As a rule, Christians like to emphasize the ways in which the New Covenant revealed in and through Jesus differs from the Old. (This is particularly true of those coming from a Protestant background, since this was a particular emphasis of the Reformers.) And we are not wrong to do so — even if we need to be careful in how we articulate these differences. But what is almost more interesting to me are the ways in which the same fundamental message can be found throughout the whole biblical tradition. What we actually have in the Scriptures is less a stark division between old and new than an an interplay of continuity and change within our Scriptures. Today’s readings provide one wonderful example of this.
The reading from the prophet Micah asks what is probably the most basic human question in relationship to God: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?” (6.6). The answer, according to the prophet, is not in expensive or elaborate sacrifices or the performance of piety, but in the simple things: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is a wonderful, concise statement — it works great on a bumper sticker and is, in today’s context, ‘memeable content.’ But, well-put as it may be, this message nothing new. The Book of Deuteronomy asked essentially the same question, “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?” (10.12). And its answer, while less pithy, amounts to much the same as Micah’s: “Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.” And later, the mysterious philosopher simply known as The Teacher would come to the same conclusion after extensively studying all that life has to offer: “The end of the matter; all has been heard: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Ecclesiastes 12.13). And so, here we have, in all three sections of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, and Writings), the same basic principle for how to live well: Humble reverence before God, and treating others with kindness and respect.
If we turn to the New Testament, we find that Jesus upholds this teaching, but then also clarifies it and expands on it. When asked which of the commandments within the Law is the most important, Jesus 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 neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22.38-40)
Instead of choosing one or two commandments as more important than the others, Jesus instead picks two that summarize and embrace the true spirit of the whole Law. The first is the commandment from Deuteronomy cited above; the second, which clarifies that obedience to God’s commandments is always lived out in relationship to those around us, comes from Leviticus 19.18: Love your neighbour as yourself. Zooming out to look at it context helps to see that this love is practical and not just a wishy-washy feeling:
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;
you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19.17-18)
Loving your neighbour looks like not hating those around you, encouraging others to do what is right, and putting aside grievances. And this behaviour is grounded in God’s very identity.
But Jesus doesn’t stop here. While Leviticus specifically mentions the context of ‘kin’ and ‘your people’, when asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus responds with a parable that makes it clear that your neighbour is everyone, including and especially the person you’d least like it to be.
Today’s Gospel reading is the Beatitudes, the heart of Jesus’ teaching, which is found in Matthew 5. I didn’t spend the whole post on it only because I feel like I quote it every week — everything else in the Gospel is just an expansion on it. And it further clarifies for us what love for neighbour looks like:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Sadly these characteristics are far from the traits that first come to mind when we think about ‘Christians’ in our culture. They (we) bring to mind less humility, service, forgiveness, compassion, and peacemaking than grandstanding, approval-seeking, spiritual bypassing, and morality policing. We need to stop ourselves and reassess who and how it is we are called to be in the world. If we listen to Micah — and to the consistent witness of the Scriptures, Old Testament and New — we will know that the kind of faith that God requires of us and wants for us is lived out in transforming relationships with others: in doing the hard work of justice, in being kind — showing solidarity, love, compassion, empathy, mercy, and forgiveness to others. As F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage summarize this, “Justice transforms social power, and kindness transforms social control” (Transforming Spirituality). Seen in terms of our relationship with God, this same transforming power looks like humility. It is a lifestyle and orientation towards the self that, again in the words of Shults and Sandage, “counters the pathological dialectic of pride and shame.” They continue:
The humble person who walks intimately with God feels no need to try narcissistic strategies for impressing God or shame-prone strategies of self-atonement. From a biblical perspective, humility means accepting one’s limitations and one’s responsibilities in light of a covenantal relationship with the God of the universe.
This is the spirit of the Beatitudes come to life. But we can’t fit all of this onto a bumper sticker or into a meme. And so, we return to those wonderful words from Micah: He has shown you, O Adam, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with your God.
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