Why Does God want us to Love our Neighbor?
In confirmation class, we’re watching these 10 minute videos to spur our conversation and topics, and in last Sunday’s video the host starts by saying, if an adult ever asks you to read the old testament book of Leviticus… then she pauses and turns and the music gets all dramatic, and she says RUN! Run for the hills! She’s kidding, but you might relate. If any of you have ever ventured to read the bible cover to cover, my guess is that you may have ran out of steam and enthusiasm somewhere around this third book. It can be pretty hard to digest.
There are tons of instructions and regulations that God gives Moses about how the Israelites are supposed to live.
It’s hard to say exactly how all of these rules and regulations got written down and passed down. But they did. These ancient leaders, priests or rabbis cherished these instructions and tried to follow them, and then studied them and debated them and passed them down though the generations.
I began working on this sermon topic, why does god want us to love and care for our neighbor? with the idea of preaching about the parable of the good Samaritan that Jesus talks about in the gospel of Luke chapter 10. But my study drew me back to these teachings. I thought it might be interesting to trace the ideas presented in that parable, and so I too found myself in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These ancient texts studied deeply by Jesus himself and those learned men in the gospels who questioned him as he was teaching and preaching and traveling around.
One such man, a lawyer, prompts the good Samaritan parable. He is asking Jesus, “how do I gain eternal life?” Jesus shoots back at him… “well, what do your scriptures say?” The man says, “love your God with all your heart and all your soul, and all your strength and with all your mind.” Which comes from Deuteronomy. And then he adds and “love your neighbor as yourself”—the neighborly stuff comes from Leviticus.
Jesus responds, “good, that’s right. Do that.”
The lawyer asks a follow up question, well who is my neighbor? Jesus goes on to tell the story of a man who was wounded by the side of the road, and is passed by by the priest and the Levite, and then a Samaritan man, Samaritans who were thought of very poorly, he sees the wounded man and helps him.
Then at the end of the parable Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor of the man on the side of the road?”
The answer of course is the man who showed mercy. This parable broadens that view of neighbor. From just those living on either side of us, or on our block, or down the street… it’s the whole of humankind, even those with whom we have nothing in common, or those that we might even see as our enemy. God loves them just the same as God loves you, no more, no less.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the video of a protest in Columbus, Ohio. It was supposed to be an anti Muslim rally outside of an Islamic cultural center. And one woman came to protest. Most of the other people who showed up were non muslims who came to support the Muslim community. And one of the counter protesters, asked to talk with her, asked if they could be friends. She was certainly resistant, but he and some others talked to her for about 45 minutes, they talked about history and race and religion and politics. And eventually one of the Muslim woman came up to her and introduced herself, and shook her hand and invited her to have some coffee and some bagels. She didn’t go, at first. But eventually she accepted and went inside, and one of the Muslim women actually hugged the woman.
This woman, filled with hate, was the recipient of grace and hospitality, she was showed mercy and hopefully that changed her a little bit. They were neighbors to her, even when she refused to be neighbors to them.
For me, I never had trouble with understanding that we’re supposed to love our neighbor, and even now, I see some of the most meaningful spiritual growth when we are showing that love in service to one another, when we are we are teaching and learning from one another, when we’re on mission trips, or serving food at soup kitchens or memorial receptions, when we are out in the community and catching those glimpses of God in one another. These things make sense to me, but when I was a kid, I remember learning that we are supposed to love God. And I didn’t really get how to do that. How are you supposed to love something or someone that you can’t see or touch or hug?
Maybe you may have had similar questions, or feelings like this. And it took me awhile to make the connection that our love of other people, and the way we take care of one another, is also the way we love God.
We see these concepts put together also in Matthew 22, when someone asks Jesus, “what is the greatest commandment?” And he responds “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” and he goes on to say that all the law and prophets hang on these 2 commandments. They are interrelated. One affects the other. We can’t say that we love God, and then also hate our neighbor.
