Friday, March 20, 2020

God and Your Neighbor in These Times

Admittedly, Old Testament books like Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, filled with various arcane laws, the Biblical books I've been reading in recent weeks for my quiet time with God, can be slow-going.

It's important when reading these books to remember that there are three different kinds of laws in the Old Testament, only one type of which remains valid, the moral law.

The civil laws you find there have no standing because the nation to which the laws were given, ancient Israel, no longer exists, no longer is a theocracy under Yahweh.

The need for ritual/sacrificial law, including things purification rites and dietary rules also has ended. That occurred when Jesus became the final, definitive sacrifice for human sin.

The moral law cannot save us from sin, death, and separation from God because none of us is capable of perfectly keeping it. This is why our salvation depends on Jesus, Who offered His sinless life in sacrifice for our sins, taking the condemnation of death we deserve and Who gives us a share in His resurrection victory over all that separates us from God as a gracious gift we receive by faith in Him. Even our capacity to believe, to trust, in Him is a gift. (Trust doesn't come naturally to self-centered, skeptical sinners.)

But even the archaic civil and ritual laws can show us some things about who and what God values in humanity.

For example, during my quiet time with God today, I read and highlighted this passage:
If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain. Deuteronomy 23:24-25
In other words, God was telling ancient Israelites, if you're walking somewhere through this country, are hungry, and come across grapes or grain, you're allowed to pick some of the food off the vines and eat. The owner will have no right to get mad at you or prosecute you for things like theft or trespassing.

At the bottom of this provision is the notion that God is the maker of everything and that He gives us "our daily bread" not for ourselves alone, but for others as well

But notice too, that God prohibited the ancient Israelites walking through someone's field to undertake an agricultural harvesting operation: They couldn't put a provision of grapes in their baskets or put a sickle to the grain. Only what they needed at that moment. There likely would be other fields through which they passed along the way and by this method, they would be fed and their benefactors wouldn't be cheated. God likes things like justice and mercy.

This probably has implications for us in these trying times. 

The other day, I read about an incident that took place just last week in a grocer's in England. An elderly woman and a teenager were shopping on the same aisle, for the same item. The teen was quicker and grabbed all the remaining items. But looking up, he noticed the elderly woman for the first time and realized she wanted the same item. The young man then handed the items to the woman. "Here, luv," he told her. "You probably need this more than I do." I imagine God smiled when He saw that, as I did when I read about it.

A similar concern for the neighbor is seen in another place in my reading for today, Deuteronomy 24:19-22:

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Here, God speaks to the owners of the farms and the vineyards through which people like "the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow," people bereft of power or possessions, might pass through. Don't be so efficient in your harvesting, God tells His ancient people, that you don't leave something for those with less. For poor "gleaners," the "leavings" in the fields of the prosperous, could spell the difference between life and death between the harvests. 

The provisions in these verses are predicated on the Israelites remembering that, like the foreigners, fatherless, and widows in their midst, their people had once been among the bereft and hurting of the world, slaves in Egypt. 

Here, God calls us to empathy, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to remember that while you may be flush with the world's goods today, it wasn't always so, and to remember that everything, including your capacity to acquire the world's goods, comes to you as a gift from God. 

This same God also made your neighbor today. 

Your neighbor, just like you, irrespective of their current state, is made in God's image. 

And that neighbor, just like you, is one for whom Jesus Christ, God the Son, gave His life on the cross.

With the Coronavirus, we face a global catastrophe like the 1918 flu pandemic that killed between twenty to fifty million people, including 675,000 Americans. Our sinful human impulse is to be selfish, to look out for ourselves. I know that it's my impulse.

I ask that God will remind me again today that I can only be saved from sin, death, and darkness through Jesus. 

Deep down, I know that being just and loving to my neighbor is the right thing to do. But I won't be just or loving if I don't, once again today, surrender my whole life to the God I know in Jesus, trusting in Him no matter what, trusting that His perfect obedience has won salvation that I do not deserve but that He gives to me as a matter of grace and love. Jesus must live in me if I am going to love others the way He has loved and still loves me. (See here and here.)

And then, I pray, remembering that, like the ancient Israelites, I have been freed from slavery--chained to sin and death and condemnation--I ask God to teach me, once more today, how to love.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

[Ruth, one of my heroes, was a foreign widow forced to glean in ancient Israel at one point. She became the great-grandmother of the nation's greatest king, David.]

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