Category Archives: Romans

The Law of Love (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

I began looking at Leviticus 19 a couple weeks ago in terms of its original context. This is part two in which I hope to draw some important connections with the New Testament, in particular Jesus and Paul. Because of the scope of what I’m trying to cover, I will conclude with a post connecting Leviticus 19 and the letter of James with some concluding remarks. I will warn you ahead of time that this is long and could easily have been a thesis paper for seminary, but I believe it is well worth your time and was edifying to me as I studied and wrote it. First, I would like to rant a little and clarify something.

“Various Laws”
The title given in some Bibles for this chapter is “Various Laws”. Indeed it seems to be an amalgamation of leftover laws, thoughts and ideas that didn’t make the cut or reiterations of laws found elsewhere. Yet, we should remember that the system of chapters and verses was added after the fact and certainly the designation of “Various Laws” for this chapter is not part of the inspired word. While people who publish Bibles like to add these little things (not to mention all the sidebars, boxes and inserts in many Bibles) in order to help us read the Bible, they act as a filter and mediator for our reading of the text. The title “Various Laws” tells me what to think about the text that follows. Instead, we should assume that those ancient editors who put together the version of Scripture that we have today did so with intention and purpose, not haphazardly. What appears to be a random collection of laws probably serves some particular purpose. The fact that Leviticus 19 contains the verse on which Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hinged (19:18b) should also tell us that something more than “Various Laws” is going on here.

Jesus, Paul and James all refer to Leviticus 19:18 in different contexts. With the previous post on Leviticus 19 in its original context as our background, I would like to consider each of the eight passages in which it is mentioned and attempt to synthesize the importance of this verse and chapter of Leviticus for a New Testament theology.

The Great Commandment
The most important parallel references are in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 in which the scribes or Pharisees question Jesus about which commandment is the greatest in the Torah. Matthew’s Pharisees intend to “test” Jesus with their question, while the scribe in Mark affirms Jesus’ response and is in turn affirmed by Jesus with the words “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. In both cases the answer to the question is the same. The greatest commandment is the Shema, “
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This was the expected traditional Jewish answer, but Jesus adds another qualifier to his answer and quotes Leviticus 19:18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember that Jesus was only asked to give one command, the greatest. Instead Jesus, I believe, correctly interprets the Torah and refuses to separate love of God from love of neighbor. In Matthew he then orients the entire Hebrew Bible around the connection of these two commands by saying “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40).

We should also read these passages within their greater context of questioning by the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus’ responses aimed at undermining oppressive structures, religious, political or otherwise. Matthew 22 begins with a parable about the kingdom in which the uninvited and unwanted become guests of honor at the wedding feast. Both Mark and Matthew connect this with the question about paying taxes to Caesar and Jesus’ subversive response. Mark concludes his chapter with the observation of the poor widow who gave “everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44) and was thus deprived of subsistence by an unjust temple tax. Therefore Jesus’ insistence that all of the Torah and Prophets depend on the understanding that our social relationships reflect our relationship to God and vice versa means that justice and right-relatedness is at the very heart of his understanding of the “kingdom of God” that he preached.

Who Do You Love, Neighbors or Possessions?
The other parallel reference is in Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 10:25-37. Both passages begin with someone coming to Jesus to ask, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). In the Matthew passage Jesus initially deflects the question and tells him simply to keep the commandments. When the man presses him asking, “Which ones?”, Jesus lists off half of the Ten Commandments and ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”. The man claims that he has kept all these commandments. But when Jesus tells him to “be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, the man refuses and leaves in sorrow “for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:21-22). In light of our reading of the command in Leviticus 19:18, it is clear that the man cannot fulfill the spirit of the commandments because he refuses his social connection and responsibility to those around him. Indeed, his confession that he has kept all these commands is revealed to be false when the practical application and implications of these commands is taken to their logical conclusion. He cannot maintain his “great possessions” and confess to love his neighbor. They are mutually exclusive.

Neighbor is a Verb
The reference in Luke to the neighbor commandment comes in the context of a lawyer trying to test Jesus. Luke’s passage does not end with the lawyer retreating. Instead the lawyer “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the question is changed from “Who is my neighbor?” into “Who is a neighbor?”. The attempt to find loopholes in the law is subverted by transforming the idea that the “neighbor” is an identifiable group of people into the idea that it is our job to be a neighbor to others, to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). So, Jesus adds another dimension to this command about loving our neighbor. It is not possible to fulfill the command while simultaneously trying to exclude any group of people from its implications.

