Leviticus 19:9-18 – Be a Good Neighbor

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Do not steal.

Do not lie.

Do not deceive one another.

Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.

Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind but fear your God. I am the Lord.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly.

Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.

Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (New International Version)

All of these Old Testaments commands to the ancient Israelites are a development and expansion upon the basic core Ten Commands or Words given by God to Moses.

Those core commands are based in the character of God. That same character is to be the normal daily lived experience of God’s people.

The Levitical instructions are a fleshing-out of God’s basic commands for a specific people in their particular social, economic, and historical situation.

Although we need not, as modern folk, strictly observe the commands, as they are culturally constructed, we very much need to fulfill the ethics and morality which are behind the specific instructions.

Today’s Old Testament lesson has to do with being a good neighbor – a person who conscientiously lives in community with others and pays attention to the collective needs and wants of everyone. It is to live into God’s overarching ethic for the common good of all persons.

A commitment to community life needs good neighbors. They are characterized by the following virtues:

Sacrifice

Israel was chiefly an agrarian society. So, when the season of harvest came, the workers gleaning the fields were to only go over it once. That way, the poor and less fortunate could come behind and pick up what the workers missed or dropped.

Any landowner who instructed the workers to keep working until they got every scrap of grain or fruit was being cruel to the poor. Merciful and generous owners would, conversely, instruct the workers to leave a bit behind and not get everything.

Since God sacrifices on behalf of humanity, so we, too, are to make sacrifices which benefit the common good of all persons in the community.

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. (Ephesians 5:2, NLT)

A sacrificial spirit, not a self-indulgent one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Honesty

Cheating, lying, stealing, and deceit have absolutely no place in the kingdom of God. Instead, honest dealings with others, always being above board in all matters, is of upmost importance to God.

Witnesses in court are expected to speak the truth without falsehood. Business dealings are to have accurate weights and measures. Integrity and trustworthiness are the building blocks of any good society.

Since God is truth, so we, too, are to live into truth through being honest in all we say and do.

Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the innocent. (Exodus 23:7-8, NIV)

An honest spirit, not a thieving one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Fairness

In the ancient world, and still in many parts of the world today, workers were paid at the end of the day for their day’s work. Bosses who withheld expected wages till the next day were quite literally depriving a family of their supper.

For those who are not able to do a solid day’s work, such as the blind and the handicapped, it’s bad enough to simply ignore them, because God is attentive to their plight. That situation is exacerbated exponentially, whenever someone or a group of people, decide to make such persons’ lives even harder than they already are.

Since God is fair in all dealings, so we, too, are to extend fairness to all without any prejudice or favoritism.

The Lord watches to see if we are fair or if we cheat others. (Proverbs 16:11, CEV)

A fair spirit, not an exploitive one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Justice

Unequal treatment is about as far from God as one can get. Being concerned only about those with similar political views, economic interests, or spiritual inclinations is a gross practice of injustice. It denies the ethic of the common good of all in favor of the common good of some.

Since God is just in all things, so we, too, are to uphold biblical justice for our fellow humanity, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Never deprive foreigners and orphans of justice. And never take widows’ clothes to guarantee a loan. (Deuteronomy 24:17, GW)

A spirit of justice, not injustice, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

Love

Hate is the inevitable result of holding onto anger through nursing a grudge and holding onto bitterness. It fails to speak up and speak out.

Love, however, assertively addresses anger and seeks to make things right in a calm and concerned way. Love attacks problems, not people.

Since God is love, so we, too are to love one another.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. (1 John 4:7, NIV)

Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (Romans 12:21, MSG)

A spirit of love, not a hateful vengeful one, is what God is looking for in a good neighbor.

A good neighbor is one who seeks the common good of all persons because God is good, all the time, and always does what is right, just, and fair.

Gracious God and Father, in a world of fear and suspicion, teach us that love is the only means to conquer fear.

Loving Lord Jesus, Son of God, in a world full of anger and frustration, teach to overturn the tables and tear down the fences which turn away the hungry and homeless; and to practice hospitality without prejudice.

