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Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Loving Myself

Leviticus 19:18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

For the longest time I thought that the order of things in the universe was God at the top, everybody else next, and me at the bottom. Needless to say, that outlook gave me some self-esteem problems. Then one day I really read this verse and realized that it doesn’t say “love your neighbor and hate yourself.” It doesn’t say, “love your neighbor more than yourself.” It says, “Love your neighbor AS yourself.” Love of neighbor and love of self are equal in importance. I was blown away.

First of all, there was a commandment to love myself. It wasn’t an option. Secondly, love of neighbor and love of self serve as a balance for each other. I find that most people are better at one side of that equation than the other. Some tend to focus on others and neglect themselves. Others focus on themselves and neglect others. In my old way of thinking, loving others was right and loving self was wrong. But when I realized what the verse actually said, I could see that both types of people had it half right. Those who did a good job of loving themselves didn’t have to stop that. They didn’t have to love themselves less, they just had to love their neighbors every bit as much. On the other side, I didn’t have to love my neighbor any less, I just had to bring my love of myself up to the same caring level.

This verse from Leviticus is easy to miss in the long litany of God’s commands to Moses. It’s only half a verse long. That goes to show how well Jesus knew the Scriptures. When Jesus was asked (in Matt. 22:36) which of God’s commands was the most important, Jesus picked two…neither of which is part of the Ten Commandments. He selected the verse from Deuteronomy 6 that says we should love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and he picked this little half verse in Leviticus, saying that this verse was “like unto” the Deuteronomy verse.

The way that Jesus groups these two verses together gives us some great information. Jesus is implying that both verses say essentially the same thing…that there is little to no distinction between loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves. The more I grow, the more I have come to believe that is true. Loving others and loving myself are two different expressions of the love of God. God made both me and my neighbor. In treating all that God has made with love, we are expressing complete and total love for God. Self-hatred and abasement is not a required act of humility. It is evidence that our love of God is not yet complete.

It wasn’t easy to learn to love myself, and I’m still not sure that the two things are perfectly in balance, but they’re a heck of a lot closer than they used to be, and I no longer feel so guilty about doing something to care for myself. I am a healthier person, which also makes me better able to care for others. And those two things together move me closer to being able to fulfill the greatest commandment to love God with my all.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Clean and Unclean

Mark 7:15-16 “Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’”

The One Year Bible that we’re reading from in our Daily Walk program is not laid out with any particular agenda. It simply starts at the beginning of the Old Testament, the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs and follows each through every day to the end. So it is always a happy God-incidence when difficult things in the Old Testament section are met with explanations from Jesus in the New Testament section.

The Old Testament passages we’ve been reading are from Leviticus and lately have all been focused on the notion of “clean” and “unclean.” We read the roots of Kosher laws and what foods were considered unclean. We read also about certain skin diseases and discharges that put a person into the ranks of “unclean,” along with how to rejoin the “clean” once the condition was cleared up. Reading all that in Leviticus sounds pretty harsh to our ears.

It does, however, give us a better understanding of where the Pharisees in Jesus’ day are coming from. Their job was to make sure that the laws of the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) were upheld in Israel, and all these clean and unclean rules were part of that law. It also gives us a better understanding of why Jesus consistently got himself in trouble with the religious establishment. After reading all of those Levitical laws, maybe you can hear how radical it was for Jesus to say to the Pharisees in Mark 7:8 that “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” Then he goes on to contradict much of that writing in Leviticus to say that it is what comes out of us and not what goes into us that make us “unclean.” Leviticus is pretty clear that God gave those commands to Moses and Aaron. Jesus calls them the traditions of men and not the commands of God. It’s no wonder the Pharisees weren’t happy.

But notice that Jesus does not eliminate the category of “unclean,” he simply redefines it. To be unclean was to be out of the will of God--to be separated from God’s people and in need of atonement before fully participating again in the worship of God and in the life of the community. Jesus dismisses the idea that such a state can come from eating the wrong foods, touching a dead body, or having certain physical conditions. But instead of dismissing the category, he redirects it toward the attitudes of the heart that are manifest in “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly.” (Mark 7:21-23) Jesus is saying that those are the things that pull us out of the will of God and that place us outside of the worshiping community. Those are the things for which we need to seek atonement.

And so we are not off the hook. There is still meaning for the concepts of “clean” and “unclean.” To be a follower of Jesus means to keep a close watch on our hearts and our tongues, lest they lead to the folly of sin and the separation from God and community. The hope in Leviticus is that God is willing to make atonement for those who are “unclean,” who will recognize their state, and who will seek to be “clean” once again. That is still true. The offer still holds, held in the pierced hands of the sacrificial Lamb of God.