Finally, Jesus also refers to the “love your neighbor” passage in his Sermon on the Mount when he transcends the “eye for an eye” ethic of the Hebrew Bible (which was intended to limit excessive punishment) and reframes it in these terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). So, neighbor is equated here with enemy and the division that makes it possible to draw lines between humanity is obliterated.

Love Is Not Against the Law
Paul refers to the “love your neighbor” command in Romans 13:9 where he says that all the commandments “are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. First we should simply recognize that Paul is picking up on Jesus’ teaching about the Torah and reiterating it here for us. What is more interesting to me is that this occurs directly after the passage which many Christians and theologians use to justify subservience and acquiescence to governmental authority regardless of the nature of its laws, governing or authority. I tend to agree with John Howard Yoder’s interpretation of Paul’s words concerning the Christian’s relationship to authorities and government in this passage which you can read in his book Politics of Jesus. It is as if Paul intends to clarify his previous statement, perhaps to prevent it from being misconstrued, by placing it squarely in the center of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments in the Torah.

Paul concludes his discourse on submitting to authorities by saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them” (Ro 13:7) and immediately turns and says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). This is an incredible piece of rhetoric, perhaps even political satire reminiscent of Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. In the same way Jesus subverts “what is Caesar’s” by saying that the Jews should “give to God what is God’s”, Paul seems to wink at the previous advice to submit to authorities and pay what is owed by them by pointing out that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Ro 13:10). What law is he referring to here, the law of the Torah or the law of the governing authorities? I would suggest that the answer is both and that Paul is juxtaposing the ultimate law of love with the imperfect laws of the Powers. So, the great command which integrates love of God and the social justice inherent in loving our neighbor is also inherently countercultural to the order and tendency of the Powers of the world.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is primarily concerned with the influence of Judaizers who insisted that followers of Jesus had to continue to follow the laws of the Torah, in particular the rite of circumcision. The main theme of the letter is the meaning and purpose of the law, of freedom in Christ and the implications of the latter on the former. Chapter five begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Then Paul sums up his understanding of the relationship of the law to this new freedom in Christ this way, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). Again, reiterating Jesus’ teaching on the centrality of the “love your neighbor” commandment in another context, Paul expands the understanding of freedom in terms of the “law of love”. The freedom we are called to in Christ is not a license to do what we want, but rather a limited freedom governed by the great commandment to love our neighbor which contains the social and political implications we have already outlined.

In the final post I will consider the connection between Leviticus 19, the letter of James and the observations we have already made concerning the original context of the Hebrew Bible and the consequent interpretations and teaching by Jesus and Paul.


The Ego and the Eco

The Humanure Handbook has a short-ish chapter entitled “Deep Shit” that touches on the convergence of humanure and spirituality. The author begins with a story about an invitation to speak at a convent. He was surprised that more than just composting the nuns were interested in humanure. “Somehow, I couldn’t imagine standing in a room full of holy nuns, speaking about turds” (69). Their response is worth quoting at length.

“We are the Sisters of Humility,” they responded. “The words humble and humus come from the same semantic root, which means ‘earth.’ We also think these words are related to the word ‘human.’ Therefore, as part of our vow of humility, we work with the earth. We make compost, as you’ve seen. And now we want to learn to make compost from our toilet material…” This was deep shit. Profound… Some people go to church on Sunday, others make compost. Still others do both (69-70).

The connection between ourselves and the earth is profound. I feel like I’m repeating myself and perhaps not getting anywhere, because I come back to this theme over and over. The truth is that this connection of human to humus is so utterly profound and largely lacking in our modern consciousness that we must come back to it again and again. Jenkins puts it like this,

In essence, the soil, air, sun and water combine within our mother’s womb to mold another living creature. Nine months later, another human being is born.That person is a separate entity, with an awareness of an individual self, an ego. That person is also totally a part of, and completely dependent upon, the surrounding natural world, the eco (70).

As we are enculturated to modern society our awareness of this connection diminishes. Our own ego is deeply tied up in our relationship with the earth. It is an act of great hubris to declare ourselves no longer bound by the limitations of nature and therefore apart from it. Likewise, it is an act of great humility to recognize our place in the ecosystem.