Blessed Holy Spirit of God, in a world of indifference and ignorance, teach us wisdom, to be caring of one another, and to protect one another.

Blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom we serve, help us to know the peace that steals gently in through quiet acts of kindness, just as peace is always within you as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Amos 6:1-8 – Against Complacency

Woe to you who think you live on easy street in Zion,
    who think Mount Samaria is the good life.
You assume you’re at the top of the heap,
    voted the number-one best place to live.
Well, wake up and look around. Get off your pedestal.
    Take a look at Calneh.
Go and visit Great Hamath.
    Look in on Gath of the Philistines.
Doesn’t that take you off your high horse?
    Compared to them, you’re not much, are you?

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster!
    Catastrophe is just around the corner!
Woe to those who live in luxury
    and expect everyone else to serve them!
Woe to those who live only for today,
    indifferent to the fate of others!
Woe to the playboys, the playgirls,
    who think life is a party held just for them!
Woe to those addicted to feeling good—life without pain!
    those obsessed with looking good—life without wrinkles!
They could not care less
    about their country going to ruin.

But here’s what’s really coming:
    a forced march into exile.
They’ll leave the country whining,
    a rag-tag bunch of good-for-nothings.

God, the Master, has sworn, and solemnly stands by his Word.
    The God-of-the-Angel-Armies speaks:

“I hate the arrogance of Jacob.
    I have nothing but contempt for his forts.
I’m about to hand over the city
    and everyone in it.” (The Message)

A fool is one who either cannot or will not see that their personal actions have communal ramifications. Arrogant people are shortsighted, and when there is no immediate consequence to their selfish actions, they quickly assume everything is okay.

Perhaps we are fools – not so much because of any heinous sins – but because of our great indifference toward the mass of humanity across the world, as well as the neighbor across the street.

If there is any foolishness with the Christian, I submit to you that it could likely be because we believers have abjectly avoided the Old Testament minor prophets as some anachronistic judgment of the past which has little to do with living in today’s New Testament grace.

It is high time that Christians, especially Western Christians, take the entirety of their Bibles seriously through a hard examination of the prophet Amos.

“Morally, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself; in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Those with power and privilege nearly always believe that what is good for themselves is good for everybody else. In their pride, they either cannot or will not look under the ghost of Christmas Present’s robe. The boy Ignorance, and the girl Want, are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, for the foolish person of indifference.

The issue is not one of actually possessing wealth and influence. After all, the Lord God is wealthy and influential beyond anything we can imagine. The real issue is how we have obtained such things and whether we seek to use them for the common good of all people, and not just for myself or people just like me.

It will not do to be a simpleton and toss out flippant phrases such as, “If they want money they can get a job,” “They’re just lazy and unmotivated,” “The government takes plenty from me for those people,” “They could be self-sufficient if they really wanted to,” “They should be happy that I give them a [minimum wage] job,” “The poor are uneducated…addicts…drug seekers…unreliable…” And on the blustering goes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Those, and many more statements like them, are nothing more than mere projections of the privileged few upon the masses. Truth is that addiction, debt, ingratitude, and laziness are marks of the rich and powerful in the same way you can find them anywhere. What’s more, projecting and deflecting are endemic of the mind that either cannot or will not engage in critical thinking and avoid logical fallacies.

Such persons are unaware that their luxurious eating and drinking in the dining room of the Titanic will suddenly be their last meal. Their complacency is their ruin.

Many of us tend to see the sins of others rather than our own sins. So, reading Amos, we may reflexively think of “those people’s sins, back then,” or, the sins of “other people.” Yet, as Jesus suggests in the Sermon on the Mount, when we interpret the law, we should first examine the logs in our own eyes, rather than starting with the slivers in our neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

The place to begin with giving Amos an honest hearing, is to look inwardly at our own shadow selves. The lack of self-awareness is the beginning of all callousness, complacency, and conceit.

“Unfortunately, there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.”

