Loving Your Neighbor: The Full Context

Everyone knows that the second great commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said it and that’s all there is to it, right?

Sometimes we forget that Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament. He was quoting it to people who knew the Torah. So when he quotes the last clause of a sentence from what we call Leviticus 19:18, He assumed His readers knew the rest of the sentence and the rest of the paragraph. When Jesus is upping the standards – emphasizing the demands of the Torah as a matter of the heart – He is starting with the whole context.

But what does the rest of Leviticus 19:18 say? “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Now that seems simple and easy enough to understand. Loving your neighbor as yourself starts with not retaliating against wrongs and not holding unforgiveness in your heart. Sound like the Sermon on the Mount. What? This stuff is in the Old Testament?

But let’s move backwards up the verses and see what else is involved in the larger context of loving your neighbor. In verse 17, you are not supposed to hate him, but you are supposed to tell him off for his sin. In verse 16, you are not supposed to be a gossip. In verse 15, you are suppose to treat rich and poor alike in court, whether as a judge or a witness. In verse 14, you should not make life difficult for the physically handicapped. In verse 13, you should not steal from your neighbor and this includes delaying his earned wages from him if he works for you. In verses 11 and 12, you should not steal or lie or make it worse by swearing to falsehoods.

Then we get to verses 9 and 10: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.’

This is a passage that should trouble political conservatives greatly, especially those who want to insist that we get back to the Bible as the basis for legislative policy. There is no comfort in the fact that since was written to an Ancient Near East agrarian society, we can’t be expected to apply it literally. There is a difference between not applying it literally and not applying it at all. In this case, the statute is quite adaptable to a modern context.

Here the legislation says you shall not completely take all of your income (the harvest of your land) – your livelihood – but shall leave some of it for the poor and stranger. It doesn’t suggest that you can pick the poor and the stranger who gets it.

This is the statutory – forced – redistribution of wealth. Not only that, but these people who want your income can come onto your land to get it. They can enter your real property to take your personal property that you have to leave out for them.

If that isn’t disturbing enough, note that God says you must allow your property to be taken by both the poor and the stranger.  A stranger (ger in Hebrew) is not someone you don’t know.  It is someone who is not one of your people. An alien. An immigrant. Yes, Leviticus says that the immigrant is entitled to the same redistribution of wealth as the poor person who is one of your people. As with the poor, it doesn’t suggest that you can pick the stranger that gets it.

None of this is supposed to be done grudgingly. All of this is part of loving your neighbor as yourself.

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