If the quotation from Deuteronomy conjures up a wider context, does Jesus other statement, about loving one’s neighbor as one loves self, which is taken from Leviticus, do the same? Based upon what we know about the way that the narrative functions, we would be surprised if it did not. Just as we were not disappointed when we turned to Deuteronomy, turning to Leviticus again disparages disappointment. When Jesus speaks these words, He is quoting from the eighteenth verse of the nineteenth chapter. As we examine what is to be found in the preceding verses, we are almost stunned at what we find. Beginning in the eleventh verse, and quoting extensively (always remembering that calling to mind a larger section of Scripture, understood within Israel’s history, is the function of an isolated quotation), we read “You must not steal, you must not tell lies, and you must not deal falsely with your fellow citizen. You must not swear falsely in My name, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. You must not oppress your neighbor or commit robbery against him. You must not withhold the wages of the hired laborer overnight until morning” (19:11-13). This last part, concerning the laborers, is of even greater interest if this entire section is being called to mind, taking on a more interesting dimension and revealing Jesus’ and Matthew’s theological genius, as Matthew, just before Jesus’ triumphal entry, records Jesus’ telling of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, which begins with “For the kingdom of heaven is like...” (Matthew 20:1a). We are reminded that land, Temple, and kingdom are inseparably bound.
Continuing in Leviticus: “You must not curse a deaf person or put a stumbling block in front of a blind person. You must fear your God; I am the Lord. You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly. You must not go about as a slanderer among your people. You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord. You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him. You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:14-18). Now, we can all agree that this does in fact delineate the way in which the people of God should strive to live, and it would be wonderful to insist that Jesus was speaking in such a way so as to encourage His people (then and now) to live in such a way. Certainly that is part of what He is doing, but considering the setting, we know it reaches beyond that. Does this not remind us of something that Jesus has already said? Does this not remind us of a narrative that has been called to mind by what Jesus said? It should.
Let’s back up and look at what happened when Jesus entered the Temple. He “drove out all those who were selling and buying in the Temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are turning it into a den of robbers!’” (21:12b-13) Then, “The blind and the lame came to Him in the Temple courts, and He healed them” (21:14). This forces us to look to Jeremiah, from which Jesus’ words of judgment are lifted, where we can see the Levitical parallels (and stand amazed at all that is going on in Jesus’ words and Matthew’s record) when we read “Change the way you have been living and do what is right. If you do, I will allow you to continue to live in this land” (7:3b). Notice the connection here made between land and Temple. “Stop putting your confidence in the false belief that says, ‘We are safe! The Temple of the Lord is here! The Temple of the Lord is here! The temple of the Lord is here!’ You must change the way you have been living and do what is right. You must treat one another fairly. Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands. Stop killing innocent people in this land. Stop paying allegiance to other gods. That will only bring about your ruin” (7:4-6). Here, we can make note that the Deuteronomy reference flows into a concern that Israel not fall into idolatry---worshiping the gods of the people of the land to which the Lord is bringing them. Continuing in Jeremiah: “If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in this land which I gave to your ancestors as a lasting possession,” as we note the land and Temple dynamic (7:7).
Jeremiah continues: “But just look at you! You are putting your confidence in a false belief that will not deliver you. You steal. Your murder. You commit adultery. You lie when you swear on oath. You sacrifice to the god Baal. You pay allegiance to other gods whom you have not previously known. Then you come and stand in My presence in this Temple I have claimed as My own and say, ‘We are safe!’ You think you are so safe that you go on doing all those hateful sins! Do you think this Temple I have claimed as My own is to be a hideout for robbers?” (7:8-11a) So not only has Jesus made reference, while dramatically acting in the Temple, to the whole of this section of Jeremiah’s seventh chapter, situated as it is within Israel’s history, its collective and active memory, and its understanding of past exiles and current subjugation to a foreign power, but He calls this to mind again, along with the Leviticus passage that Jeremiah seems to also have in mind, when He speaks about the demand to love neighbor as self. To clinch the argument that Jesus’ words are not to be disconnected from His ongoing and primary concern with the Temple, as demonstrated in Matthew, we also point out that this section of Leviticus basically begins with “When you sacrifice a peace offering sacrifice to the Lord, you must sacrifice it so that it is accepted for you” (19:5). The Temple, of course, was the place of sacrifice. It seems reasonable to insist that Jesus, as He acts and speaks at and around the Temple, wants and expects these thoughts and ideas to be swirling in the air and in the minds of His hearers, as does the author of the story.