Carl Jung

There are two practices which can help illumine our inner person, thus opening the way to greater compassion for others:

  1. Listen to your self-talk. What’s going on in your mind? Is it a series of negative thoughts that make you feel like crud? Or do you also consider gratitude and positive thoughts? Take a couple of minutes each day to sit in silence and listen to the tone of your inner voice. It might even help to write down your thoughts so that you can get a better idea of what they are truly like. If we cannot listen to ourselves, we won’t be able to listen to the voice of others – which means we’ll never really understand other people.
  2. Pay attention to your feelings. Emotions are barometers of how we are truly doing, as well as flags which signal what we are supposed to be paying attention to.For example, a warm feeling in your face might mean you’re embarrassed; ‘butterflies’ in your stomach can mean you’re nervous; or clenching your teeth might mean you’re angry. Stuffing emotions or trying to avoid them will inevitably lead to hardness of heart.

I suggest focusing on these two practices while you are reading the prophet Amos. That’s because reading the prophets never leaves us the same. They evoke lots of self-talk and plenty of emotion. This is the path to better understanding the prophet’s message.

God of the prophets, and of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. Give us the grace and awareness to see the abundance of our world and to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear. Give us openness of soul and courageous, willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are in need. We ask for your intervention on behalf of every person hungry for earthly food and hungry for the taste of the Spirit of God.

We give thanks that we can be part of your compassion for all people. This world is blessed with enough food for every person to eat and be satisfied. And we can all feed on the bread of Christ, as God makes a home in our hearts. We are in awe and wonder your great love for us, that we are invited and urged to participate with you in the care of our brothers and sisters. In the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – A Spiritual Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Byzantine icon of the Apostle James, the brother of Jesus

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures….

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

The Apostle James wrote to a church facing all kinds of challenging adversity in their daily lives. Some of the believers responded wisely to their troublesome circumstances. Yet others dealt with their trials and tribulations by being troublesome people themselves. 

It was this breakdown in the church fellowship which spurred James to write his letter. The surface problem was infighting. But James wanted to get down to the root issues below the surface. Like a doctor understanding the pathology of the body, James diagnosed the real problems, and gave a clear treatment plan on how to proceed together in the Christian life. 

His prescription for spiritual health in the Body of Christ was not medication but a lifestyle change. Today’s New Testament lesson answers three diagnostic questions which ailed this ancient church.

First diagnostic question:  Who is wise and understanding among you?

Wise persons live a good life, demonstrated by their humble actions. They have trained themselves in the ways of God through the Scriptures.

Wisdom in the Bible is much like driving a car. You try to keep your eyes on the road and drive defensively while often making quick decisions on the road. You don’t fret about why there is a tight curve or an upcoming stop sign. You don’t try and determine the philosophy behind the mechanics of a stop light. You just try to do what needs to be done on the road to get where you need to go. And as you drive you respond to the road conditions and pay attention to the other drivers. 

Wisdom in the Christian life is more than knowledge; it is also being attentive to the other people around us as we seek to live for God. We respond to every adverse road condition that comes along with a mind dependent on God and a humble heart willing to be directed and re-directed by God’s Holy Spirit.

The unwise person sits and harbors selfish resentment in his heart when he has to wait ten minutes on a train to slowly rumble by on the tracks. The same person then desires to take off like a bat out of hell, freely expressing his road rage at another slow driver in his way.

In his lack of wisdom, the person justifies himself as wise because he believes his destination warrants his way of driving. He has convinced himself that he must drive the way he does. And if pulled over by a police officer, he deludes himself in thinking the officer has a problem for standing in the way of him getting where he wants to go.

Conversely, wise people are characterized by a different set of motivations and practices:

  • Humility and attentive consideration of another’s need.
  • Moral purity and being set apart for Christian service.
  • Peace and harmony, championing the common good of all. 
  • Empathy and an understanding spirit that does not retreat into judgmental criticism or attacking others – putting themselves in another’s shoes and to first understand before trying to be understood. 
  • Submissive to the truth with a teachable spirit and deliberately implement necessary changes to their lives. 
  • Merciful, seeking compassion in action. 
  • Impartial, steady and consistent, with a predictable godly character. Adverse road conditions and selfish drivers do not throw them off. 
  • Sincere, genuine, and vulnerable with a willingness to face their own dark shadows and have no ulterior motives.