When the ego and the eco are balanced, the person lives in harmony with the planet. Such a balance can be considered to be the true meaning of spirituality, because the individual is a conscious part of, attuned to, and in harmony with a greater level of actual Being. When too much emphasis is placed on the self, the ego, an imbalance occurs and problems result, especially when that imbalance is collectively demonstrated by entire cultures. To suggest that these problems are only environmental and therefore not of great concern, is incorrect. Environmental problems (damage to the eco) ultimately affect all living things, as all living things derive their existence, livelihood and well-being from the planet. We cannot damage a thread in the web of life without the risk of fraying the entire tapestry. (74)

There is a tradition within Christianity of understanding creation as intimately related to our understanding of God and consequently our relationship to God and the world. I think because some conservative Christians are often reactionary against anything that smacks of New Age, earth worship, or even environmentalism, they have jettisoned this part of the tradition. Nevertheless it is right there in Scripture. Many of the Psalms use language about creation to describe God, God’s presence and character. Paul declares, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Ro 1:20). Perhaps a post tackling the nature of this triangle between God, humanity and creation is stirring. Jenkins goes on to explore further the implications on religion in particular.

When the ego gets blown out of proportion, we get thrown off balance in a variety of ways. Our educational institutions teach us to idolize the intellect, often at the expense of our moral, ethical, and spiritual development. Our economic institutions urge us to be consumers, and those who have gained the most material wealth are glorified. Our religious institutions often amount to little more than systems of human-worship where divinity is personified in human form and only human constructs (e.g., books and buildings) are considered sacred. (74)

On this last point, I probably agree with Jenkins about the nature of sacred texts, objects and places too much for my more religious friends and not enough for my more secular, scientific, skeptical friends. For me it is helpful to recognize that sacred rituals, texts and objects have come to exclude other things from the sacred. It becomes a zero sum game of the holy. If an object or text is sacred that necessarily excludes other objects from this realm. This way of thinking about the sacred and profane makes it possible to objectify nature and abuse it as we have done. Wendell Berry puts it this way in his poem “How to Be a Poet”, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Jenkins continues,

Today, new perspectives are emerging regarding the nature of human existence. The Earth itself is becoming recognized as a living entity, a level of Being immensely greater than the human level. The galaxy and universe are seen as even higher levels of Being, with multiverses (multiple universes) theorized as existing at a higher level yet. All of these levels of Being are imbued with the energy of life, as well as with a form of consciousness which we cannot even begin to comprehend. As we humans expand our knowledge of ourselves and recognize our true place in the vast scheme of things, our egos must defer to reality. We must admit our absolute dependence on the ecosystem we call Earth, and try to balance our egotistical feelings of elf-importance with our need to live in harmony with the greater world around us (72).

John Horgan in his book The End of Science explores some of the theories that Jenkins points to about the earth as a living organism and the idea that there are multiple universes. While ideas about multiverses (and superstrings and other dimensions) have at least a beginning in science, they are in fact really just speculations which, as Horgan points out, cannot and may never be able to be tested using the scientific method. Horgan is a little skeptical of the Gaia hypothesis put forward by some scientists that conceives of the earth as a living organism.

While I understand that some of these scientists veer into some mystical language that is more religious than scientific, I think it is clear from what we do know that the earth is more like an organism than it is a machine. The planetary ecosystem is certainly more than the sum of its parts in the same way that my body is more than just an amalgamation of bones, parts and systems. Again, while some people might be uncomfortable with some of the language about “levels of Being”, the point is to include our expanding knowledge of the universe (or perhaps multiverse, which is in no way a proven reality) in our theology and recognize that we are included as part of and dependent on these systems. When we recognize the humus in our humanity, we will find true humility.

I’ll Fly Away: Why Caring for the Earth Matters for Eternity

Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt

My economist friend recently commented that while he certainly believed that we were called as Christians to care for the earth, this was somewhat akin to polishing the Titanic (apologies for any liberties my paraphrase took with the actual comment). At some time in the future God is going to do away with the earth and create something new in its place that will be perfect and not subject to the death, decay and problems that we face, in a word “heaven”. This way of thinking about the earth, creation care and heaven is often prevalent among Christians. So it prompted me to try and sum up why I believe that creation care matters for eternity and why this attitude toward the planet is dangerous spiritually and environmentally.