So why does God want us to love our neighbor? Because love comes from God.
Why does God want us to love ourselves? Because God created you and loves you, and love comes from God.
And why does God want us to love God? Because, love comes from God. God’s love is poured out into us, and shown through our interactions with another, and the way we treat ourselves.
In the Levitical instructions God is trying to give the Israelites a best way to do life, to set them up for success here at the base of Mount Sinai, attempting to secure their well being. God had made a promise to Abraham, back in the book of Genesis, that says these people, they are to be a blessing to the nations. So look at these instructions as intending to train, teach and prepare the people of God to be instruments of God’s grace.
In the section we read in Chapter 19, it gives some practical ways to show this grace, this love and care:
When you harvest you’re not supposed to take all of it, you leave some for the poor.
Underneath this neighborly practice is generosity. You don’t hoard it all for yourself.
Don’t steal or lie or slander, or trick or intentionally mislead people… don’t hate your family, don’t hold grudges or seek revenge. Some of this stuff, it goes against our basic instincts for self-preservation. If someone wrongs us, we get mad! I know for me, I’m the worst driving in the car. I get mad at other drivers, even when I’m not in that big of a hurry to begin with. That’s why we need instructions.
God shows us a better way to interact with people.
All these practices help you love your neighbor, and they help you love yourself. That kind of stuff, those grudges and that anger and that hatred it eats away at you, and it affects your daily life.
Now we’ve all had annoying neighbors or annoying work colleagues, or annoying college roommates, or annoying college roommates who then become our neighbors. And so you might know, how much that just makes life more difficult. Now I’m not going to boil down the commands in Leviticus by saying, it just make your life easier to show these kindnesses and love your neighbor, because it does go deeper than that.
Our neighbors can be anybody that we show grace to, anybody in our lives that we choose to care for, and help out, and show hospitality to, and not take advantage of, and not hold grudges, and not hate, or lie or steal or cheat or make fools of. At the base of all of these things, is a sense of care and responsibility for one another. That’s how we’re supposed to love our neighbors. And the source of all that love comes from God, and God wants us to turn around and use that love on one another and even ourselves, everyday!
There is this Hindu tradition called the Kolam, that is practiced in some regions of south India. You can see on the cover of your bulletins a woman making a Kolam on the threshold of her home. It is made with rice flour that you hold in your hand and release, as you draw this intricate pattern, each one is unique. Each morning as the sun rises women will greet the day by making a Kolam on her threshold. It is a sign of welcome, and is said to invite luck and good fortune into your home, into the day and into your lives. They also serve as a visible sign, for those who pass by, that this is a place of welcome.
Kolams can range from simple everyday designs to more elaborate and beautiful celebrations that you might put out for a wedding or a festival. Representing even more welcome and more hospitality to those who enter. And when a family has suffered a loss or is in a period of grieving, they won’t put out a Kolam and you will know not to enter, you won’t find hospitality at that time. They are in need of your care.
A friend of mine who introduced me to this practice said that it makes you aware of your neighbors in a particular way. Who is always first out, to greet the rising sun? Who takes a little bit longer to get out there? Who is in a time of celebration? Who is in a time of mourning?
Kolams also represent the fluidity of life, because it’s not a permanent fixture. It is worn away through out the day, under footsteps, blown by the wind or eaten by tiny creatures, benefiting the very least of these. So it’s a daily practice. Each day as you rise you invite good things and welcome into your life.
I love the idea of this daily practice. This daily physical practice, spiritual practice and it’s a neighborly practice. We don’t have these visible daily signs of welcome in our tradition. SO how will we choose to show our welcome, and our neighborliness in a daily way?
Let’s make our daily practice be one of love.
We love God best by loving our neighbors. We love ourselves also by loving those around us. Sow seeds of love every day, by showing mercy and generosity, forgiveness and trust. Allow that goodness and love that you pour out into the world, to change you, and to change the world. Let our daily practice be love. Amen.