God cares as much about why we do what we do and how we go about it, as he does the actual action and its end result. God desires true wisdom, not false wisdom. In diagnosing false wisdom, there is jealous bitter envy and plain old selfishness. The source of the problem is the devil. And if the problem goes unchecked and no lifestyle changes are made, the body will breakdown into disorder and evil destructive behavior.

In diagnosing true wisdom, there is evidence of good deeds done from a good heart devoted to God. The source of the good actions is humility. This results in the good spiritual health of righteousness (right relationships with both God and others) and peace (harmonious relations with both God and others).

Second diagnostic question:  What causes fights and quarrels among you?

After examination, the problem comes from certain desires that act like a disease.  The presenting symptoms are verbal battles and animosities. The cause is “desire” or “pleasure” (Greek: ἡδονῶν) from which we get our English word “hedonism.” 

Hedonism is the belief and practice that pleasure is the chief good in life. It is a consuming passion to satisfy personal wants, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain those wants. The cause of all the in-fighting was hedonism. Certain people wanted what they wanted, and they would do whatever it took to get it.

Hedonism twists our perspective. It skews our judgment. Hedonism calls 911 from the drive through at McDonalds when they run out of chicken nuggets (true story!). Hedonism is a cancer in the Body of Christ. It makes small things big and big things small. Hedonistic desires will do anything it takes to gain satisfaction. A passage in the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis has the Senior Devil giving his understudy, Wormwood, some advice: 

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is God’s invention, not ours.  He made the desires; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced and get them to go after them in ways in which He has forbidden.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.”

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

There is an alternative to the no-holds-bar pursuit of hedonism: You do not have because you do not ask God…. And even then, if still holding onto the hedonistic stance through prayer, there will be no answer because of asking with wrong motives. 

Prayer as a cloak for seeking hedonistic pleasure is nothing but spiritual adultery; it is talking to God with a spiritual mistress on the side to meet the needs that God does not seem to care about.

Third diagnostic question:  What does God want?

God wants prayer from a humble heart that seeks to engage the real enemy. Our fight is with our own pride, not with each other. If we have good and godly desires for prayer but find that we do not seek God as we ought; and come to the Scriptures discovering there is a sickness in our soul; then, the prescription is humble submission to God, resistance to evil ways, and drawing near to God.

God wants people to turn from the pride of radical independence and clandestine desires to openly and humbly seeking divine help.

The Apostle James was not trying to be a killjoy when he said to grieve, mourn, and wail; and to change your joy to gloom. He was speaking directly toward the propensity for people to slide into hedonistic attitudes and practices. He was directly accessing the Beatitudes of our Lord Jesus.  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. 

In other words, true joy and happiness comes through humility. When we realize our great need for God and humbly approach as a spiritual beggar, cut to the heart over our own hedonistic pleasure-seeking, as well as all the filth existing around us, then we discover the prayer that God longs to hear.

God’s prescription for us is:

  • Learn and rely on divine promises in daily life.
  • Do the work of peacemaking and expect a harvest of righteousness.
  • Be humble and let grace and lift us up.
  • Put significant effort into resisting the devil so that he will flee from us.
  • Draw near to God; God will come near to you.

So, let us maintain our therapy appointments for developing humility. Let us admit our wrongs and ask for forgiveness. Let go of bitter envy and selfish ambition. Obey the Scriptures. Bank on God’s promises. For in doing so, we will discover the life that is truly life.