I owe a lot of my thinking on this subject to two gentlemen named Wright (though not brothers and not involved in aviation), Christopher Wright, who wrote an excellent book called The Mission of God, and N.T. Wright, who (even though he seems to write books as often as Roger Olson) wrote a small article for The Green Bible called “Jesus is Coming–Plant a Tree!” (I did find a couple articles online that touch on some of N.T. Wright’s points in the aforementioned article from which I quote.) Certainly other scholars have written a lot on this subject, perhaps some better than either Wright I mentioned. These happen to be the two that influenced me.

There are three questions that frame how we understand this issue: 1) What does the Bible say about the earth? 2) What does the Bible say about heaven? and 3)What does the Bible say about the relationship between heaven and earth?

What On Earth?
The first and most obvious thing is that the creation is “good.” Although brokenness enters the picture when Adam and Eve trust the serpent instead of God, there is no declaration that now creation is “bad”. In Genesis 3:17-19 God tells Adam that the ground is cursed because of him and that “through painful toil you will eat of it” revealing that creation and humanity’s relationship to it are affected by this brokenness. The fact that creation is affected by (or maybe participates in) the brokenness of sin is important to remember when we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19). Lest we think that by this Paul meant that God reconciled all of the atomistic individuals in the world (which he certainly did), he goes cosmic in what N.T. Wright considers the apex of Romans.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)

This passage clearly refers to nature (in contrast to human beings) being involved in the work of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It might help to think about what the work of redemption means for human beings as we are transformed into “a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). While there is a transformation that takes place in which we can contrast the “old person” from this “new creation”, the newness is not completely discontinuous with the old. We maintain our unique identities even though our relationships are also transformed (Lk 20:2740). If the creation is also involved in Christ’s work of redemption, why wouldn’t it also be transformed in a similar manner? The “new heavens and new earth” envisioned by Isaiah and later picked up by John’s Apocalypse (Isaiah 65; Revelation 21) are not necessarily discontinuous with the earth that we know today. Nothing in the text demands that this be the case. On the contrary, as we will see, there is evidence that the vision of the future kingdom is one that is intimately connected to this earth.

Since I won’t have access to the internet soon, I will stretch this into a four part series.

Next… Heaven Help Us

Exorcising Material Possession

I realize my last post did not directly address some questions asked about the notion of “absolute ownership” and “fraudulent autonomy.” I think the answers are inherent in the biblical idea of economics based on right relationship to the land and each other. However, I will try to spell out clearly to what I think the terms in this article are referring, or at least my own interpretation in light of my own beliefs.

Absolute Ownership

The BIble clearly recognizes that stealing is not healthy for communities and that some system of ownership is necessary where there is scarcity or maybe the temptation to accumulate (I’m still not convinced about the assumption of scarcity though). I would suggest that these commands are relational admonitions and not inherent or inalienable rights. For example, Paul and Peter both cautioned early Christians to try to live at peace with the governing authorities as much as possible. This did not mean that they condoned the Roman system of oppression or any other doctrine of that government. (I generally follow Yoder’s interpretation of Romans 13 for what it’s worth) So, if we agree that the general biblical stance toward possessions is to hold them loosely and give generously, then this is not the same as the notion that property rights are an absolute ownership of that object or plot of land. It seems to me that our economic system relies heavily on the idea of absolute ownership, that I have certain rights and claims to anything that I “own.” I don’t expect the government or anyone else to make this distinction, but I do expect Christians to make the distinction and not claim that the commands in Scripture are equivalent to (and/or the basis for) our modern system of property rights.

I understand commandments about property ownership, theft, etc. to concern how we are to live in the reality of a broken world, not a prescription for how things should be.

For Christians the question is clearly whether I own my possessions or my possessions own me. This is a relational question, not a question of absolute rights. According to the government and our economic system I have absolute right to my possessions. I can break all of my plates and throw them in the garbage for no good reason if I want, because I am the absolute owner of those objects. As a Christian I recognize that I am not the absolute owner of these objects. 1) They are to be understood as gifts from God, not as something deserved or earned. 2) They represent a connection to the land that I am called to uphold and maintain justly and 3) I am cautioned that my relationship to the objects can easily become a dangerous and corrupting force.

