Bold Christians

October 29, 2023
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22: 34-46

Our congregational “theme” for this year is “grow boldly.” While I hope we are always growing, it is the “boldly” that intrigues me today. Boldness is not necessarily something that is always seen as positive. As humble Anabaptists we might be a bit suspicious of people that are too bold, that draw attention to themselves, that live life too loudly, always in bold font.

I wonder what it might look like to be a bold Christian, in these days, in this country where Christianity and nationalism are so often intertwined. In some circles, people loudly proclaiming themselves Christian are the only ones considered trustworthy. On the other hand, some of my friends are so disdainful of Christians, I am not always sure if they can tolerate associating with me, a Christian pastor. Can I, can we, be so bold as to claim the name Christian when it sometimes feels like this country is at war with itself over religion and politics? Can we be so bold as to read a text from Leviticus, from the Jewish tradition, in this heartwrenching time of war in Israel and Gaza?

Leviticus is a daunting, perhaps even off-putting, book of the bible. Leviticus is part of the torah, the first five books of the bible. It is the law as spoken to Moses. While the law doesn’t tell the people what to believe, it is explicit about how to practice faith ritually, how to live a moral life. Perhaps the idea is that in living out the law we find our way into belief. Perhaps belief isn’t as important as we have been lead to believe.

We might squirm at what seem like outdated, strange, cultural “laws” in Leviticus – especially around women, sexuality and food practices. But this is all part of the law that Jesus knows well and quotes as he teaches and interacts with religious leaders, with his followers. As Anabaptists, we try to understand Jesus’ teachings and we take them to heart. So we can’t totally set Leviticus aside – even though it might be troubling. Let’s be bold.

This particular pericope, or passage, is carefully chosen by the lectionary creators for the Sunday morning family crowd. You will notice that we heard, Leviticus 19:1-2, skipped verses 3-14 which are about sacrificial offerings, harvesting justly and paying fair wages, among other topics. Then we heard verses 15-18. The conclusion of the chapter has instructions on animal breeding, sex with enslaved people and not eating from the fruit trees until the fifth year – among other commandments. There are some laws at the end of this chapter that one would hope would be obvious (don’t sell your children into prostitution.) Chapter 19 contains other laws that remain relevant, thousands of years after they were recorded: Respect the elderly, do not mistreat foreigners, do not cheat.

We might not take all of Leviticus to heart but we probably do know one verse well. Indeed, Jesus quotes the familiar law from Leviticus in the passage from Matthew 22 that we heard this morning – You must love your neighbor as yourself. Or as Martin Buber and Frank Rosenzweig translate it: Be loving toward your neighbor as one who is like yourself. (footnote in Egalitarian Bible)

When Jesus is asked this trick question by the Pharisees, which is the greatest commandment, Jesus is bold to choose two commandments. He understands that you can not have one without the other. The other part of the law that Jesus quotes in Matthew 22 comes from a different part of the torah, Deuteronomy 6:5 – You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

In my 21st century way, I tend to rephrase this familiar formula by saying “Love God with mind, body, and spirit.” This slight change makes sense with how I think about life and health and faith: mind, body, spirit. But I learned something this week from the footnotes in the Egalitarian bible (though I can’t seem to find it elsewhere.) The word that is usually translated “strength or might” can also be translated “wealth or substance.” Whoa. That sounds very specific: Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your wealth.

(I would really rather not explore the idea of this alternate translation; it’s just too messy and challenging and it gets kind of personal, in the way that money and wealth get personal. I will tell you, that as I was reading the footnote about the different ways to translate strength and wealth, an email came in. A local mother and adult daughter saying they need money because they are in danger of losing their apartment. This on top of a woman and her adult son with disabilities, who stopped by the church two days earlier, needing help so they could stop living out of their car. What does it mean to love God with our heart, soul and wealth? What does it look like to love our neighbor as one who is like ourself? This is a very real and practical question of faith.)

I don’t know Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. So maybe some of you can help with original languages. This choice to translate this word as strength rather than wealth in the bibles that we read, intrigues me. I invite you to join me down a biblical rabbit hole or perhaps it is a treasure hunt. You might want to pull out the pew bibles or find the bible app on your phone.

In Matthew 22:37, which we heard today, Jesus quotes the law from Deuteronomy 6:5 – love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Curiously, Matthew doesn’t actually use “strength or might” like in Deuteronomy. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.

I wonder why. If the word that is usually translated “strength or might” can also be translated wealth, I wonder what the writer of Matthew is doing here. I wonder how Matthew gets from “strength” to “mind.” How does the writer of Matthew read Deuteronomy?

This is not a systematic rabbit hole, not a systematic treasure hunt – but this substitution (or perhaps expansion) of the word “strength” to the word “mind” leads me to some other observations about Matthew’s gospel.

In the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:3) Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in Spirit. In Luke’s version, the sermon on the plain (Luke 6:4), Jesus says, Blessed are the poor for yours is the kindom of heaven. Matthew has “poor in Spirit” and Luke has blessed are the poor, full stop. Matthew (5:6) goes on: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. Luke (6:21) reads: Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Isn’t that curious? Is Matthew more spiritual? Is Luke more earthy and immediate? (I don’t have answers, I am just boldly making observations and asking questions.)

The story of Jesus answering this question what is the greatest commandment? is not unique to Matthew’s gospel. The gospel writers of Mark and Luke also depict scenes where Jesus teaches about the greatest commandment. In Mark 12:30 Jesus’ response to the question is: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. There we have heart, soul, mind, strength. Similarly, in Luke 10:27 when asked about the most important law, Jesus says “love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.” How did “mind” get inserted there? Had this become a new way to understand what it means to be complete and whole? Heart, soul, mind and strength. Is adding “mind” a nod to wisdom, is that some Greek influence? How is it that Luke and Mark and add mind” to the list of what it means to love fully while Matthew adds “mind” and omits “strength.”

Could Matthew be intentionally leaving out “strength?” Tradition tells us, and the gospel of Matthew itself says in 10:3 that Matthew was a tax collector. Matthew was used to being around money – even if he was collecting it for the Roman government. It certainly wouldn’t be unusual to skim a bit off the top for his own use. He was probably used to having more money than the poor fisherman, Peter, Andrew, James and John, that Jesus also calls as disciples.

This is all conjecture of course, but it makes me wonder; does Matthew, who probably has some money, deliberately leave out “love God with all your strength/might/wealth?” Is the writer of Matthew letting himself off the hook in a way? Loving with the mind, with the intellect, rather than strength? Is this a move from the law of how to behave (in Leviticus) to what to believe, how to think? Love with the mind?

I am sure I am overthinking all of this, down here in the rabbit hole. Whether we say heart, soul, mind, or include strength, the point is to love God with the whole self. But it does makes me wonder how those of us who are pretty heady, mind-oriented folks, what is the whole self for us? What about those of us who have fairly easy access to money, what is the whole self for us? What about those of us who have a hard time loving our own selves? What is the whole self that loves God?

The other option in translation instead of wealth or strength is “substance.” Perhaps “substance” is the body that acts out the law, that follows the commandments, that in the Jewish tradition, doesn’t worry so much about belief but about right living. Perhaps that is loving God with heart and soul and mind and “strength.” Right living.

I thought this sermon was going to be about being a bold Christian in the face of Christian Nationalism. But living out the fullness of loving God and loving neighbor is pretty bold in itself. Maybe that kind of living is being a bold Christian.

(As I gave the children a blessing for new energy, I give one to us as well)
May we continue to seek ways to grow boldly into loving God and loving neighbor – with heart, soul, mind and strength.