Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Leviticus 19)
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)
Mr. Rogers always began his children's program with the song, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won't you be ... my neighbor?" But what does it mean to be a neighbor? How does God want us to act as neighbors? Could you be God's neighbor under His criteria?
The major problem with having neighbors is that you then need to be neighborly. Not all of us are blessed to have neighbors like Mr. Rogers or Wilson from Home Improvement. Unfortunately, we're more likely to have neighbors like Marie Barone or Newman. Neighbors that just drive you crazy. How can you be neighborly with someone whose greatest joy is to dig deep into your personal life? Being neighborly isn't always easy. Our neighborhood isn't always the best. Sometimes it seems that the only thing the neighborhood is good for is the Neighborhood Watch program: where the whole neighborhood watches while you're robbed blind. But God calls us to be neighborly to everyone around us.
His call is like State Farm's slogan: "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." You are to be a good neighbor. A good neighbor to everyone. No matter whether he is like Wilson or she is like Marie. God teaches us through the civil laws revealed to us this morning exactly what a good neighbor is and does. A good neighbor follows God's own example. After all, God gave the Law to the children of Israel because He was making His name and His glory dwell among them. He was their neighbor. As spoken throughout Scripture in many places, He wants those to treat Him as He treats them (Matthew 7:12). As a husband to Israel, God fulfilled the proper calling of being a neighbor. Being a neighbor is the best way to fulfill the Law because it takes into account the entire Law. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). Very simple, straightforward directives for life. But directives we cannot begin to fathom in our own lives.
Being a neighbor is providing for your neighbors in their time of need. "Blessed is the one who considers the poor" (Psalm 41:1). Jesus told His disciples, "The poor you always have with you" (John 12:8). The poor are here. It's not that hard to understand when we take into account one in every forty-five homes went through foreclosure in 2009. Poverty surrounds us. People losing jobs. People losing their homes. People losing their money in the stock market. Poverty certainly surrounds us. In dealing with this pandemic, we look to the book of Leviticus. Leviticus, you say? God sets up the nation of Israel's welfare system in our text this morning. The entire welfare system is designed around the Seventh Commandment. The commandment that forbids robbery. The commandment that demands honesty. The commandment that demands we help our neighbor to improve his income and possessions. An entire welfare system based against stealing? Isn't that exactly what most of us believe those using and abusing our country's welfare system are doing? Stealing from the government and, by extension, us. That's not being very neighborly to these people who have hit a rough patch in a down-turned economy. That's not loving our neighbor as ourselves. That's not understanding, "There but by the grace of God go I."
We look down at our neighbor and even mock their plight. We find ourselves just like the priest and the Levite in Jesus' parable (Luke 10:31-32). We see our neighbor in the midst of his or her plight and we cross over to walk on the other side. We want to keep for ourselves anything and everything we can. We feel entitled to have what we have. Those who don't have aren't as good as us. Why do you think the TV preachers are so popular? They promote the idea that the more you have the better God loves you. God doesn't want you to be poor. He wants you to be rich so that you can have everything your heart desires.
But that's not the way the blessed live according to God. "Blessed is the one who considers the poor" (Psalm 41:1). Farmers, take note of what God says when it comes to harvest time. "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" (v9). How much corn would you "lose" if you left the last two rows on every side of each of your fields? That gets to be quite a bit after a couple of years. All that corn wasted because GOD SAYS you can't harvest it. And all the corn that drops off when the combine cuts the stalk. We could be talking some serious money here that you're out. Why does God tell you what you can and can't harvest in your own field? First of all, it's not your field. It's His. It's a matter of the proper stewardship of the gifts God has given you. Second, He wants you to be able to provide for your neighbor who cannot provide corn for himself. Maybe his crop was scorched this year. Maybe his side of the road flooded and ruined the entire crop. Maybe he's physically unable to plant and harvest. He's basically coming to you with his hat in his hand, begging for food, much like Ruth when she and Naomi came back to Bethlehem from Moab (Ruth 2:1-11). Boaz was a good neighbor to her even though she was a foreigner among the Israelites. Boaz went so far as to make Ruth his wife to redeem her deceased husband's property (Ruth 4). Ruth and Naomi had food to eat because God had set provisions for the poor and the sojourner in His civil law.
This is the kind of neighbor that God wants us to be. He wants us to give to our neighbors in their need. He wants us to help and not harm, as He says, "You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another" (v11). This is seen most clearly in the Gospel reading: "Behold, a lawyer stood up to put Him to the test" (Luke 10:25). The lawyer was looking to discredit Jesus. While looking to be someone possibly interested in being a disciple, the lawyer wanted to see what he could do to twist Jesus' words to bring the crowds back to the Law under the Pharisees and the scribes. This is the same thing Ananias and Saphira did when they conspired together to lie to the Apostles about the land they sold (Acts 5). Truly, when you lie or deal falsely with your neighbor, you are lying and dealing falsely with God because your neighbor was made in God's image.
But because your neighbor was made in God's image, He has come and declared to all what is necessary for salvation. After all, that's the lawyer's question, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 10:25). There's the honest part. He really wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers him. Jesus doesn't point out the flaw in his logic. No one can inherit anything by DOING anything. An inheritance is given. However, Jesus answers him by asking about the Law. He says, "Do this, and you will live" (Luke 10:28). Again, the lawyer seeks to justify himself and asks for a clarification on the word "neighbor." Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man travelling on the road gets the snot beat out of him and is left for dead by robbers. He's in the utter darkness of despair, anger and hopelessness. He reaches out to anyone who comes along the road. He reaches out for help. All he wants is to be taken somewhere where he can recuperate. Only when a foreigner comes along does he find relief. A foreigner comes along and brings him out of the darkness of despair and into the light of relief. Jesus shows through His own example how one inherits eternal life. A foreigner comes along and rescues your from darkness of your despair, anger and hopelessness.
St. Paul says it this way: "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13-14). You inherit eternal life by receiving it as a free gift. You receive it as wonderful medicine for the wounds caused by your sins. Jesus scoops you up from the pit. A favorite image of our personal sinfulness in the Psalms. The pit where you've been cast by Satan, the world and your sinful flesh. He was passing by. He stopped and climbed down into the pit with you. He took on your flesh, your sinfulness. Jesus lifted you out of the pit. He joined His human flesh with His divine nature, exalting the human into the divine. He placed you on His back and carried you to safety. He carried your sins on His back from the moment of His Baptism. He anointed and bandaged your wounds. He applied His eternal righteousness to you when you were baptized. He has given you refuge so you may rest. He ascended into Heaven to prepare a place for you.
Jesus has not lied. He has not dealt falsely with you. He's been straight with you. Everything He did in His earthly life He did for you. He upheld, followed and fulfilled the great holiness of God. Through His death, He gives it to you. He has been your good neighbor. The neighbor who is there whenever you need. The neighbor who loves you just as He loves Himself. The neighbor who is willing to do everything necessary to protect and improve your income and possessions. He gives His example of the Good Samaritan so that you might follow His example and learn what discipleship entails. This is the life of true disciples of Jesus Christ. If you want to inherit eternal life, you accept it as a gift from His hand. Before Jesus came to you, you were as helpless as the man beaten by robbers. After Jesus has come, you bask in the pleasures eternal He has brought with Him. The wounds of your sin have been healed. The brokenness of your life has been restored. The feeling of helplessness has been replaced by the Helper.
It's truly a beautiful day in the neighborhood. A day to be a good and godly neighbor to everyone around us. Let us go out and be the neighbors that God would have us to be. Amen.