The Two Commandments

One of the things I learned in Business School that I hold closest to my heart isn’t the deciphering the acronym EBITDA (Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) or how to properly use a VLOOKUP table on Microsoft Excel. It isn’t the four P’s of marketing (product, promotion, pricing, place). It was from my business ethics class.

My professor was a brilliant old school Arkansas lawyer of a certain age, who taught in the business school, the law school, and the divinity school, and he taught our class on business ethics.

I don’t remember all the exercises and case studies we had to do, but I do remember on the last day of class, his one final teaching, his parting advice to us.

“Imagine looking into your Grandmama’s eyes across the kitchen table. Don’t do anything that you couldn’t explain to her with a straight face while looking into her eyes.”

This is one answer to the question at the heart of ethics, “What should we do, and why?”, and it is also at the core of our Bible readings today.

Yes, the primary focus of our Bible readings today is ethics. Ethics is perhaps the most practical and easily applicable branches of philosophy, as we all do things that have ethical implications.

Sometimes these decisions are big and are literally matters of life and death. Many hospitals and universities have an ethics board or even a professional medical ethicist on staff. In many fields of study, such as business, or law, an ethics class may be a required part of the coursework.

Yet ethics is not just about what happens in a hospital or in a board room. Ethics are not just for the powerful and the learned.

Every choice we make, and many we don’t deliberately make, have ethical implications. Every product we buy, every interaction we have on the street or in a shop, influences the world.

This has become all the more apparent during the Covid-19 epidemic, where our personal choices have a great impact on our communities. It may be that the mask we wore five months ago is the reason someone else is alive today.

So that’s why it is important for us as Christians to be able to answer this great question, “What should we do, and why?”

If this question seems a bit daunting at first, that’s because it is. There’s a lot of different ways that we can answer this question. Often, what we find when we look hard not just at what we answer, but how we answer, is that we use a hodgepodge of many different sources. These include our own reason and emotions, our friends and family, and yes, our religion.

There’s also a couple of different ways to teach and think about ethics: some of the wisdom in our Leviticus passage is very specific in its ethical commands and relatively straightforward; You should not be a slanderer. Don’t render unjust judgements. Be impartial with the rich and the poor. We are meant to apply the specific to general ways of leading our lives.

Others, however, are unbelievably broad; you shall love your neighbor as yourself is beautiful, but it has been interpreted and misinterpreted to justify everything from slavery to abolitionism, communism to capitalism, and everything in between.

On that note, if you heard that one of the scripture readings for today was from the book of Leviticus and you cringed a little bit, I get it. Leviticus is a book we don’t often read in progressive churches like ours, and part of it is for good reason.

The first part of it is that quite frankly, it’s not necessarily the most exciting reading. It’s not really a story book with the exciting adventures of King David, the prophet Jonah, or the apostle Paul or the simple beauty of the Gospel messages. There’s no healing of the blind, or resurrection of the dead.

The second part, however, is that It’s also home to one of the so-called clobber verses, used by certain segments of the church to tell LGBTQ people that they were less than human. If you are someone who has been hurt by the Bible and the church, I want to take this moment to apologize on behalf of the church. Every interpretation of the Bible that causes us to hate is not of God, but instead represents the power of humanity to corrupt what is good. For although as our scripture reading today proclaims, even though “we shall be holy”, we are also capable of great evil, and we can corrupt almost anything.

But I hope that you will join me in this reconsideration at least parts of this book of Leviticus, for three reasons.  First, I believe that there is much good in this book, including our reading for today.

Secondly, it provides a “why”.  Remember that question at the heart of ethics? “What should we do, and why”?

Our first two verses in our first reading are an attempt to answer the question of why- perhaps not the whole of our reasoning, but a firm foundation. We are called to do these things because the Lord our God is Holy, and we shall be a Holy people too.

One other point in Leviticus’ favor that I hope we noticed is that in our second reading, Jesus draws directly from our first reading in his answer to the question about what the greatest commandment is.

Remember, Jesus didn’t have a New Testament; one of the defining aspects of the New Testament is that it was written in response to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Anywhere you read in the New Testament about reading the scriptures, they’re talking about the Old Testament.

While books like Christopher Moore’s Lamb, a fictionalized account of the life of Jesus partly based on the Gospel of Matthew, feature Jesus traveling across South and East Asia to learn wisdom, those seeking the roots of Jesus’ teachings should look closer to home. The Old Testament is the source material for most of Jesus’ teachings.

As Christians, sometimes we fall into a trap that everything in the Old Testament is bad and rigid, and everything in the New Testament is good and liberating. Ironically, this an overly binary way of thinking that we might otherwise call bad and rigid.

Liberation and freedom are present throughout the whole of the Bible. For every verse that has caused pain and hurt in the Old Testament, there is one in the New Testament, and more importantly, for every verse that frees and liberates us, that reminds of God’s goodness in the New Testament, there is also one in the Old Testament.

In parts of the American South, among enslaved and formerly enslaved Black families, some households banned reading the letters of Paul, because they believed he endorsed slavery, but relished and celebrated the story of Exodus, seeing themselves in the freedom of the people from Egypt.

This is representative of the complicated nature of the relationship that we have with the Bible. Let us remember that in his letter to the Romans, when the apostle Paul spoke about the Law, he’s speaking about this part of the Bible.

He does not declare it evil or bad. However, he does note that the law is capable of corruption, and so, we have corrupted it. We have used it to justify evils such as homophobia and sexism, even though it’s greatest and loudest commands we have from it tell us to be good in our speech, wise and impartial in our judgements, and to Love our Neighbors.

This corruption is why God’s Grace is so important to our faith. For God’s Grace, a freely given gift which we cannot buy, sell, trade, or influence is utterly incorruptible.

Almost everything else, about our faith, our lives, can be commodified and used as a weapon.

But I firmly believe that God’s Grace cannot.

Even our sense of ethics can be bought or sold; having a medical ethicist on staff might not increase ethical behavior, but instead provide cover for those who would do harm, especially unintentionally.

For the rest of us, as much as we try to follow our ethical principles, as much as we try to live upright lives in ways that make a positive impact in the world, we will fail ourselves, our communities, and our God.

This does not mean that we should not try. Rather, that when we fail, and we will fail, to neither fall into despair, nor self-righteousness, but to take stock, hold ourselves and each other accountable, change our behaviors as we can, and then forgive. By doing this, we can minimize the amount of harm and maximize the good. We can live quiet lives that embody hope, peace, joy, and love.

We are called to do these things as Christians because our God is Holy, and we are called to be holy, to be reflections of God’s light in the world.

But most of all, we remember to do these things because it is God’s Grace, that freely given, and incorruptible gift, and not our own ethical behavior, that lead us home to God.