Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tax Collectors and Pagans? Really, Jesus?

Jesus knows who the enemies are as He preaches from that mountainside.  He isn't unaware of the Romans walking down the streets of Jewish towns, eyeing everyone with suspicion and contempt. 

He knows what awaits Him at the hands of the Romans, when they decide they have had enough of this troublemaker from Galilee. 

He knows all too well the adversarial gaze of the religious leaders whose jealousy and anger dangerously boils beneath the surface.

He knows what awaits Him at the hands of these leaders when the people talk of a man being resurrected and His claims of God being His Father cross the line from itinerant rabbi to blasphemer and unforgivable upstart. 

Both parties, who detest each other, will one day unite in common cause to rid their world of this Man whom the people respect and listen to, unlike themselves.  Who listens to the Romans?  Who listens to the religious leaders?  But this poser from Nazareth... 

Jesus knows His enemies and He knows ours:  Our neighbor, our family member, ourselves. So after talking about not allowing retaliation rule over our grievances with one another, but allowing love to recapture the situation, He then takes us deeper into our relationship with those who we consider our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:43-48)

Later, in answering which of the Old Testament's commandments are the greatest, Jesus will summarize it this way:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40)

First, let's visit the Jewish Law as presented in Leviticus and see what it says:

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God."

As You speak Rabbi, I am thinking about the verses in our Law.  You are not getting rid of our Law but You seem to be refreshing our thinking about it.  We have listened way too long to the religious leaders' interpretations and I think we have missed out on what the Law really says.  OK, Rabbi, You are defining who is our neighbor, aren't You? It's the poor and those who are not Jewish--the ones who live in our land but aren't one of us.  

"Do not steal.  Do not lie.  Do not deceive one another."

OK, that's fair, Rabbi.  I wouldn't want anyone stealing, lying or deceiving me, so I shouldn't do that to anyone.

"Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord."

I understand. We should just let our "yes" be "yes" and our "no" be "no."  I am listening, Rabbi!

"Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.  Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight."

Yes, Rabbi, I would want to be paid promptly and having trust between me and my neighbor are essential if me and my neighbor are to get along.

"Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord." 

One day, I may become blind or deaf, or someone in my family.  That kind of treatment is so unkind.  Life is hard enough for them; we should not make it harder. 

"Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly."

We want justice when we are wronged but we want mercy when we are the wrongdoer.  The courts need to be impartial and so should we.  There shouldn't be two kinds of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor. If anyone needs protection in the courts, it's the poor, especially if the accuser is rich. 

"Do not go about spreading slander among your people.  Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord."

Yes, if I spread rumors that assassinate my neighbor's character, people might come after him or drive him away.  Lies endanger people and I should never be party to such talk. 

"Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt."

I want to love others, like You do, Rabbi. Instead of accusing my neighbor and running into court, I need to go and talk with my neighbor.  Resentment can turn into hate way too quickly.  I am listening to Your words!

"Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord." (Lev. 19:9-18)

Wow, Rabbi, that's the defining idea, isn't it?  I love myself and look out for myself; I need to do so because God says "I am the Lord" after His decrees--He takes this all very seriously and as a follower and child of the Most High, my behavior needs to reflect that truth.  Can't bless my neighbor and the nations if I do otherwise!  Now, You are telling me to expand my definition of "neighbor."  It's my enemies--instead of cursing them, I am to pray for them?  You say that shows my sonship to my Father in heaven.  He loves us both--fallen and forgiven, chosen and cursed, loved and loathed. True, the rain falls on both of us--He still cares for those who do not care for Him.

It's easy to love those who are lovable, treat us kindly and have our best interests at heart.  That's not fair, Rabbi, to compare us to tax collectors and pagans when we love those who love us!  But I suppose You want us to remember it's the unlovable who need love the most. I think that word "perfect" You are using means that we should be people of integrity and virtue, and we are maturing everyday towards that. [1] After all, God is the One who reflects morality without flaw; if we are His, how can we settle for less? 

So, in other words, when our leaders teach us what is contrary to the Word of God--that hating our enemies is someone OK with Your Father--we need to read it for ourselves and meditate on its true meaning. 

Our roots have shriveled, Lord, trying to draw water from our leaders' springs. But the psalm says, 

"Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers." (1:1-3)

I want to draw deeper into the springs You are taking us to--I am thirsty. I can't completely blame the leaders for that--I bear responsibility for letting them think for me. But You give me hope, Rabbi Jesus, that deeper springs await.

[1] "Perfect." Strong's Concordance.

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