O Lamb of God, by both your example and teaching you instructed us to be meek and humble. Give us grace so that in every thought, word, and deed, we will imitate your meekness and humility. Put to death in us all pride. Keep us from falling prey to the many temptations in our path. Teach us your ways and show us how to clothe ourselves in godly humility. Thank you for your Word and help us to see the beautiful truth about humility. Do the good work of making us more and more like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 101 – The Ethics of King David

I will sing to you, Lord!
    I will celebrate your kindness
    and your justice.
Please help me learn
    to do the right thing,
    and I will be honest and fair
    in my own kingdom.

I refuse to be corrupt
or to take part
    in anything crooked,
    and I won’t be dishonest
    or deceitful.

Anyone who spreads gossip
    will be silenced,
    and no one who is conceited
    will be my friend.

I will find trustworthy people
    to serve as my advisors,
    and only an honest person
    will serve as an official.

No one who cheats or lies
    will have a position
    in my royal court.
Each morning I will silence
    any lawbreakers I find
    in the countryside
    or in the city of the Lord. (Contemporary English Version)

King David was one serious dude when it came to dealing with wickedness and injustice. He had a zero tolerance policy toward people who were deceitful and proud. David was determined to deal with slanderous and arrogant people. He sought to establish a rule and reign based in his own personal integrity and practice of being a king who seeks after what is right and just.

And so, David refused to take a second look at corrupt people and things which degraded and debased others. He gathered around himself officials who genuinely care about kindness and justice.

David was not about to put up with anyone in his court who had personal agendas of power and privilege at the expense of the powerless.

For David, a diligent and conscientious application of God’s just and right law was absolutely necessary to a benevolent reign in which everyone felt secure and were able to enjoy the Promised Land. Corrupt officials had no place in the kingdom and would be summarily dealt with.

Unfortunately, there are far too many leaders in our world today who create cultures of fear, insecurity, and walking on eggshells. They are crafty and deceitful, actually using organizational codes of morality and ethics to hide their damaging and destructive effect on people.

We may not be kings like David, yet we can share his stance of not avoiding the evil in front of us and dealing with corruption, dishonesty, and disingenuous behavior from others, especially those in positions of power and authority. Toxic authority figures actively isolate us, making us feel stupid and incompetent and afraid to share our struggles with others, so that they can maintain all of the power. 

How, pray tell, might us lowly persons take on those with leverage and power over us, whether they be job bosses, church pastors, local politicians, or family members?

  • Do everything from a place of integrity. Seek the Lord in doing the right thing. Ultimate power belongs to God, not some puny person who is master of a small world.

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out. (Proverbs 10:9, NIV)

  • Refuse to play their game. Don’t resort to gossip, backbiting, or displays of your own supposed power. Be just, kind, wise, and, most of all, humble. Virtue will serve you well. Vice will not.

Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendships. (Proverbs 16:28, GNT)

  • Keep in mind that niceness is often used by corrupt leaders to keep others under their thumb. Dishonest and deceitful people are not necessarily bullying. They’ll use whatever means they can to get their way.

Flattery is nothing less than setting a trap. (Proverbs 29:5, CEV)

  • It is always our place to love, not judge. King Jesus is the Judge, not me, not you. Loving an unlovable person can only happen if we have a love for God which is able to see God’s image in every person we encounter, including that difficult leader. In the end, they will be held accountable – whether in this life, or in the one to come. Jesus said:

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” (Matthew 5:43-44, CEB)

  • Watch your back. Yes, we are to trust in the Lord. That doesn’t mean we implicitly trust everyone and/or every organization. Jesus said:

“Listen! I am sending you, and you will be like sheep among wolves. So be smart like snakes. But also, be like doves and don’t hurt anyone. Be careful!” (Matthew 10:16-17a, ERV)

We all, like King David of old, need an unequivocal commitment to a zero tolerance policy toward evil. It is simply unacceptable to flirt with it. Whatever we must do to remind ourselves of righteousness, and whatever boundaries we need to set, is most necessary, because no one who practices deceit will dwell in the Lord’s house.

Holy God of justice, I will make a covenant with my eyes to set before them no vile thing. Help me to be strong in your mighty power so that my daily walk of faith in Jesus is righteous, free of guilt, and enjoyable.  Amen.