Law and Love – Don’t mess me ’round

This week I was listening to CBC radio one the afternoon, and the program was Shift with Tom Allen. Tom was at his witty and conversational best that afternoon. As you may know, Shift is the CBC program that makes the transition from classical music in the first part of the day to rock or independent pop music late in the afternoon. So at the beginning of the program you are likely to hear movements from a Beethoven symphony or violin concerto by Bartok. But by the end of the program you are likely to hear R.E.M. or Arcade Fire or Sarah Harmer.

And when I was listening to Shift toward the end of the program, Tom Allen introduced a song by telling a story about about visiting friends of his who own a guesthouse in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. These friends had a problem with bears in the spring, when the bears would come out of hibernation and would be hungry and on the prowl for food. The bears would show up around the guesthouse, trying to get into the garbage, scrounging for food. And so his friends had to chase away the bears – scare them off on a regular basis. One morning that he was there, and there was a bear out near the garbage area, they asked Tom if he wanted to give a try at scaring the bear away. And so he agreed – he went out on the porch and started shouting at the bear, yelling at that bear to get away. The bear didn’t even look up – this screaming city boy wasn’t going to startle a bear enough to send it running. Sort of like us with our raccoons, I suppose – you yell at them, and they just kind of look up at you like, “What’s your problem?”

But at that point, the woman who owned the guesthouse with her husband took over. She took a can of tomatoes with her, threw it at the bear, and shouted at the bear with an intensity and volume that Tom Allen just could not muster. And when the bear saw the tomatoes fly, and heard this woman deploying her vocal cords, it took off running.

Well this story was Tom’s way of introducing a song by the British singer-songwriter Clare Maguire – she has a great big voice – a voice approaching the bigness of Adele’s. Or even more, perhaps, like that of the late Amy Winehouse.

Clare Maguire has this big voice, and the song that that Tom Allen was introducing with the story of the bear was a song entitled “Don’t mess me ‘round.” It was released just a couple of weeks ago. The song has a great, catchy pop rhythm – but above all it is shaped by a gritty and powerful feel of blues. When Maguire sings, there is a strength of personality, a bigness of personality that comes through the whole song – especially the refrain – which offers the same words as the song’s title “Don’t mess me ‘round.”

The song is about a relationship that has gone bad. The song is a kind of gritty and strong and personal response to a man who has been less than open and respectful – to someone who has been less than faithful. And the refrain is essentially saying: “Don’t treat me like this; you can’t treat me like this; I won’t let you treat me like this.” Don’t mess me ‘round. If you might be into this kind of music it’s worth looking for it – it’s widely available now online.

But how do we get from this big-voiced, bluesy British singer to our bible passage for today from Leviticus – chapter 19 – this passage that is a list of laws, rules, commands. At one level, it feels kind of sterile if we just pick up the bible and read this passage.

But one of the interesting features of Leviticus chapter 19 is that it has a refrain that is repeated again and again throughout – in the same way that Clare Maguire’s song has refrain repeated again and again. In fact, the refrain of Leviticus chapter 19 is repeated a total of 15 times in that chapter. The writer will give a series of commands, and then the refrain is repeated. A few more laws are identified, and the refrain is repeated, A few more laws, and the refrain is repeated.

Don’t steal or tell lies or cheat others.

I am the Lord your God.

Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep.

I am the Lord your God.

Don’t hold grudges.

I am the Lord your God.

Don’t gossip about others.

I am the Lord your God.

Don’t take advantage of those who are weak.

I am the Lord your God.

This past week as I was looking ahead to Sunday, I had this passage of scripture in my mind – these words rumbling around in my mind – that refrain repeating itself in my heart and soul. And in the middle of this week I also heard that song by Claire Maguire played on the radio. And I couldn’t help but link these two pieces of poetry. I began to think to myself that we really need to hear that refrain of Leviticus 19 spoken with the same degree of intensity and grittiness and personality with which Maguire sings her refrain: Don’t mess me ‘round.

Don’t mess me ‘round.

I am the Lord your God.

Let the voice of God this morning be the voice of a strong, big-voiced woman that says with bluesy intensity and with grit and volume and command. I am the Lord your God. Don’t mess me ‘round.

Now right away we will almost certainly run into some resistance here – resistance in our own hearts and minds – resistance that is rooted in a whole cultural history in the west. Within ourselves and within our culture there is a deep and ever-deeper resistance to any linking of religion and law. Almost instinctively today, we don’t want a religion of law. We don’t want a God who gives laws. We don’t want to be told what to do. We don’t want a God who gives us commands in any way shape or form. There is an entirely negative conception of Christian faith when it is linked to a series of commands – to a series of statements “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” And that is especially the case if those commands are backdropped by a voice, whether it be a woman’s or a man’s, that declares: “I am the Lord your God. Don’t mess me ‘round.”

