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Epiphany 7A Sermon
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5: 38-48

February 19, 2017


Sermon Archives


May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

I don’t know about you, but I am kind of glad that we are coming to the end of the weeks in Epiphany where our assigned scripture are focusing on the law a lot. This morning the first reading containing part of the Holiness Code is paired up with a section of the sermon on the mount where Jesus sounds sort of legalistic in his teachings.

The Holiness Code is what Leviticus 17-27 is called, and it contains guidance for the ways of life which extends holiness from the worship sanctuary to the land and its occupants. It is what sets God’s people apart from the people around them. If you have heard me talk about the word, “holy” before, you know that I understand it as meaning, “set apart for something special.” God had set these people apart to be his own people, and this code was the way that they should live as they are set apart. Holiness is a mark of distinction – it requires ethical living as well as ritual precision in worship and sacrifices. Holiness is dynamic – it can be achieved and it can be lost. Holiness requires constant vigilance. Defrauding your neighbor invites impurity just like contracting a leprous disease renders you unclean. It is important that God’s set apart people not only keep their bodies in check, but that they also do what is right in God’s eyes.

In this section of the sermon on the mount, Jesus also looks at an ancient legal system to commend it to them. It is not from the Holiness Code in Leviticus – it was from the ancient Babylonian culture. When he says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…” he is reminding the folks of Hammurabi’s Code. The sixth king of ancient Babylon, Hammurabi, enacted a code consisting of 282 laws with scaled punishments accounting for the social status of those involved in the law, whether a freeman or slave. We only think about this one best known law - #196 – when we think of Hammurabi’s code: “If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one breaks a man’s bone, they shall break his bone.” I don’t know about you but this sounds to me as being awfully barbaric – imagine today a judge ordering someone who knocked out the tooth of another person to have their tooth knocked out in return! But in its time, it was important because it limited the retribution that a person could exact on someone else. A man who knocked out the tooth of his neighbor could not receive the death penalty, especially if he was a slave and the victim was a rich important person in the community! It guaranteed that there would be consequences for crimes, and that the consequences would be appropriate for the crime committed.

The Jews of Jesus’ day must have known this code, and must have admired it. Where their own holiness code fell short, they must have looked to Hammurabi to fill in. But Jesus knows that these ancient codes don’t perfectly apply to the context of his day. He has already reminded them that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law is valuable and useful to Jesus, but it is important that it be made relevant to these people to whom he is speaking. Jesus is applying and interpreting the law for a new day – a day which is different than the day when it was given to and written down by Moses and Hammurabi!
There are many ways in which the change in culture calls for a re-interpretation or applying of the law. For instance, our knowledge of microscopic organisms as well as our knowledge of the macro-universe. We no longer see the world as a flat surface with a firmament of water held back above the clouds, and some sort of realm of fire underneath us. We no longer blame evil spirits for illnesses. Instead we study the globe and the universe in relation to other universes, and we treat infections and diseases with medicine and surgery. We have refrigeration and other ways to keep foods like pork and shellfish from becoming dangerous to our health. We don’t have any requirements to go to the temple and kill any animals and sprinkle its blood on the altar. I think that you will agree that the law is still valuable to us even as it is ancient, but it must be re-interpreted to be relevant in our day and age … just as it had to be in Jesus’ day and age.

So, in the reality of a law which seeks equal retribution for wrongs committed, Jesus says that instead of demanding your neighbor’s eye or tooth when he takes one of yours, you should offer him more than he has already taken. Offer the left cheek when he has slapped your right one. To those suing you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. Go two miles with the one who is forcing you to go one mile with them. And even more surprising – to us today as well as to those of Jesus’ time – is the directive to love not only our neighbors but to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.
I think that many times, people dismiss these teachings of Jesus as coming from a much simpler time, a time when it was easier to love enemies and pray for those persecuting them. But we must remember the brutality with which the Romans ruled. Certainly, they instituted the “Pax Romana” (the Roman Peace) but it was not true peace, or Shalom as we refer to it. It was more like an absence of hostility that was enforced with threats of crucifixion and other torturous means. In addition, by the time Matthew’s gospel was written, the Romans had already destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple – thousands were slaughtered in this bloody massacre. They had no regard for the Jews or for their ways to worship and live. Putting that face on the command to love your enemies helps us to realize that it was just as difficult to accomplish then, as it is in our world today with the many threats that we live under.

But we are different from Jesus’ time AND the time of The Holiness Code of Leviticus. Because of that, it is up to us to apply and interpret the law of God for our day and age. This is a very difficult and demanding proposition – we want to understand God’s laws as relevant to this place and time, but we want to guard against throwing the law out the window and living in a sort of, “anything goes” society. For instance, if we would read further in this 19th chapter of Leviticus, we come to verses 33 and 34: 33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. As we struggle with this very subject in our society today, many faithful Christians are saying that we should not allow anyone from a foreign country to settle in our land. On the other side of the argument, many faithful Christians basically want an open-door policy with regards to immigration. The fact of the matter is, immigrants and refugees are screened and vetted, at least those who enter legally. So, in light of these current circumstances, how do we apply these two verses from the Holiness Code in this day and age? It seems to me that the key lies in verse 18 of Leviticus 19 - “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and in verse 48 of our Gospel lesson – “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” As we, the church, seek to apply God’s laws to our time and place, we must work together- it is a collaborative effort between people of all denominations and ideologies. Then we should base our responses on the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, seeking to love others – yes, even our enemies – perfectly as God loves them.
It is not an easy task, but it is an important one. Many of our ancestors came to this country and were greeted with equal hatred and resistance. But these times are different than then. Many Japanese were placed in camps during WWII because of their nationality, and we grieve. We also know that we want safety and security for our nation and citizens. During this time, it is especially important for the church to prayerfully enter into the conversations about these issues with each other and our law-makers.

Jesus Christ has given us many gifts, one of which is the tools to apply God’s law to our own culture. May we constantly seek to love our neighbor and even our enemies perfectly, just as God loves them. And may Jesus fill us with his love, and show us how to serve the neighbors that we have in him. Amen.