21st Sunday after Pentecost
October 29 2017
Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6, 12-14; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-46
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
For the last nine Sundays, we have been wandering through the book of Exodus like the Israelites in the wilderness. Now suddenly our lectionary fast-forwards through the Torah, skipping past Leviticus and Numbers to stop at the end Deuteronomy with the death of Moses.
Some years ago, my wife Vivien took me to Amman when she was teaching a workshop there on trade and the environment. Afterwards we went up Mount Nebo. On a clear day, you can see Jericho and Jerusalem; but even with a fish-eye lens, you cannot see all the land set out in our reading.
But the point here is that Moses has led the people of God to the brink of the Jordan, but he does not get to lead them into the land promised by God.
For that, says Tom Wright, you need someone else to shepherd you across. “And that someone will be called Joshua, Yeshua, Jesus.”
That’s clever, but it’s not convincing. Between the Joshua of the book that bears his name and the Jesus of our New Testament, there is a great gulf fixed.
Joshua commands the people he leads in the name of God to kill their enemies. Jesus of Nazareth commands them in the name of God to love their enemies. Because that, says Jesus, is the way into the promised land. Take any other way, and you get stuck on the wrong bank of the river.
Love is the answer Jesus gives when the Pharisee asks him which commandment is greatest of all. Love God, love your neighbour.
When I was a boy, my catechism asked the obvious follow-on question: Who is my neighbour?
My neighbour, it said, is all mankind, especially those who persecute or calumniate me.
Persecution I understood. I was familiar with playground bullying. Calumniating was more of a puzzle, but it didn’t sound nice. Only when I was older did I learn that it means to make false or defamatory statements about someone: telling lies. And only when I came here to Jerusalem did I realize that it’s not very different from hasbara: telling lies about others because it’s your only way to counter their criticism.
But the point here is that my catechism told me to love everyone, even those I had no reason to like. So it came as something of a shock to realize that this is not what the verse from Leviticus 19 means.
We have to read it in context. Here it is with some of the surrounding verses.
“You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning…. You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour…. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin…. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19.13, 15, 17f)
For the Jews who put together the Torah in the form we now have it – whether the Jews in exile in Babylon, or later the Jews in the small community centred on Jerusalem under Persian or Hellenistic rule – my neighbour is my kin. My neighbours are the other Jews in my community. I am to love them as myself.
But Leviticus 19 doesn’t say that Jews are to love only Jews. Read on, and we come to these verses.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The 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.” (Leviticus 19.33f)
Here Leviticus says that we are not just to love one another. We are not to be a community that cares only about ourselves. We are to love the stranger in our midst as though she or he were one of us. We are to love the strangers as we love ourselves.
Why are we to do this? First, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, where they made our lives bitter. We are not to treat others as badly as we were treated. We know what that was like.
But the second warrant for loving the stranger is the same as the warrant for loving one another: “I am the Lord your God.”
In his reply to the Pharisee this morning, Jesus of Nazareth brings together two commandments from different books in the Torah: Love God from Deuteronomy, love your neighbour from Leviticus. But he is not simply juxtaposing them. He is saying that they are the same thing. It is because we are to love the Lord our God that we are to love the other as ourselves.
These commandments, and all the other commandments in the Torah, aren’t really commandments at all. They are not orders, to be obeyed in our own strength. They are gifts, given to us from a God of loving-kindness who sets us free to be ourselves. This, God says, is how you are to do that.
These points, which we can get from any sensitive reading of the Hebrew scriptures, modulate into a distinctively Christian key when we ask about the Son of David and call to mind the story of Jesus.
The question Jesus puts to his fellow Jews is “a typical form of Jewish discussion: put side by side two incongruous or apparently contradictory statements from scripture, and ask how they are to be interpreted as to show a perfect harmony.” The Messiah is the son of David; how then can David in Psalm 110 call him Lord?
Christians have no difficulty in answering this question. Paul answers it for us: Jesus of Nazareth “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead”. (Romans 1.3f)
But let’s ask another question in the same Jewish spirit. What is our lectionary doing, what is Matthew doing, in putting together the two sections of our Gospel reading – the question about the son of David and the commandment to love?
It should be easy to answer this question too. It is above all Jesus of Nazareth who is God’s gift to us. God gives him to us, and we crucify him. But then, in a second act of forbearance, God gives him to us again.
Moses dies before he can lead the people into the promised land. Jesus dies on a Roman cross; but God raises him from death to lead us into new life. And it is because of this that we can be brought to love God and love our neighbour.
We read the whole structure in the first letter of John. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Therefore “let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4.10, 7)
This, says Tom Wright – and here I agree with him – is where the commandments begin to come into their own: when we see them not as burdens, but as invitations to a new way of life in which, bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind and love can become a reality.
On Friday this week, I shall be at the Notre Dame Centre, helping to launch a new book by Naim Stifan Ateek, the father of Palestinian liberation theology. But this morning I want to quote from Naim’s first book, published almost thirty years ago.
In Deuteronomy 16, Moses says this: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
Justice, and Only Justice is what Naim called his first, ground-breaking book. He did this because of a Jewish interpretation of this verse: “The word ‘justice’ is used twice. “The first ‘justice’, it is said, applies to the Jews; the second applies to other people.”
When the Jews of Israel learn to take their own scriptures seriously, then perhaps there will be a chance of peace in this land.
With a becoming lack of modesty, Paul tells the young church in Thessalonica, “We had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” He tells them also, “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”
We Christians in this land are called to be similarly brave and tender.
When we can say truthfully to the Jews and Arabs who are our neighbours, the Palestinians and Israelis among whom we live, “We are ready to share with you not only the good news of God but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us,” then we can claim – with an equal lack of modesty – that we have learned at last what it means to be children of God and, like Paul, faithful followers of the crucified and risen Son of David.
May it be so.
 NT Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays : Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A (London: SPCK, 2001), 116
 I realized after I wrote the sermon that it is, in a way, a gloss on this paragraph from The Inheritance of Abraham? (a report presented to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 2013 that provoked some controversy, much of it unnecessary): “To Christians in the 21st century, promises about the land… are a way of speaking about how to live under God so that justice and peace reign, the weak and poor are protected, the stranger is included, and all have a share in the community and a contribution to make to it. The ‘promised land’ in the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor of how things ought to be among the people of God. This ‘promised land’ can be found – or built – anywhere.” But note the opening phrase! For Jews in the 21st century, the land of Israel can and does have a different significance. Nonetheless, they and we and everyone else are called “to live under God so that justice and peace reign”. Unhappily, none of us are very good at that.
 FW Beare, The Gospel according to Matthew (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 445
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 (London: SPCK, 2002), 95
 Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017), with a foreword by Walter Brueggemann
 Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 177