Sunday, February 04, 2018

On the Mount (16)

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord,” says the book of Leviticus. Those last four words are not unrelated, as we will shortly see.

In Leviticus, the neighbor in question is indisputably a fellow Israelite, a blood relative: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” With the parable of the Good Samaritan, the definition of “neighbor” would shortly extend itself to moral geography a Jewish legalist might not strictly consider his own stomping grounds, but that’s another story. It isn’t part of the Sermon on the Mount.

We could import it, of course, but Jesus didn’t.

The Good Samaritan is Luke’s tale to tell. Matthew, who is all about the Lord’s Jewish audience, doesn’t touch it.

The Original Command in Context

Technically, I suppose, a Samaritan was in most cases a distant relative to a Jew, but one whose bloodline was considered contaminated by intermarriage with Gentiles forcibly settled by foreign rulers in territory belonging to Ephraim and Manasseh. In any case, loving a neighbor as yourself is a tall order, even when that neighbor is family. And the Lord is about to command much more than even that. But in its original context, the Levitical command to which the Lord refers might be seen as merely an injunction to avoid conflict with other Israelites, put grudges aside and be willing to bury the hatchet, so to speak, where your own people were concerned.

For the Jewish legalist it would be a very natural, very human thing to draw inferences from this rather precise wording, the most obvious inference being that holding grudges and taking vengeance were perfectly acceptable for God’s people when their ire was directed at those with whom they shared no genetic markers. This is probably where “You have heard it said … hate your enemy” comes from. It comes from somewhere, after all, and although you can find the word “hate” 25 times in the Law of Moses, you will find no direct commands there to hate anyone.

But notwithstanding that hating one’s enemies is nothing more than one possible inference from Leviticus, human nature is what it is. Saul’s rhetorical question to David suggests that hundreds of years before the Sermon on the Mount, the average Israelite considered it the most natural thing in the world:
“For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe?”
Interestingly, David, the “man after God’s own heart”, was a notable exception to the conventional wisdom.

God’s Own Heart

Thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, I trust the outpouring of God’s heart is precisely what we’re hearing. The subjects of the kingdom of heaven should love their neighbors as themselves because of the “I Am”. In their obedience, the very character of the God they worship is displayed to the world:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Devout Jews who truly understood the Law and waited expectantly for the coming of God’s kingdom would love both neighbors and enemies. The Christian, to whom the kingdom has now been given, wisely follows suit. God’s own character and his consequent dealings with man are held up as the example to follow, “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

Spiritual Genetics on Display

This is not an offer of salvation to be earned through mechanical obedience, but simply an appropriate display of existing spiritual genetics. The family relationship established through faith is assumed. So, just as a child tries on his father’s shoes or hat, the child of God puts on his Father’s nature. Do you want to demonstrate that you are part of God’s family? Well then, do the same things your Father does. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Here “perfect” means “complete” or “mature”. The Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. His mature children — the ones in whom his likeness is most visible — are likewise indiscriminate with their goodwill, bestowing it on those who haven’t earned it, have no rightful claim to it, and don’t necessarily even want it. It is not that the sons and daughters of the kingdom are sinlessly impeccable like their heavenly Father. That would be impossible, of course, and the word of God does not demand it. Rather, God’s children show their maturity by reflecting the complete spectrum of the Father’s character in their daily lives and relationships — though of course sin may cause the occasional glitch in transmission.

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

Love is a big word. It is necessary to inquire precisely what is intended by it here. If we beg that question, as one opinion writer for The Jerusalem Post does, we may find ourselves with all sorts of similar objections to the Lord’s teaching:
“Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?

Could God really be so unreasonable, could Jesus be so cruel, as to ask me to love baby-killers? And would such a God be moral if He did? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists? Could I find comfort in Him knowing that He offers them comfort as well? No, such a god would be my enemy.”
That’s an intense reaction, but not overly illuminating. Baby-killers, fiends and terrorists behave suboptimally; that fact is kinda packed into the word “enemies”. We already KNOW these are not nice people. The issue is what we are being commanded to do about them.

Mushy About Terror

I believe our Jewish friend misunderstands what the Lord Jesus intends by the use of the word “love”. We don’t have to like these people, or sympathize with them, or identify with them, or help them avoid earthly justice, or defend their actions, or rationalize their evil: we have to love them.

God is not inviting us to feel mushy or sentimental about terror or baby-killing. He doesn’t, and it is our Father we are to imitate as members of his family. God looked down on terror and fiendishness and baby-killing once before, and he said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Then he sent Noah to herald righteousness to them first, in order to give them opportunity to repent and be saved from the coming Flood. For between 50 and 75 years. That’s love.

“Compassion” is really the wrong word to describe it. This is not about our feelings. It’s about an obedient display of godly goodwill that leaves a door open for our enemies to repent and believe, to the glory of God.

Praying for Persecutors

“Pray for those who persecute you,” he continues. This is how the sort of love the Lord Jesus is talking about displays itself: we are not to discriminate in our prayers between those at the bottom of the moral cesspool and those who glide so lightly over it that we are unsure whether they have even soiled their shoes; between those we don’t like and those we do; between those to whom we have no blood ties and those to whom we have plenty; between those who would hang us from the nearest lamppost if they could and those who would happily offer us dinner.

The former group probably needs our prayers more than the latter anyway.

Likewise, we are to greet those who have it in for us, not because we are signaling approval of their behavior but because we are to put no obstacle in the way of their repentance and turning to Christ. The perfectly reasonable assumption that “that guy over there hates me” because he refuses to even look at me or greet me is, well, an obstacle. A stumbling block. An excuse not to believe. So we don’t give them that. As Paul would later say, picking up an Old Testament theme:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Hmm. “Burning coals” … of love. That’s not mush or sentiment. That’s love with a serious impact.

That Any Should Perish

Here’s how I see it: we have a God who does not wish that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

That includes the social justice warriors who are making the universities so politically correct, fascistic, morally depraved and outright dangerous that you’re afraid to send your son or daughter. That includes the Human Resources department at the company you work for that is so politicized it will take your job the next time you misstep, and you may never work again. That includes the not-insignificant percentage of Muslims currently flooding into the West who are determined to impose Sharia law on you and the rest of their new neighbors. That includes the woman next door who will one day report you for home schooling in the hope Child Services will take your kids away. That includes the weird people raging about “your kind” on the Internet who sound like they’d be happy to pitch you and your entire family into the Atlantic for the things you believe.

God’s not willing that any of these people should perish. But they will, unless they repent and believe the good news of salvation you and I have already received.

I think the Lord is just saying to his audience Let’s not make it any easier for them than it already is.

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