You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because I am the Lord.
A long time ago, oh, four or five thousand years ago, the Lord God Almighty looked out over creation to see how it was going. Frankly, the Lord was disturbed by the view. All over the world, people worshipped strange gods. There was a god who liked war. There was a goddess who helped people succeed in business. There was a god who specialized in politicians, telling them that, whatever they wanted to do, their god was behind them 100%.
In fact, for whatever interest or desire anybody ever had, there was a god who supported that interest or supplied that desire: power, prestige, control of neighboring nations, wealth, good sex life, even obedient children!
And in the midst of them all, the Almighty could not find – himself.
Now the Almighty did find a few people who, given proper encouragement, might turn from the worship of their own desires to the true God. But how were they to find out that Someone other than themselves even existed?
Well, God is pretty smart, and soon fixed on a plan. Advertising. If you want people to buy your product, tell them about it. Make it stand out from the crowd. So the Lord searched the universe again, this time for an advertising agency.
The agency the Lord chose was rather small, no other big clients. In fact, it didn’t even have a name. That suited the Lord’s purpose. God wanted to be this agency’s exclusive account. So the agency took the name that the Lord gave it. That name was Israel.
They sat down for their first conference at Mount Sinai, to lay out the campaign. You will find the fundamental message in today’s reading. Torah is the first five books of the Bible. Torah means God’s Word, or God’s Will. Leviticus is the central book of the Torah. The Holiness Code is the core of Leviticus. And here is the very heart of the Holiness Code, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall love your neighbor as yourself, because I am the Lord.
Just an aside here – it’s astounding how much we hear about and how little we know about Leviticus. You think the New Testament supersedes it? Actually, the New Testament quotes it, often. Jesus quotes it, This is what you need to know about the Law, today’s memory verse.
Okay, back to the conference. God said to Israel, In my experience, one picture is worth a thousand words. So before you write any copy for me, I want to show the world what I am like in a picture. You, my children, are to be that picture. You are to act out the God you represent.
The Lord said, You become what you worship. Of all the gods out there, all the things that people worship, I am different. I stand out from the crowd. So I want you to stand out from the crowd.
That’s what the word holy means, something you don’t see every day. It makes you sit up and take notice. Holy. So God’s people were to be the kind of people who attract attention. They were to be holy.
Well now, what is it about the Lord that stands out in the marketplace of all the things people worship? The Lord is powerful; other gods claim power. The Lord creates; there are stories about how the other gods made the world. The Lord makes the rain to fall and the grass to grow; but there is that golden calf outside the Stock Market Exchange Building in New York City, promising economic success, to this very day. What makes this God different from the Golden Calf?
I’ll jump ahead in the story to a later time when the agency did write some copy, so I can quote a jingle, Psalm 145. Verse 9 says, The Lord is loving to everyone. (See, Jesus knew his Bible, didn’t he: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.) The Lord is loving to everyone, and his compassion is over all his works.
Of all the things the Almighty does, the one the Almighty thinks is most important is compassion.
Compassion, to feel with, to take another’s passion or concern and to identify with that person. Compassion means to forget oneself long enough feel another’s concern. All the other gods are about our own passions. The Lord God Almighty is known for caring about others. And the Lord’s representatives are to be known for the same thing.
Now God is not interested in a bunch of nice feelings. Like in the Epistle of James, You can tell a homeless person, Be warm, but what good is that? So the contract got specific about this compassion.
When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges, and do not go back for the grain that was left. Same with your vineyards. Leave the grain and the grapes you missed for the poor and for foreigners. Because I am the Lord, your God.
Other gods required farmers to leave behind a portion of the harvest. But that was to feed the gods, to make an offering for a good harvest next year. In other words, to invest capital gains back into the development of the company.
But the Lord God Almighty told his children to forget their passion for gain. He didn’t need their offerings. Instead demonstrate his compassion, feel with the poor in their passion to eat. Leave behind some of the profits for the poor. And the foreigner.
It might be said that God’s system is inefficient. Why not harvest as much as possible, maximize profits, and give charity to the poor?
But efficiency is not the greatest of God’s works; compassion is. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. Charity is the last resort, for when we have failed to build justice into the way we earn our livings. If we truly feel with the poor, we will feel with them the need to be part of the system, to have a place at our table, not beneath it, picking up the crumbs.
Today we are pleased to provide shelter for the homeless. That’s the charity step, and good for us for taking that step. The next step toward justice might be to provide an address, so our guests can apply for jobs, and then showers, so they can keep those jobs, so they can participate in the system with honor and dignity.
That’s the kind of thing Israel was supposed to do to be holy, to stand out and make the world take notice that here was a people, and here is a God you don’t see every day. A people and a God who forget self long enough to figure out how the other person feels.
The Lord and Israel signed a contract, an exclusive contract. You will be my ad agency, and I will be your account. And you will draw to me the nations of the world.
After a couple thousand years, the Lord decided to review the account. The results weren’t quite what God hoped. Israel did stand out, in some good ways. The mightiest conquerors of the world just gave up trying to get them to work on the Sabbath. Their God is about workers’ rights! But the compassion thing got lost in that exclusive account thing. And the drawing all people thing never happened.
So the Lord came down for another conference, to do some product demonstration of his own.
God’s love is for everybody. His compassion is over all his works. Those are not cheap words. You know that person you despise, that unnamed despicable one? God loves him, too. Pray for him. Pray for him by name. Pray for him every day. You don’t have to pray for his success. Pray for his healing. Pray for his soul.
If you love the loveable, well that’s fine. But, doesn’t everybody? Stand out! Be perfect, (remember, be holy) because your heavenly Father is holy.
All the way to the cross. His last prayer, Father, forgive them.
The night before he died, Jesus formed a subsidiary of Israel. He took a few good people, and then they recruited a whole lot of new people, to take up the task of showing the world that we are his disciples, because we love as he loves.
I’m not telling you it’s easy. I’m not telling you it’s nice or comfortable or pretty to follow Jesus. You want nice, comfortable, pretty, there are other sweet-smelling gods out there for you.
You come here, you got a job to do.
Be the light for this dark world to see. Be the salt that makes a difference. Go out there and be the people of God, the God whose compassion is over all his works. Amen.
Moses at Mount Sinai by Meister der Bible des Patrice Leon, 10th c., public domain
Photo of Wall Street bull, Carol M. Highsmith, public domain
The Good Samaritan, Aime Nicholas Morot, 1880, public domain
Alouite women and children gleaning, whiting and Matson, 1938, public domain