Monday, November 12, 2012

Charity Is No Substitute

What do you think of when you hear Jesus' command to "love your neighbor"?  What does it mean to fulfill that command?

I preached a sermon on this topic several years ago and I was somewhat surprised afterward when someone said to me "You know pastor, you're right!  I really need to do a better job of loving my neighbor." - by which this person quite literally meant their actual next door neighbor. It was a pleasant surprise though. This is the kind of epiphany we could all have and our communities and churches would be all the better for it. I know I could do a much better job of loving my actual next door neighbor.

However, I imagine that most of us understand this command a bit less literally. We realize that our neighbor can actually be anyone we encounter. In fact, by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus communicates to us that the question for us should not be "Who is my neighbor?" but "Am I being a neighbor to everyone I encounter?" And I would guess that when we think of being "neighborly" to the people we encounter in our daily routines that we usually think of being kind, courteous, and lending a helping hand when its needed. Again, these are good things and we could do a lot worse as the Church.

But I think many of us would probably be surprised to know that when Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, he is quoting a verse from Leviticus. We might be even more surprised to hear the kind of things that our associated with loving our neighbor in that passage. Here is a sampling:
"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard, You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the Lord your God." 19:9-10
"You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him.  The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning." 19:13
"You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." 19:15
This isn't exactly smiling-at-your-grocery-store-cashier or giving-a-few-bucks-to-a-stranger kind of stuff. In fact, this isn't the language of individual charity at all. We're talking about harvest and wages and courts. This is the language of business and law we are dealing with here. In other words, when Leviticus speaks of "loving our neighbor" this is not something that is merely a private or individual matter. Love of neighbor extended even into God's expectation for Israel's businesses and legal systems.

Of course, this is not to say that we can simply pick up these commands and implement them unchanged in our own corporations and justice system. The verses I quoted above are ones that might cohere more readily with our modern sensibilities but they are surrounded by verses which we ignore entirely; verses that prohibit garments made of two kinds of material or that condone slavery or that forbid certain haircuts, not to mention the entirety of the sacrificial system. No, a good biblical ethic must consist of more than merely a series of verses that give us a list of do's and don'ts. Furthermore, we live in a democracy very unlike Israel's theocracy and we find ourselves in the midst of a complex global economy where it can be extremely difficult to discern what is most loving for our American neighbors, much less our neighbors half way around the world.

In spite of all of that, Leviticus challenges us to see that Jesus' command to love our neighbor extends well beyond individual acts of charity. Loving our neighbor in this world means being informed about the products we buy and how they impact those who make them. It means thinking about how the laws of our land will impact the disadvantaged and defenseless.

St. Augustine, probably the most influential theologian in the history of the Church, is often quoted as having said "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld." Helping those in need is not a substitute for remedying the unjust systems which lead to their need in the first place. We are a people called to love our neighbor. Caring for our literal neighbors, our co-workers, those we encounter day to day is a good first step but we must also love the neighbor we may never meet by witnessing to a kingdom in which justice and mercy prevail.

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