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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

2008-10-26 Le 19 01-02 15-18 And Justice For All

2008-10-26 “And
Justice for All”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian
Church (USA)

A few weeks ago, I
thought it would be a good idea to subscribe to the web site, FactCheck.org. FactCheck.org does research on everything the two
presidential candidates are saying (usually about each other) and
then publishes how what they say stands up to the facts. I thought, "I want to know the truth; I want to be an informed voter." So I subscribed to their email FactCheck alert service. Not long after that, the emails started popping.
Bing! Obama said this about McCain and it's not completely true. Bing! McCain
said this about Obama and it's not completely true. Bing! A fact check. Bing, bing! More facts. It was very
interesting. For about three days. After about three days, I got really depressed reading about all the distortions. Keeping up with all these facts just wore me out. I figured if I wanted to have any confidence at
all in my vote I should stop paying attention to the facts. So, I
unsubscribed from FactCheck.org. And I'm much happier.

I keep thinking of Jack Nicholson's line from "A Few Good Men," when he shouts, "You can't handle the truth!" And maybe that's right. Maybe our world of politics, bailouts, and international affairs has gotten so complicated that even if we could get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we couldn't handle it. Our faces would melt like the Nazi in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The world's too complicated. (Can I get an Amen?) Checking the facts is too exhausting. (Am I right?) Truth, justice and the American Way sound wonderful, but who knows what those mean anymore? There's just too much to know.

By no means are we the first generation to think this way. In the Bible, the Pharisees were the fact-checkers of Jesus's day. They thought they could catch Jesus in a distortion of the truth. So they sent their best - the Bible says "lawyer" but that's a bad translation - it's more like they sent their best religious fact-checker, rule-keeper, holier-than-thou Presbyterian preacher - to interview him with a super-tricky question. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

The Pharisees didn't want to know. They didn't want to know the truth. They just wanted to hear what Jesus said so they could cry out in a low-tech media chorus, "Gotcha!" Bing! Bing! Bing! And then they could go back to being happy again. Not because they knew the truth, but because they had proved Jesus didn't.

All of this strikes at the heart of how the world operates, and apparently the way it always has operated. The world says: When things are complicated, it doesn't matter if you understand the truth. The world says, it doesn't matter if you're right... what matters is whether you can prove your opponent wrong. It doesn't matter if you understand the truth, it doesn't matter if you're right, if you can prove your opponent wrong. That's what the world says.

But here's what the Bible says: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

The world doesn't care as much about the facts as it does about proving its opponents wrong. Jesus knows the facts, and still wants us to love each other, anyway. If you are dead-set on catching your opponent in some "gotcha," in proving your neighbor wrong, you can't love him, you can't love her. If, on the other hand, you're set on loving your neighbor, you no longer have an opponent, and you're set on proving what's right.

The world has one way of life; the Bible has another. The most important fact-checking we have to do is to check which way we're living.


I love the book of Leviticus. But I'm a Bible nerd. In seminary they assigned us (OK, they forced us) to read Leviticus front to back. Some people cheated and got the Cliff's Notes. Not me. I was fascinated by all the rules and regulations, mainly because so many of them are so weird. Like Leviticus 13:40, about how to tell the difference between a man who's unclean and a man who's simply bald. Leviticus 13:40, "If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is not unclean." Good news. Throw away the Rogaine. Or Leviticus 19:19, "You shall not put on a garment made of two different materials." Does God really care whether you wear 100% wool or a cotton-poly blend? Is elastic around the waist OK? If you wear a plaid flannel shirt do you have to wear plaid pants? This stuff is fascinating. To a very small group of people.

But tucked away between all the weird social rules are glimpses of the truth, plain and simple. Leviticus 19:1, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." Leviticus 19:18, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." There it is. Truth, plain and simple. "Bing!"

Apparently, Jesus didn't care so much what kind of clothes you wore or how much hair was on your head. You could wear a leisure suit, with mis-matched socks, and have a two-hair combover, ... as long as you loved God and loved your neighbor as yourself.

Now stop right there. Let's do some fact-checking. Does this mean Jesus is saying some rules in the Bible are more important than others? Well, yeah, that's exactly what he's saying. He's saying that even if you keep 100 weird, obscure, cultural rules from Leviticus but you don't love God or love your neighbor, you don't know the truth. He knew that frankly, sometimes, it's much easier to keep obscure rules than to handle the truth of the greatest ones.


So how do you know if you're doing OK? How do you know the difference between the really important things and those that aren't? Leviticus gives us a clue.

Jesus knew his Bible (duh!). He might have thought the Bible-nerd Pharisees knew it too, so he didn't recite all of Leviticus 19:18. The whole verse of Leviticus 19:18, which talks about loving your neighbor as yourself says this, "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."

Jesus recited the second half, maybe because he thought the first half is a given. But the first half is how we get twisted into the "gotcha" way of the world. The first half is how we twist the Bible into a tool for fact-checking instead of a means to love.

"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people," says the first half of Leviticus 19:18. If you take vengeance or if you bear a grudge, what are you basically saying? You're saying, "I'm right... and this other schmuck is wrong. And I can prove it." That's the world's way of thinking. It doesn't matter if you're really right, as long as you can prove you're righter than your neighbor. It is emotionally impossible to love someone when you're thinking this way about them. You cannot love someone and want to extract vengeance on them. You can't love someone and hold a grudge against them. You can't love someone and want to show them how much holier you are than they are.

The Pharisees ask Jesus what's the greatest commandment, and he gives them, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Why is that the greatest? Because it sounds the nicest? Because it's easy to remember? No. It's the greatest commandment because if you love God and if you love your neighbor, you automatically rule out living by the way of the world. If you love God and love your neighbor, you automatically rule out living by the rules that say the truth doesn't matter as long as you can prove your opponent wrong. If you love God and neighbor, you automatically rule out seeing anyone as an opponent. That's why this commandment is so crucial. Not because living by it gets you more points with God, but because if you live this way it has to change your life, completely. Because now you're living under God's rules, not the world's so-called facts. If you love God (with all your heart, mind and soul) and if you love your neighbor (as yourself), it changes everything about you.

So, how do you know if you're doing OK at keeping the greatest commandment? How do you know if you're living according to God's love instead of the world's "gotchas"? How many grudges do you hold? How many people would you like to extract just a little vengeance upon? Are you more interested in fact-checking (or "information-spreading") than showing people kindness, whether or not you get any kindness back in return? Here's something Jesus doesn't tell the Pharisees: this living by loving God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself? It's hard. It's hard because the world doesn't work this way, very often. And when it does, it's usually because a handful of people seeking justice in God's terms make things work. God's love is justice without grudges, justice without vengeance - and that's rare. But it can happen.

Do some fact-checking on yourself. Next time you feel a pang of a grudge, next time you get the urge for vengeance, next time you feel a relatively-not-all-that particularly ugly "gotcha" coming on, ask yourself, Why? What's making me feel this way? What's making me want to assist this person in receiving his or her comeuppance? You may not get the whole answer, but at least you're noticing when you're not being as loving as God would have you. It's hard. But it can happen.

Justice isn't so much about checking the facts on other people; it's about checking the facts on ourselves. It's about reigning in those impulses that pull us away from loving God and loving our neighbors.