Leviticus 25-27, Psalm 38, Mark 12
Is God’s love conditional or unconditional?
Leviticus 25 – 27
In his lifetime, George Washington dodged a lot of bullets. He survived malaria, smallpox, tuberculosis, dysentery and pneumonia. He escaped being attacked by wild animals, would-be assassins and military enemies that far outnumbered him.
His father died at 49 and his grandfather at 37. His half-brother and mentor died at 33. By the time Washington turned 60, he had outlived all of his male ancestors. He lived another seven years. But the most arresting challenge that Washington faced came at the Battle of Monongahela in 1775, when he was the only British officer among 86 officers who was not wounded.
Nonetheless, four bullets passed through Washington’s coat and two of his horses were shot out from under him. One Indian chief later claimed that he had 11 clear shots at Washington, all to no effect. The Indian stopped shooting because he thought that his target was protected by the gods.
If we take the Old Testament literally, such may be the case. In Leviticus 26 we read, “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” (Lev. 26:7-8)
The final three chapters of Leviticus give much food for thought. You may even wish to reread them one day with a detailed commentary in hand, but do not confuse careful biblical study with devotional Bible reading. It is fascinating and helpful to build our biblical knowledge, but absorbing facts, archeological evidence and insights into ancient legal matters is not the same as prayerfully reading the Bible so that God may shape our spirit, strengthen our will, clarify our vision and give us a compassionate heart.
Many people have studied the Bible and missed its message. Some have used portions of the Bible to prop up abysmal practices such as slavery. Prior to his great awakening, John Newton was an English slave trader. He read the Bible in Greek and taught his ship-hands the meaning of Scripture during Bible studies that he organized on the ship’s deck, while slaves below deck were packed in squalid conditions. Not until God opened his eyes did Newton, who later composed the great hymn Amazing Grace, come to see the errors of his ways and move from studying and teaching the Bible to living a faith-filled life.
Likewise, we read in Leviticus 25:44-46 about how the Israelites may maintain slaves from the nations around them. The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa used passages like this to justify Apartheid even while the world cried out about the appalling conditions that blacks in Africa faced and the ways in which whites mistreated, demeaned and segregated blacks. These same passages were used in the United States to justify slavery. It is helpful, therefore, to read the entire Bible and let the weight of our overall understanding of God help us interpret difficult passages such as these and determine which passages are valid teachings of God and which are not God’s mandates, but human mandates.
A vital concept mentioned in Leviticus 25 is the Jubilee Year, which occurs every fiftieth year. “That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you,” writes the author of Leviticus. (Lev. 25:11) During this year, impoverished people who had become indentured to the Israelites had to be freed. Land sold in harsh economic conditions to wealthier individuals also had to be returned to its original owners.
While the concept of the Jubilee Year is breath-taking, scholars question whether it was ever practiced by the Israelites. It clearly is not practiced today. What if, for example, Israel today returned land to the Palestinians that had been confiscated almost 50 years ago? Such a concept unleashes a volatile conversation. The current occupiers of such land will quickly present scores of reasons why this cannot or should not be done. One has to imagine that throughout history there have always been seemingly good reasons for not obeying the practice of the Jubilee Year.
I have to imagine that throughout history there have been individuals, if not nations, who practiced the biblical commandments for the Jubilee Year and released their slaves and laborers in the fiftieth year. Such people rose above the masses. They applied God’s law fully to themselves, but it was not bending reluctantly to the law that directed their actions, but rather living by the spirit of the law that allowed them to carry it out. This is the true beauty of God’s teachings. When we move from grudgingly obeying God’s commands to living freely in God’s Spirit, something extraordinary occurs in our lives. We and others are blessed in the process.
The language of Leviticus gives the appearance of conditional love. “If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Lev. 26:3) Likewise, “But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away.” (Lev. 26:14-16) This indeed is conditional love.
If we dig a bit deeper, however, we see that God is seeking only what is best for human beings. These words were transmitted through humans and at times have a steel-edged tone to them. Underlying the harsh human tone, however, are practices that serve people well. Crop rotation during Sabbath years allowed the land to replenish itself every seven years. Today, this is a common practice for farmers. Back then, it was cited as a command from God. If we trust throughout the Bible that God has our own best interests always at heart, then we can discern more carefully what teachings are vital for us today.
Many people avoid dealing with the mystery of life after death by filling their lives with constant noise and distractions. We can have all sorts of experiences, but miss the deeper meaning of life. We can be entertained, travel the world and purchase many possessions but fail to examine life’s greatest horizon and acquaint ourselves with God. We can avoid people who are dying and claim that religious questions are unanswerable. But in the end, we may discover a profound loneliness when death approaches, and come to realize only too late that we have no relationship with God.
I remember visiting a man shortly before he died, who never came to church. He sat in his bathrobe on the edge of his bed. He asked if I minded if he smoked a cigarette. “I don’t mind,” I said. I had come to bring him Communion, and he was dying in his home with hospice care. His voice was raspy. Outside his bedroom her garden was blooming – tulips, daffodils and lavender were coming to life.
“I’ve haven’t been a much of a churchgoer,” he confessed. “Not everyone is,” I said. “I’m not sure that I believe in heaven,” he said. “What’s important is that God believes in you,” I answered. “Do you think that people like me go to heaven,” he asked. “I hope that they do,” I replied, adding, “God’s grace is greater than we can imagine.”
