by Bishop Geoff Davies, South Africa
The Greatest Commandment – Love your neighbour
How do the Scriptures, written two to three thousand years ago, relate to our lives and our lifestyle in today’s world, described as the Anthropocene, where we humans dominate life on this planet?
What does Scripture say in the face of self-centred power politics and corruption? Of greed and increasing inequality on the planet? Of the domination of economic growth over human and planetary well-being? Of environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale, bringing about the sixth great extinction, with over 50% of species threatened with extinction? What does Scripture say about mounting mountains of plastic, entering our food chain and poisoning both the natural environment and people?
With global warming bringing about climate disruption, change in weather patterns, increased weather extremes with droughts, floods, hurricanes and cyclones reaching new levels of intensity, what does Scripture say? With deforestation bringing about the destruction of the lungs of the planet, with marine stocks plummeting and the very future of life at stake, can we find the wisdom and guidance needed from our Scriptures?
Comments on Exodus 12: 1 – 14
The Passover is a key event in the history of the people of Israel and the salvation of God’s people. Some amazing natural and supernatural events failed to convince the Egyptians to let the Israelites go. Even after they left, the Egyptians tried to capture them again. But God had a plan for the Israelites, apart from liberating them., which was to set up a new society based on ethical principles. During the Israelites time in the Wilderness God gave us the Ten Commandments to guide our behaviour and show us the way to living in peace and harmony.
Note that of the Ten Commandments, only the first four deal with our relationship with God. The remaining six provide essential principles for our behaviour with the one another – and we know how devastating and disrupting to our social and personal well-being transgressions of any of those six Commandments can be. Yet we know we continue to fail to follow or obey them.
The last of the Psalms in the Psalter are all praise Psalms to God. Praise for God’s help; Praise for God’s care for Jerusalem; Praise for God’s Universal Glory (Psalm 148); Praise for God’s Goodness to Israel (Psalm 149) and Praise for God’s Surpassing Greatness (Psalm 150).
I like to read Psalm 149 in conjunction with Psalm 148 where we hear not only people but all of Creation praising God. Praise comes to God from the highest heavens, from the Sun and Moon from the Earth and the deeps of the sea, from the mountains and hills, from fruit trees and Cedars, from wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, kings of the earth and all peoples.
Psalm 149 continues the praise, now from Israel and the children of Zion. But it ends with the disturbing hope that Israel’s praise of God may be “two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples”. We must remember that the Psalms were written long before the coming of Christ and use words which we would not wish to use though we may pray for the end of those who perpetrate evil!
It could be that Israel saw that it should discipline and judge the nations and peoples who transgressed God’s commandments and strove against Israel, who were the bearers of God’s commandments.
Romans 13: 8-14
This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is an extremely important passage in examining how we Christians should respond to God’s plan for us in this beautiful world that God has brought into being.
This follows the opening verses of Chapter 13, where Paul tells us that every person should “be subject to the governing authorities”. These verses were notoriously used and quoted by the Apartheid government of South Africa and continue to be used by authoritarian and undemocratic governments to justify their unjust and often corrupt rule.
It was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town at the time, Bill Burnett, who stated that we could not be subject to the governing authorities if these authorities were not being obedient to God. Globally we are seeing the younger generation rising up in protest and civil disobedience, with the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests, speaking out about climate change.
Paul then quotes four of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and concludes that all the commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself……..Love is the fulfilling of the law”. (Verses 8 to 12).
Matthew 18: 15 – 20.
This passage continues the theme of God’s people being obedient and of keeping God’s Commandments.
It follows the parable of the lost sheep that “it is not the will of our Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Verse 14)
But then we hear how we should react “if your brother”, a member of the Christian Church sins? “Against you” is a later addition, so it is raising the question of how we should react to a member of the Christian community or church who has sinned.
This shows the early church community, who were Jewish converts, grappling with the issue, so if a member does sin, members of the community should take action. If he listens, you have saved a brother and restored him to the flock or family of the church.
If he does not listen, he will be excluded from the church in the way tax collectors and Gentiles were excluded from the synagogue. It showed that a Christian community should act if “a brother” sins. It is clear that there should be discipline and disciplinary action by the faith community.
“Whatever are you binding on Earth will be bound in heaven”, denotes the relationship between Earth and Heaven, the church and God. The prayer of two who are in agreement will be heard and answered by God.
Interpreting the Word
Consider how transgressing the Commandments can be so disruptive to trust and living peacefully in society.
Far from worshipping God alone, we worship mammon – money – and we idolise our consumer goods, be they our latest automobile, or jewellery or fashion clothes. The fourth commandment is a combination of our relationship with God and our behaviour to one another. We have quite largely abandoned keeping the Sabbath holy when you consider that Sunday is now the most popular of shopping days. But this denies some people a Sabbath day rest as people have to work and run transport systems, yet it is well-known that a day’s rest is essential for both physical, mental and spiritual well-being. It is another indicator that our present day world considers commerce and wealth to be more important than well-being.
