Most of the teachings of Jesus flow directly from the traditions and teachings of Judaism. Although there are many attempts to play off one testament against another, the fact remains that the same God stands behind both.
Leviticus lays the foundation for human behaviour based on divine law. The children of Israel were not to harbour hatred in their hearts towards one another, nor to bear grudges or seek vengeance. They were to love their neighbour as themselves.
Love meant loyalty, kindness, compassionate concern and material care. Why were they commanded to do this? God is holy, and God commanded them to be holy as God is. Holy meant being set apart, so the intent was that they be less like others and more like the God whom they worshipped.
Whenever Israel remembered and observed this commandment, they flourished, enjoying peace and prosperity. But when the commandment slipped away from the consciousness of the people, decay, decline and ultimate disaster usually followed.
The commandment is not just something nice to do, it is essential for healthy and humane community life. From the very beginning, those called by God have also been called to imitate God as much as humanly possible in their attitudes, deeds and interactions with other people.
God has never been content with mere worship. Indeed, our tradition has always said that God has no need of anything. Despite that, people tend to give God gifts and favours that God never requested and does not want. Pure and simple, God wants us to be just and compassionate.
In the chaotic times in which we live, often we have little control over the actions of institutions and governments. However, as individuals and as church communities, we can be an example for our times by the way we treat one another. Leviticus’ commandment is as valid today as when it was written, perhaps even more so.
Paul viewed the community as the temple and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and as such it needed to be kept holy and pure. But there were those who divided the community into factions by their posturing, arrogance and backbiting.
As far as Paul was concerned, dividing and destroying the unity and peace of the community was an act of sacrilege. It rendered the community unfit as a dwelling place of the Spirit of God. We should treat the unity and well-being of every community of which we are a part as if it were sacred.
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was originally intended as a principle of proportionality to limit vengeance and violence. Unfortunately, it was often taken as a license to exact revenge. As Gandhi observed, living by this principle results in the whole world being toothless and blind.
This passage is one of the most difficult in the New Testament for it seems to set superhuman demands for followers of Jesus. It is not a call for spineless, cringing passivity — far from it. One must resist, but using the divine tools given to us by Jesus. Defiant non-violence is one of the most effective tools around, but it requires patience, perseverance and courage.
Jesus continued the theme of mirroring God in human lives and even amplified the teaching. God is impartial, just and compassionate, granting blessings and compassion to all, regardless of what group they belong to or whether they are “deserving” or not.
God’s love is not a reward for good behaviour or a sign of correct membership. Loving one’s enemies sounds impossible, but if we understand love as unceasing kindness, forgiveness, justice and decency, it is attainable. Loving those who love us in return is easy, but loving those who are busy spewing hatred and negativity is the path of true discipleship.
It is something far greater — it is the only way that our world will be transformed and healed. Jesus adds something important: it is only by the nature and quality of our love that others will be able to determine that we are truly children of God.
Being perfect as God is perfect is setting no limits or conditions to our love.