Our duties toward God and man are concrete duties. All of our duties are attached to names, and faces, and places. We have no duties in isolation; all duties occur in the context of relationships. But in order to love as we ought in each particular instance of a relationship we need to understand how important abstract generalizations are. God gives us generalities, not so that we might hide in them, but so that we will know what to do when the particular time comes (as it always does). The proof is in the pudding, which is particular and concrete. But the recipe for the pudding need not be particular—in fact it really shouldn’t be.
“Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another. And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him: the wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until the morning. Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD. Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the LORD. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:11-18).
Summary of the Text
This passage contains the commandment that Jesus identified as the second greatest commandment in all of Scripture (Matt. 22:39). I began at verse 11 because it is important for us to see what kind of neighborhood this commandment lives in. When we discover that the greatest commandment comes from a passage on covenant education of children, we gain a great deal (Dt. 6:4-9). So also we see here what love for our neighbor is supposed to look like.
Reject every form of fraud and ungodly deceit (v. 11). Honor the name of God (v. 12). Stop it with the sharp-edged business practices (v. 13). Do not abuse the handicapped (v. 14). Judge every case on the merits; pay no attention whatever to the wealth or poverty of the disputants (v. 15). Don’t be a tale-bearer; don’t jeopardize your neighbor’s life (v. 16). Don’t hate your brother by refusing to tell him what he clearly needs to hear (v. 17). Don’t take vengeance; don’t bear a grudge. So love your neighbor as yourself (v. 18).
If I were to ask you all to think about the idea of dog, all of you could summon up that idea up in your mind. And if you found yourself imagining your own pet, I could ask you to make it more general and nebulous. You could do that as well, and the result would be no dog in particular, but still recognizably canine.
If the house next door to you sells, before the new owner moves in, you can do the same thing to your new “neighbor.” You can know your neighbor before you know him. This ability to think in abstractions is a gift of God. In the passage from Leviticus, a number of general principles are stated, without any local color added. Blind man is more specific than man, but we are not yet talking about an individual.
If you think like a Christian about culture and society, it will not be long before you are accused of holding to some sort of “individualism,” and with that abstraction dismissed with a sneer. But the Christian form of this is not individualism at all. If we must label it, let us call it neighborism. We must be committed to the rights of our neighbor, and we must be committed to them before we know his name, before we know his identity. If a collectivist taunts us with being dedicated to the bloodless abstraction called “the rights of the individual,” and we don’t even know his name, let us answer by saying that we are actually motivated by “love of our neighbor,” even though we might not know his name either. When the scribe asked Jesus for the name of his neighbor, he was trying to justify himself.
What Love Looks Like
The law of God gives shape to love. The law of God teaches us what love is supposed to look like before we get into the details. The law of God cuts up the pie for us before we know which piece we are going to get. And when we let God define love for us, we are frequently surprised . . . but not always.
In this passage, we see that love means not tripping a blind man. We like to think we would have guessed that. But we also see that we must decide against that same blind man in a dispute if the facts demand it. We might not have guessed that. And paying a 30-day note after 60 days is out, even if it is industry standard. And to refuse to speak frankly to your brother about his fault is a way of hating him (Gal. 6:1).
Moving Constantly Back and Forth
If you live in the particular only, you remember Smith, but you don’t remember “your neighbor.” You have become narrow and provincial. But if you live in the abstraction, you fall prey to the observation that Linus once made—that he loved mankind; it was people he couldn’t stand. The obedient life moves constantly back and forth. The adept cook moves back and forth between the recipe and the pudding.
As you consider our culture, our nation, our society, and all the lunatic follies that beset us in it, it is tempting to despair, thinking that there is nothing really that we can do. You find yourself asking, “Where are we going, and why are we in this hand-basket?” In that situation, what sort of resolutions should you make for 2012?
The resolution should in fact be this: live in koinonia-community. Love one another. Love the neighbors you know, and love the neighbor whose van is not yet unloaded. Talk about our community—it is not bragging. We didn’t do anything except get in the way. Ask God to have His Spirit get us out of the way. If we want reformation-fire to spread, it doesn’t much matter where it first ignites. Why not here?