“Friends have been calling and coming from far and wide to visit me,” he said. “It’s nice that you have this time together, and they can express their love for you,” I said. “I have a lot of friends,” he said, then coughed, winced and then began to cry. His life was drawing to a close. His lack of faith in the Easter event had left him in despair.
How will it be for you when death approaches? Death teaches us that our own reality is dependent upon God’s grace. Without understanding God we cannot fully understand ourselves, why we were put on earth and how God will care for us even when we die. Psalm 38 looks despair and death clearly in the eye. The psalmist laments,
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me. (Ps. 38:1)
Lying on a deathbed is a terribly late place to begin our spiritual journey. It is a bit like starting a 401K plan on the day before you retire. There will not be much in the bank to enjoy your retirement years and pay your bills unless you begin saving a little bit of money every day starting now.
The same is true of the spiritual life. The time and effort that we spend each day now will reap benefits for years to come. Most of all, it will not just reward us in the hour that we face our transition from this life into the next, it will give us strength, bring us comfort, improve our character, enhance our ability to love and be loved and help us to walk by faith each day.
Then we will not have to cry out, “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me.” (Ps. 38:21) Instead, we shall be given what the founder of the Methodist Church John Wesley called “the blessed assurance” that God is with us and that we are God’s and nothing will be able to shake that loving conviction from us.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenant is a poignant story. As I reread it this morning for the umpteenth time, it nearly brought tears to my eyes. How we humans have grieved the heart of God! There is something particularly powerful in how Mark tells this story. It is the story of salvation history and records in metaphorical ways the vast attempts that God has undertaken to reach out to humans like you and me.
Instead of receiving the words of the prophets and changing our ways and reordering our priorities, we too often have behaved like the psalmist who said,
But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.
Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort. (Ps. 38:13-14)
In Mark’s account, the tenants “seize,” “beat,” “insult” and “kill” the messengers of God. There are some churches that function like this today, making life a living hell for one clergy person after another who enters their midst. Sometimes we do this to our own flesh and blood in marriages and families that have spun out of control.
Each one of these stories mentioned in Mark 12 can be transposed into modern times and can be seen occurring in churches and Christian communities today. There are those who question clergy or fellow Christians hoping to trap them with their answers. There are those who ask silly questions in order to avoid dealing with the challenges of living the Gospel life and those who get so tangled in theological arguments that their brains are clogged, their ears are blocked and their eyes are blind.
Fortunately, there are shining examples here of living with grace and love. One of the scribes approached those who were debating with Jesus and trying to entrap him and asked Jesus, “Which commandment is first of all?” (Mark 12:28) Jesus responded, “The first is, ‘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 mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
The scribe acknowledged the truth in what Jesus said and added, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, Jesus responded, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34) Here was a man whose colleagues had made life difficult for Jesus but who himself had learned to listen and see the ways of God. Never give up on those around you. Even amid your fiercest opponents there may come forth someone who sees the truth that you are speaking and trying to live.
Finally, there is that blessed widow, who offers all that she has to God. It’s amazing how little actions never escape God’s eyes and some have gone down in history. Someone trained this widow, probably as a young girl, that everything that she owned was a gift from God and a portion – a tithe – had to be returned to God. One of the wealthiest philanthropists in the South once told me, “Marek, you have to understand that no one is born generous. They have to be taught how to be generous.” Someone taught her well and probably when she was quite young and impressionable.
There are some Episcopalians who would have to give a million dollars or more, if they tithed, and most of them would not imagine doing so. Others would have to struggle to give $500 or 1,000 as a tithe. What matters is that each of us makes a sacrificial gift. A good measure is to give until it hurts. In other words, give to the point that it alters our lifestyle and makes us think about God on a regular basis. Then our giving shapes our living and something beautiful occurs, no matter what the sum is.
A person whom I admire wrote to me about her pledge, “As to my pledge, I am trying to give 8% of my income away. I believe in tithing and have never quite reached the 10%, though I do understand the blessing in that. The $1200 that I am giving the church, plus monies that I give to other ministries, schools and museums and the Hunger Project add up to about 8%, I tell myself that if you add the volunteering I do, that would probably complete the other 2%.” I admire her spirit. She understands Jesus’s message.
Giving studies show that the poor regularly out-give the rich in terms of the percentage of wealth that they give away. What does that tell us? It informs us that the more we have the more come think is ours and the less willing we are to part with it. This widow had next to nothing, but that did not hold her back. Death will make generous persons of all of us. The key is to enjoy now the opportunity that God gives us to share our wealth and possessions as a blessing to others and let them be instruments in God’s hands.
Have you not read the Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.’? (Mark 12:10)
Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Mark 12:17)
Have you experienced God’s unconditional love? Do you try to strike bargains with God? Do you think that God tries to strike bargains with us and loves us only conditionally? What are you doing on a daily basis to build your spiritual 401K plan? In what ways have you been deaf and mute to God’s call in your life? How has God sent messengers into your life to get your attention that the vineyard is still his, not yours? How have you treated those messengers? What are you doing now to enjoy redistributing the wealth and possessions that God has entrusted to you?
Almighty God, you have come to us the Creator and Sustainer of the world. You have spoken in the whirlwind and in the still small voice and in each of the prophets. Above all, you have come in the form of a baby – the Word made flesh in Jesus. Open our ears and eyes to see and hear you. Transform us into generous spirited beings who hold on only temporarily to things and wealth and allow each gift to pass through our lives and become a nice present to someone else. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania