Value, Welcome Beloved. Beloved pertains to both the welcomed and the welcomer because God loves all people, the righteous and unrighteous alike. But because we’re not God, loving our neighbors can be hard—and this without Jesus’ caveat that we love our enemies too.

Before Dawn died I’d argue that loving your enemies was harder. How do you love somebody you hate or who overtly hates you? But now I’m learning that loving your neighbor can be the more difficult. In Scripture, neighbor often refers to your family, your besties, your closet friends and companions, the ones nearest and dearest to you. One day too soon you will lose them and it will hurt so badly. Such is the nature of love. The grief people remind us how deep grief is the fruit of true love. God so loved the world that he suffered the loss of his only Son to save it. The suffering love of God in Christ meets us in our own suffering with Christ’s suffering rather than immediate relief. Suffering scours us bare to expose the core wounds and core values that define us, the true belief and true grace that’s not the fruit of our our effort, but the yield of our yielding to Jesus. This is the strange way of the cross. Love makes us real. Love matters most.

But love is hard. Which may be why love must be commanded. In the Torah, the explicit commandment to “love the Lord you God” shows up seven times, all in Deuteronomy, but interestingly, the words “love your neighbor as yourself” show up only once. They’re randomly nestled here in Leviticus 19 among a longer list of commandments prohibiting mixing seeds and mixing fabrics. I didn’t include the no-mixing commandments in the reading this morning. I’ll leave you to read those for yourself. 

As you know, I spent 30 days some years ago with a group of friends in Boston trying to live by every word in Leviticus. I survived to write a book about it. I have plenty of copies if you’d like one. I mention this every year but nobody takes me up on it. Leviticus can be very lonely. 

Obedience can be lonely too. I am proud to say I did manage to succeed at much of what Leviticus commands. I refrained from mating different kinds of animals, planting mixed seeds, wearing mixed fabrics and from sharing a bed with slave girls promised to other men. Good for me. 

As for loving my neighbors, I interpreted this to include Dawn and Violet, of course, but also the people who resided to our right and our left and directly upstairs. You may remember me telling you last year how I tried to befriend our upstairs neighbor since we shared a two-family house back in Boston. Unfortunately my upstairs neighbor was freaked out by my being a minister. She’d refer to herself as “the pagan” in my presence and worried that I’d try to convert her. Fortunately Leviticus forbade contact with pagans so I was still in compliance.

This left me with the neighbors to our right and our left. On the right lived an elderly woman I’d never met. Shoveling our sidewalk after a snowstorm one morning, I noticed her walk wasn’t cleared, so what better way to love my neighbor than to shovel her walk too? Score one for me. On the left side lived a couple who’d just had twins. I told you about them too. We’d said hello over the fence in the summer, but that hardly counted as love, so I decided to take over a baby gift. I knocked on their door and the harried mother answered. Covered in baby food and plainly annoyed at the interruption (her twins screaming in the background), she looked at me suspiciously, having no memory of who I was. I introduced myself and offered the gift, which only made her more suspicious. Still, she took it and summarily slammed the door. Whatever. Leviticus never said your neighbors had to love you back. And even if they do, Jesus said, what’s so great about that? Even tax collectors and pagans love those who return the love. So rather than feeling slighted, I decided to thank God that I was such a good Christian. Score another one for me.

Now I could have stopped there, feeling all righteous and obedient as I did, except that at two in the morning, after Dawn and I had wrestled little Violet to sleep, pagan-party-girl embarked on an earsplitting splurge of revelry upstairs. Aggravated and angry, I threw on my clothes, stomped up the stairs, banged on her door, and demanded she cease and desist. She glared back at me wild-eyed and grunted, and then slammed the door in my face. Whatever. Still, she must have comprehended something because the wild ruckus stopped. Later, remembering Jesus and Leviticus, I felt bad for yelling at my neighbor. But then I recalled Leviticus 19:17: “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur her guilt yourself.” I was obedient without even knowing it and a better Christian than I thought.

