Friday, December 11, 2009

The Second Greatest Commandment?

The book of Leviticus mainly consists of laws given by God to Moses for the Israelites. In the previous chapter, Leviticus 18, God provides very specific laws on sex. In Leviticus 19, God continues on with more laws, prefaced by a plea by God for the Israelites to be Holy.

The Second Greatest Commandment?
Think for a moment about giving verbal instructions to someone. Suppose that there were a couple of key objectives which you wanted to communicate as well as several other instructions which would help people achieve those goals. How would you elevate these primary objectives? Perhaps you would explicitly say those were the goals? Maybe you would provide emphasis to them, such as by mentioning them first or last, or repeating them throughout the instructions, or somehow otherwise set them apart in the instructions?

You may remember a story from the New Testament where Jesus is asked by one of the scholars of the Law what is the most important or greatest commandment. Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34 record the episode, including Jesus' reply. (Luke 10:25-28 records a similar but different story.) Jesus says that the most important commandment is to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus goes on to say that the second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Love your neighbor as yourself is a wonderful commandment! :-) It is exactly the type of commandment you would expect from a God who is the epitome of love. So let us examine the emphasis God places on this commandment in the Old Testament.

This commandment is not in the first or the second set of the Ten Commandments. It is not even in the first or second books of the Bible. Well over 100 commandments had been dispensed before it appears in the third book of the Bible, Leviticus, and in a location roughly 2/3 through that book. Leviticus 19 is a listing of various laws. About halfway through the chapter you will find Leviticus 19:18 in all of its splendor:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” NIV
You will notice that the command is not simply to love your neighbor as yourself. Instead, it is played off as a contrast to seeking revenge or bearing a grudge. Perhaps most significant is the implied definition of “your neighbor” as “one of your people” instead of how Jesus would redefine it as everyone in Luke 10:29-37 in what is commonly referred to as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It seems God and Jesus had different opinions on the matter.

There is nothing to make this commandment inherently stand out in the list. It is sandwiched between the good law of Leviticus 19:17 which tells you not to harbor hate in your heart and the strange law of Leviticus 19:19 which tells you not to mate two different kinds of animals. Even the phrase “I am the Lord” is repeated in several other verses within this same chapter in seemingly poetic meter as opposed to highlighting extra-important commandments.

Clearly no prominence of placement or explicit emphasis was given to this commandment to mark its importance. So what about repetition? Was the importance of this commandment driven home by listing it over and over again?

In Mark 12:33 it says that loving God and loving your neighbor are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. If that is so, then it is difficult to discern from the text. Being somewhat generous, there are around 50 calls to love God in the Old Testament. The sentiment of loving your neighbor is explicitly expressed only one time in the Old Testament. Only once. Meanwhile, burnt offerings are mentioned at least 260 times, with 39 instances of it saying how the smell of the burnt offering was a pleasing aroma to God.

If God truly thought that loving your neighbor was the second most important commandment, He has an odd way of showing it.

Instead, it seems that human analysis was involved to find this little diamond in the rough, shine it up, and promote it to its proper level of importance and moral guidance. In fact, this follows the trend of modern day cults or denominational divisions within the church. Some re-interpretation of the importance of particular parts of Scripture precedes an entire movement, just like John Wesley's interpretations created Methodism. Christianity latched on tightly to this new interpretation, repeating the message of loving your neighbor eight times within the New Testament.

It would be remiss to not mention one other instance in the Old Testament where this commandment is repeated in a manner of speaking, but with a different target. Later in the same chapter, you find Leviticus 19:34 saying:
“The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” NIV
Again, we see a limitation of the concept of loving your neighbor. The “living with you” clause extends the concept only to those living in the same nation. It is interesting that many of the Christian conservative groups have such strong feelings against the illegal immigrants in the United States. God does not qualify this commandment with legal versus illegal aliens. It comes from the same chapter as loving your neighbor, so it must be important too, right?

No comments:

Post a Comment