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The Golden Rule

Leviticus 19.1-2,15-18
Matthew 22.34-40

‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ It’s sometimes called The Golden Rule and yet the way it’s understood by the writers or editors of Leviticus is far from obvious to our way of thinking.

According to this passage it means being strictly impartial, neither favouring the poor or being subservient to the rich, but playing a straight bat. That’s all well and good, of course, but it’s not the traditional, Christian understanding of loving your neighbour, which is about showing special compassion to the outcast, the stranger, the poor and the weak. In fact, it has become fashionable for modern Christians to speak of God’s bias to the poor.

There are passages in the Old and New Testament - including Leviticus - which suggest that we are supposed to show partiality to the poor and the oppressed, but this is not one of them. Here loving your neighbour is about treating everyone the same, without fear or favour. The poor should not be condescended to. They deserve the compliment of being treated exactly as the judge, or the magistrate, or the official would expect to be treated if they needed someone to decide about their case. And, of course, we’re not necessarily talking just about court cases, but about any set of rules or regulations that need to be interpreted and applied with fairness. We’re talking about bosses, post office clerks, traffic wardens, and teachers and parents. Are any of us fair and even-handed in the way we interpret and apply rules and regulations?

To love your neighbour doesn’t just mean being fair, of course. Leviticus says that it means not spreading gossip about them, something which is all too easily done in close knit communities. The Revised English Bible’s translation is oddly archaic here, I think, with its reference to ‘your father’s kin’. The New Revised Standard Version says ‘you shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,’ and even The Revised Version - a very literal Nineteenth Century translation which was the original version used in this church when it first opened - says, ‘Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale bearer among thy people.’

In churches there is a fine distinction to be made between being properly concerned about the misfortunes of other people, and wanting to pray for them and support them, and - on the other hand - being at best inquisitive or at worst even prying into their affairs. That’s why, for instance, we can no longer put people’s names in the prayer book, and so on, without their permission. Sometimes loving our neighbour means keeping our counsel.

‘Do not take sides against your neighbour on a capital charge’ suggests that, if there’s a danger they might swing for their crimes, it would be wrong to report our neighbours to the police. It seems a totally alien way to interpret loving your neighbour, as if running them in for burglary or for trespass would be perfectly all right whereas accusing them of murder, or giving evidence against them for poisoning their Granny, would be unsporting. But again the Revised English Bible seems to have taken certain liberties with its translation. The Revised Version translates the Hebrew very literally as ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour’, which the New Revised Standard Version takes to mean, ‘you shall not profit by your neighbour’s blood.’ Gone here is any suggestion of our neighbours having formal charges laid against them in a court. I think what we’re talking about here is a good old-fashioned witch hunt or a land grab, where someone appears to be throwing accusations around just to discredit their neighbours and gain advantage over them. Sadly, it still happens, but nowadays it’s more likely to be the kind of thing that goes on in an employment dispute - with staff members hurling rival accusations against one another in an attempt to blur the real issues and get the hearing to find in their favour. Needless to say, that’s not a neighbourly thing to do.

Loving your neighbour turns out, then, to be a more forensic idea than we might otherwise think. It’s about being fair and open-minded, about not taking advantage, about having honest and straight dealings with one another. And, as it’s understood in Leviticus, loving your neighbour doesn’t rule out reprimanding or reproving him or her. In fact, failing to tell other people what you really think about them - while nursing a secret hatred for them in our heart - is much worse than being open with them.

In his poem, Mending Wall, Robert Frost talks about walking along a boundary wall with his neighbour to make sure that it‘s in good repair. This makes him reflect on why the wall is there in the first place. ‘Good fences make good neighbours,’ his neighbour says, but Frost thinks to himself, ‘Only where they are needed.’ His neighbour’s side of the wall contains only pine trees, on Frost’s side is an orchard, whereas you need a wall only where there are cows! Frost thinks:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

That’s pretty much how the writers and editors of Leviticus think about neighbourliness. Let’s not put up walls of hypocrisy and pretence between us, walls to hide our feelings. Let’s be honest and open.

But, with honesty must come acceptance. When we find out what our neighbours really think we can’t be grudging or unforgiving, or try to get our own back or take vengeance on them. We must live and let live. That’s what Leviticus means by loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Jesus sets the Golden Rule in a different context. First, he makes it far more important. He elevates it almost to the same status as the first commandment - to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And by doing so, of course, he brings the focus to bear much more sharply on love. For Jesus the saying is definitely about loving your neighbour rather than about respect or honest dealing.

And second, the way that Jesus highlights this verse, and juxtaposes it with the first commandment, reminds us that there are three crucial aspects to loving our neighbour. It’s not possible to love our neighbour properly and consistently unless we first love God and also love ourselves.

Modern society has dropped God out of the equation - but that tips the balance towards the self. If you don’t have to love God in order to love your neighbour, but you do still have to love yourself, then you start to get people saying, ‘Unless I first find myself, and journey into myself, or pamper myself, I won’t be able to look out for my neighbour as well.’ So people will say, ‘I knew the children couldn’t be happy because I wasn’t happy.’ Or, ‘I knew my partner couldn’t be happy because I wasn’t happy.’

So then, of course, the only solution is to make yourself happy, whatever the cost might be to the other people in your life, because only then will you be any real use or support to other people. This creates a tendency for loving your neighbour as you love yourself to become a very introspective, inward-looking, self-serving idea. But is that what Jesus really intended?

I don’t think so, because Jesus set the commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves alongside the prior commandment to love God, and loving God means looking outwards, trying to imitate God’s love for creation, caring not just about ourselves - or not first about ourselves - but treating other people’s well-being as equally important to our own. Yes, we can’t love other people properly if we don’t love and respect ourselves - and we see that again and again in parents who fail to love their children in a healthy and rounded way because they haven’t yet dealt with their own hang-ups. But, by the same token, we can’t love and respect ourselves properly if we don’t love and respect others, beginning with God.


xj96jeep said…
God seems to have a way of directing me to things that I need to read, when I need to read them. Thank you.

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