For Bible geeks in the room, you might appreciate how verses 17 and 18 in Leviticus 19 work as a couplet. Each phrase of verse 17 corresponds to a parallel phrase in verse 18. Thus, “You shall not hate any of your kin in your heart” in verse 17 corresponds with “Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against one of your people” in verse 18. Think of how pleasant Thanksgivings would be if we just obeyed this. “Reprove your neighbor” in verse 17 (translated elsewhere as “rebuke your neighbor frankly” or “confront people directly even in Minnesota”) goes with “love your neighbor as yourself” in verse 18. And “do not incur guilt” or “do not be held guilty for something that wasn’t your fault” in verse 17, corresponds with “I am the Lord” in verse 18. The first phrasal pair presents the prohibition: “Do not hate, do not bear a grudge, do not seek revenge.” The second pair presents the positive alternative, “rebuke, speak the truth and love.” The final pair gives the reason for doing the positive alternative: “Otherwise you’ll be guilty and because God said so.”

Somehow, according to Leviticus, telling pagan party girl to pipe down not only counted as being obedient to God, but it was loving my neighbor too. Except that I hated her the whole time I was doing it. To love may include bringing grievances to the light, but not if the goal is humiliating the person with whom you are aggrieved. The motivation behind speaking truth in love must be forgiveness and hopefully reconciliation. But few people rebuke with forgiveness and reconciliation in view. Instead, we rebuke because we’re angry. Retribution is the thing on our hearts.

Maybe this is why Jesus brought the matter up again in the Sermon on the Mount: “You heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” he preached, referring to Leviticus 19. Except that nowhere in Leviticus 19 does it say “hate your enemy.” It does say “don’t hate your kinfolk.” Apparently, the commandment got twisted around to mean that as long as you don’t hate your kin, it’s okay to hate your enemy. Moreover, if you do hate your kin, you can label them your enemy and that’ll make hating your kin okay too. It’s the old Torah two-step. Bearing a grudge was now obeying the law. But Jesus stopped that dance when he commanded loving your neighbor include loving your enemies too.

But what if your loving rebuke isn’t received as love? What if your neighbor scorns your forgiveness or refuses reconciliation? Again, Jesus answered that question with the question, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors and pagans doing that?” No, Jesus says. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This was Jesus’ reiteration of Leviticus 19:2: “Be holy because the Lord your God is holy.” Whatever!

Because being holy like God feels impossible by definition, our tendency is to do our own New Testament Two-Step and declare the Bible’s commandments unrealistic. The bar’s set too high on purpose to force us to cry uncle and concede our need for Jesus. Confess your sin and get your grace and get on with doing what you were going to do anyway. We do definitely need Jesus, but his death for us was never for the sake of our personal convenience. Salvation is no substitute for obedience. Jesus never intended his commandments to love as idealistic. No more than when the Lord commanded the Israelites in Leviticus 19:16 not to spread slander, it wasn’t meant “it’s okay to slander as long as you think the slander is true or the gossip especially juicy.” Or when the Lord commanded them to leave the leftovers of their harvest for the poor (Lev. 19:9), it didn’t come with the proviso, “unless you’re still hungry.” The same with Jesus. He didn’t say “love your enemies, unless you’re mad at them.” Loving your enemies is not idealistic. Salvation is no substitute for obedience, but rather the incentive and power to follow Christ. You can do nothing to earn God’s grace, but you must do something to show you’ve received it.

Love is hard. It’s hard to be honest. It’s hard to be vulnerable and trust. It’s hard to hurt and to suffer loss. It’s hard to forgive. It’s hardly fair. But this is where grace comes in. Grace that forgives us our debts makes it possible for us to forgive our debtors, just like we pray. It’s hard, but by grace we can do it. And when we fail to do it, there’s grace to prod us to try again. The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once wrote:

It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind, and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God. It is when we are disappointed at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for the love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another. If that is all our self-denial amounts to, our mistakes will never help us. The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.”

If reading Leviticus and the commandments of Jesus only make you feel bad for being such a lousy Christian, then you’ve missed the point. Those commandments aren’t in the Bible to make you feel guilty and show you need for grace. They’re in the Bible to show you what grace is for. So love your neighbor. Speak the truth. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Love your enemies. Forgive their sins and God forgives you and seek reconciliation. Do justly. Show mercy. Walk humbly. Love deeply. By grace, with Jesus and each other, you can do it.