We continue to steal as we see corruption occurring on a massive scale in our contemporary world. We continue to kill and fail to recognise the sanctity of life, given the violence in our societies and conflicts in our world with weapons of mass destruction. We don’t trust in God and in establishing God’s justice. We trust in our guns.
We don’t speak the truth, but bear false witness, particularly in politics. The tenth commandment might seem to be the most innocuous, yet our present economic system encourages and drives us to covet, increasing inequalities in our world.
“Love your neighbour as yourself…Love is the fulfilling of the law”.
In our modern society we need to ask ourselves – who is my neighbour? Our neighbours are the people who live downstream of our waste. Our neighbours are those who are impacted by climate change because of our choices of energy or investment income. Our neighbours are the generations to come who will live on a bleak and barren world because of our consumerist society. Our neighbours are also the many living creatures who make up the web of life on which we depend and which God has called us to safeguard.
We are faced with a new theological question for our time – how do we respond to Church members who are sinning against God’s Creation? For a long time the Church has focussed on individual sins, particularly sexual sins. And yet our lifestyle is destroying the web of life and hurting the most vulnerable of society.
The Patriarch of the Orthodox church says this:
“We have traditionally regarded sin as being merely what people do to other people. Yet, for human beings to destroy the biological diversity in God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by contributing to climate change, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, land and air – all of these are sins.”
The question is deep – how do we challenge our brothers and sisters in Christ to stop sinning against Creation and the generations to come?
Preaching the Word
How do we love our neighbour in the current ecological crisis? For too long the churches theology, preaching and ministry has been involved in ambulance work, seeking to heal the damage done by self-centred misbehaviour. We know that we must feed the hungry – but the question today is “how do we stop people from becoming hungry?” How do we establish justice and equity for people and all of life? There is enough on this planet for our needs, but not enough for our greed. The destruction of planetary life is not God’s will. This must be loudly proclaimed from every pulpit and Bible study around the world. Environmental care must become a priority.
The church in the past has been apprehensive that in caring for nature we might be accused of Pantheism – that is the worship of nature. What is needed is Panentheism, that is “God in everything”. All life is sacred and we must recognise that we are inextricably part of the rest of life, part of the web of life. In the extinction which we humans are bringing about, we are unravelling this web of life which is leading to our own demise.
This is not God’s will. There are those who say they wish to hasten the second coming of Jesus. That can only be in God’s time. As it is, it is we humans who are now bringing about “the end of the world” as we understand life on this planet. This is not God’s plan. Let us recognise the need for urgent action to care for Life.
Living the Word
We are commanded to love our neighbour, the vulnerable, the future generations and the whole web of life. To do so, we must consciously seek to live in harmony with God, one another and the natural world. And we must be an example to all of humanity that we must stop being so selfish in the way we treat nature and our fellow human beings.
Encourage your worshipping community to establish an Eco-Congregation, so you may keep informed about social and environmental issues, and develop a voice to encourage political authorities, locally and nationally, to recognise their environmental responsibilities and to take appropriate action. By establishing Eco-Justice, that is ecological and economic justice, we shall overcome the huge inequality and poverty existing in our world today.
Forty percent of food is wasted every day while two and a half billion people go hungry. Examine your life style and commit to reducing food waste.
We must establish natural reserves, both on land and in the oceans, so that all God’s creation can not only survive but thrive. Connect with your nearest reserve, grow indigenous plants. Don’t use pesticides that destroy biodiversity.
Don’t litter – it is a contemporary form of blasphemy, so much for your world God as we throw our plastic out of the car window. Campaign for the end of all plastic packaging and advocate for responsible, returnable containers.
Advocate for the end of fossil fuels. We have been given all the energy we need through renewable energy resources. It is blowing in the wind and shining on us daily.
Insist on sustainable fishing practices.
Reduce your meat consumption. Modern meat production is both cruel and a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions.
Resolving the ecological crisis of our planet, however, is no longer a problem we can leave to the scientists. Just as we are all part of the problem, so we are all also part of the solution. We all need to come to terms with the forces that have created this crisis and the resources within our traditions that can motivate us to resolve the crisis. One of those traditions is our biblical heritage.[i] Archbishop Tutu
In the words of Pope Francis, let us hear the “Cry of the poor and the Cry of the Earth’ and commit to loving our neighbour.
by Bishop Geoff Davies, South Africa
Norman C, Habel & Vicky Balabanski; The Earth Bible Volume Five (Sheffield Academic Press and The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland Ohio, 2002)
A E Harvey, Companion to the New Testament (Oxford/Cambridge)
J C Fenton, Saint Matthew; (The Pelican Gospel Commentaries)
[i] Earth Bible, volume Five “The Earth story in the New Testament”.