Culturally speaking, we prefer a religion – we prefer a Christian faith – that essentially lets us be who we are, and that leads us toward a life that is fulfilled and meaningful – essentially a life of happiness and peace and comfort. Of course when we think about religion, when we think faith in our contemporary context, we also want to be good and kind people, and we want to be on the receiving end of goodness and kindness. But religion or Christian faith thought of as obedience to the commands of God is considered backward and retrogressive and almost offensive. We especially think this way when it comes to the question of people new to faith or the church – it’s assumed the absolute last thing that anyone will want to hear is a list of commands.

But it seems to me that both the song by Clare Maguire, and scriptural text, push back against this logic – both our text and the song by Maguire push back against our resistance to rules and our refusal of laws. Maguire’s song is essentially a complaint and a command – don’t mess me ‘round. Or the song is a series of commands:

Don’t lie to me.

Don’t treat me like an object.

Don’t cheat on me.

Be honest with me.

Those are the rules. Obey them.

There are beautiful ways of living and relating that are to be celebrated and elevated – and there are ugly and harmful ways of living that we should resist and refuse and deny. The point is: that in our everyday lives we live with the reality of commands; and depend on the reality of commands – in our everyday language we use the imperative language of commands. Of course that’s not the only way we can speak about the lives to which we are called – and it’s not the only way to invite one another to lives that are truly human.

Sometimes we say: “Let’s foster a relationship that is built on the honesty and transparency.” But sometimes we need to say, “Don’t lie to me.”

Sometimes we can say: “We can flourish together in community if we support one another in our particular weaknesses.” But sometimes we need to say: “Don’t take advantage of him.”

Sometimes we say: “When we treat each other as subjects with our own intentions and our own ideas, we honour the image of God in each other.” But sometimes we need to say, “Don’t treat her like an object.”

In our everyday lives and our everyday relationships we rely on this kind of language – in fact it is very difficult to imagine living with out it. And if in our everyday lives we use this language of should and must and don’t – then is it any surprise that this kind of language, the language of law, finds a central place in God’s relationship with his people. Again, this is not the only way we can speak about the lives to which God invites us and how to get there – but this language is one fundamental way we need to talk about our lives in relation to God, or God in relation to our lives.

There is one command in this passage from Leviticus that we will probably have recognized almost immediately. We will have recognized it because it’s the same fundamental law that Jesus will much later extend to his followers and all those who would live in his resurrection life with him: “Love others as much as you love yourself.” Yes, the love command of Jesus finds its origins in the Old Testament – and not only in the Old Testament but in what is perhaps the most avoided book of the Old Testament – in Leviticus. “Love others as much as you love yourselves.” Or as Jesus puts it, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

And once again, there are other ways that this possibility of a loving relationship with our neighbours can be encouraged. Jesus encourages such relationships through the telling of stories – he encourages such relationships by embodying certain practices for us to see. But sometimes he also uses the language of command – the language of “thou shalt” – the same language that is common in the laws of Leviticus. And he even uses it in relation to love. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Many of the other commandments we have read in Leviticus 19 are commands that give substance to the love command. Especially in our culture we know that love can mean many different things – it can be a vacuous concept. But the commands of Jesus and Leviticus are a way of filling out what exactly it means to love others. These laws challenge us and command us to live in the ways of transparency and honesty and compassion and justice. Appealing back to the language of that Clare Maguire song, perhaps we could read each of these commands in Leviticus 19 as a command not to mess our neighbours around.

Your neighbours who deserve your honesty and respect – don’t mess them ‘round by lying to them or cheating them or gossiping about them.

The poor are owed a share of the produce of your land – don’t mess them ‘round by taking all of the produce out of your fields, thereby leaving them hungry.

If there are people against who you are inclined to seek violent revenge – don’t mess them ‘round by letting your anger get the better of you.

There are friends of yours who need a word of correction and help – don’t mess them ‘round by keeping silent when you could speak up for truth and beauty in their lives.

There are individuals who have special needs and who face challenges in daily living – don’t mess them ‘round by putting up roadblocks to their success and wellbeing.

These commands meet us very much where we are in our daily lives – they meet us so directly. We may need to adjust the language slightly for our time and context – but these commands to honesty and justice and compassion and truth-telling and integrity – these are straightforward commands that find direct application in our lives.

Finally a quick work about the refrain of Leviticus 19, a refrain that reminds us where these commands are rooted – where they come from – what gives them their substance and meaning for our lives: I am the Lord your God.

This refrain reminds us that law is ultimately rooted in God. The laws that govern our individual and shared lives must be based on so much more than just the wishful thinking of particular individuals or legislators. And the laws that govern our individual and shared lives are based on so much more than just the latest version common sense offered by our culture. These laws of Leviticus 19 are rooted in the God of covenant and creation – who gives us our lives and who gives us the terms under which those lives may be lived beautifully and meaningfully in relation to God and each other.

I am the Lord your God.

Don’t mess each other ‘round.

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

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