Fraudulent Autonomy

This phrase represents the disconnection from the land that I previously described. When we come to believe, and base our economics, on the idea that we are able to exist apart from the land we have created a monster that could ultimately destroy us and are in direct defiance of Scripture. Those with wealth in our global economy have the possibility of believing that they exist independently of the earth. There lives do not encounter the realities of the resources they consume and extract from the earth through the products and food they consume on a daily basis. In my experience, the poor of the world live with the reality on a daily basis that their survival is closely linked to the land. The possibility of believing that you exist (or perhaps it’s more like ignorance) independently of the land and soil is a fraudulent concept and a lie.

I hope to explore connections to our current context more in my final post, but wanted to clarify what I believe about these phrases that others had questions about.

Is This Missions?

“What exactly will you be doing in Bolivia?” We’ve gotten that question often in the last couple months and still get it here in Bolivia. First, I’ll explain then wrestle with whether or not this is missions.

0.gifThe Job
We will be working with Low German Mennonites (LGM) in Bolivia on development issues and improving their agriculture. Low German is the language they speak and it actually predates German. It sounds nothing like German. They are Mennonites similar to the Amish, what we call Old Order Mennonites. They live in colonies throughout Bolivia, but mostly around the city of Santa Cruz. There are somewhere around 60 colonies and 45-50,000 LGM people.

I’m not an expert in their history and each colony has its own story. Generally though, they migrated from Europe, many from Russia during the Bolshevik uprising. Some migrated to Canada first and then made their way to Mexico, Belize, Paraguay and Bolivia. Others migrated directly to South America. So, they’ve been around a while.

When they first came to Bolivia, many of them were on the cutting edge of agriculture and were able to make land productive that Bolivians were not farming. Because they are very closed communities, over time they became stuck and now face many problems and are generally very poor. Their children are educated through 6th grade for girls and 7-8th grade for boys. Literacy is taught entirely in High German (what they speak in Germany) which they do not use except in worship using Luther’s translation of the Bible and their hymnbook. This means practically speaking they have a major literacy problem.

They have not kept up with soil conservation and erosion practices and often practice slash and burn agriculture. Because of droughts and some reluctance to use technologies like irrigation, they need alternatives that are not water intensive crops. There are theological reasons for why they shun technologies and do many of the things they do. The Amish Way is an excellent introduction to some of the Old Order practices and doctrines. I still have not met any of these people so much of my knowledge comes from others who know more than me or books.

So, my job will be something like getting to know these communities and helping them with their problems, improving agriculture, literacy, better marketing of their products, better relationships with Bolivians and the government. The question still lingers though, “Is this missions?” As always, I guess, it depends on your definition.

The Mission
For me, the mission of God, missio Dei, revealed in Scripture is a broad and inclusive thing that includes all nations, foreigners, eunuchs, marginalized and outsiders. It also includes more than just people (Ro 8:19-22; 2 Cor 5:19). God’s work in Christ was to redeem the whole world, including all of creation. Our job as Christians is to participate in the mission of God in the world. We have reduced that beautiful mission to winning converts to our team. The work of the Spirit transforming lives as they encounter the Risen Christ is part of this mission, but it is not the whole.

As Darell Guder has pointed out part of our mission is The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Let’s call this discipleship. Many of our problems (and the problems faced by the colonies) is a problem of discipleship. When we learn what it means to be followers of Jesus together in the Body and practice that in our lives, many of these other problems will go away.

I also believe that part of our participation in the mission of God is to practice the incarnational life that Jesus modeled for us. This means we should find ourselves crossing over to the Other, the one we don’t understand and don’t know, and try to understand them the way Jesus did by becoming human. This may be one of the most crucial elements lacking in our theology of mission. Once you acknowledge that we are called to be incarnational many of our clear cut doctrinal issues quickly become muddy. Incarnational living is a messy process.

So, to answer my question… YES, this is missions. Not because we traveled to another country. Not because we’re working with pagans and heathens. Not because we’re racking up converts for our team. This is missions, because we are helping our brothers and sisters care for the earth, learn to follow Jesus better and practice incarnational living with our Bolivian and LGM brothers and sisters. It is also missions because through the process of cross cultural living and communication we ourselves will be transformed by the Spirit more and more into the likeness of Christ.

Photo: Kennert Giesbrecht/Die Mennonitische Post via (found at Continental News)