Opening The Old Testament
Love Self and Neighbor: Reflections on Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
First, just why should I not reap right up to the edges of my field; why should I not strip my vineyard bare of its grapes? After all, they are mine, aren't they? Can I not do whatever I want with what is mine? Is that not the American way? Second, if my incompetent reapers leave piles of gleanings all around, why should I not demand that they go back through my field, correct their sloppy work, and bundle up those gleanings in neat piles for my other workers to drag to my barns? And when my vineyard pickers keep missing masses of my grapes in their clumsy harvesting practices, why should I not demand that they go right back into my vineyards and pick up those fallen grapes for later transport to market along with those grapes they got in the first pass through the vineyard? Just what sort of profligate idiotic farm is this one anyway?
Third, and worst of all, why in all that is capitalistically holy, should those missed gleanings and those fallen grapes be left for—of all people—the poor and the immigrants? I mean, what have they ever done for me? The former are probably deadbeats and the latter are probably illegal, having left their own countries in the attempt to come to mine and to live off me and the energy of my hard labor. It is frankly unfair, inappropriate, and downright disgusting.
I trust you are understanding by now that the definition of just who the neighbor is I am to love as I love myself is made clear right here—it is the poor and the immigrant, among others who are in need of my love and caring. When Jesus springs the famous Samaritan neighbor trick on the unsuspecting lawyer, he was merely reinforcing what Leviticus had said some 500 years before; or, imagining that this material is an echo of much older ideas from deep in Israel's past, perhaps 2000 years before. Anyway, in neither case, whether among the Levitical priests or around that first-century lawyer, is the focus of the thing to be found among just how we are to love ourselves. It is about the neighbor, who the neighbor is for us, and how that neighbor is to be loved and cared for.
And so now with a confirmation of what the light of Jesus' coming means for us in his Epiphany, we are ready for some transformation, first of Jesus himself and then for us. And then Lent. We are once again on the journey to the cross and all that may mean. In the coming weeks we will turn to that journey, illuminated by the light of his glorious Epiphany.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.