19 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. 11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. 13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. 15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. 17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
The people of God are called to emulate God’s holiness. The word “holy” carries a bit of baggage, because it’s often linked to smug self-righteousness. Words like puritanical, legalistic, and pharisaical are offered as synonyms. When it comes to the holiness code detailed in Leviticus, we tend to think in terms of ritual purity, rather than in terms of calls for compassion and service. Then we come to Leviticus 19, which calls for the people of God to be holy, even as God is holy. Here holiness is spoken of in terms of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Indeed, Jesus draws the second great command from Leviticus 19:18—the first command, the call to love God with one’s entire being is drawn from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Matt. 22:34-40). So, perhaps we need rethink our understanding of holiness.
The Old Testament reading for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year A) includes the call to holiness, and then moves to the social implications of this call to holiness. It is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we visit Leviticus, and that is only if the season extends to at least seven weeks. Thus, we might be missing out on important words from scripture.
The selection begins with the call to be holy, but ends with a call to love one’s neighbor. These two bookends are important, because they suggest that Torah (Law, Teaching) connects love and holiness. It is a reminder that grace and love are present in scripture prior to the New Testament. Jesus did not invent grace, he simply offered us a new way of understanding that biblical vision. In fact, his own vision of human relationships, especially as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, is formed by what we read here in Leviticus 19.
Because Leviticus is understood to be a book of rules and regulations, Christians tend to avoid it. It presents us with too many problems, so we go elsewhere for inspiration and guidance. Nonetheless, there is much wisdom to be found in the book’s instructions on what it means to be holy as God is holy (Jesus picks up on this call to holiness in the Sermon on the Mount, with the rendering in Matthew 5 speaking of being perfect as God is perfect—Matthew 5:48). So, what does it mean to be holy as God is holy?
Leviticus 19 provides us with a collection of instructions. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that “imitation of God is manifest primarily in responsible actions toward the vulnerable” [Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary, (WJK Books), p. 23]. This call to care for the “least of these” is rooted in the biblical vision of God’s nature, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The lectionary reading omits the opening section of Leviticus 19 (vss. 3-8), which focuses on revering parents and honoring God. Instead, it jumps to the second section of the chapter, which offers us a vision of “holiness in neighborliness” [Walter Kaiser, “Leviticus,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press), 1:131]. It is a word of instruction regarding social ethics. These instructions remind us that religion not only speaks to the divine-human relationship, but also has implications for the way in which we conduct ourselves in public. Each section or paragraph closes with the refrain: “I am the Lord.” It is a reminder that the way in which we conduct our lives is a reflection on the Lord (YHWH) our Creator.
With the United States in the midst of a debate about immigration and refugee status, the opening paragraph is instructive. The author instructs Israel’s farmers to make portions of their fields and vineyards available to the poor and the alien. In an agrarian economy, this is essentially a government imposed safety net. Why? Because “I am the Lord your God.”
The commands move on from caring for the alien, the foreigner, to other areas of concern. Holiness is more than ritual purity. It has community implications. There are calls to refrain from stealing, defrauding one’s neighbor, lying to one another, bearing false witness. There is a call to respect persons with disabilities—the deaf and the blind. It is instructive that this particular word of guidance is accompanied by a call to fear God. This is a word that churches might want to heed, as they consider ways of responding to those with disabilities. What obstacles do we put in the way of people who seek to come and worship?
There is a call for judges to be fair and impartial. This word is interesting because judges are not to distinguish between poor and rich. This word seems to stand in contrast with the idea that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” It would seem from this reading, that God doesn’t prefer the poor or the rich, but God judges each equally. It is justice that must be served. But, I wonder how we should read this passage. On the surface, it would seem that the judicial system should make no allowance for the poor, but is that the point? As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, “in our times perhaps we should say that the poor should be provided with lawyers as able as those whom the rich can afford” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 24]. Even if we affirm God’s preferential option for the poor, this is not to say that God has no concern about the welfare of the wealthy. God is God of all people, rich and poor.
At a time when “hate” seems strong in our midst, it is important to hear the call to not hate our kin. It is important that we not try to gain vengeance. It’s okay to reprove our neighbor, though I would caution great care. It’s easy to become “judgmental” and a meddler. Still, if we can, we should help our neighbors get back on track.
We began with a command to be holy, and we end with a command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—what is often called the Golden Rule. It is worth noting, especially at this time and place in history, that if we continue reading down in Leviticus 19, that the people of Israel should “love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). This broadens out what is meant in scripture by loving one’s neighbor as one self. Allen and Williamson note that this command, to love the alien is repeated thirty-six times in Scripture, suggesting, at least by repetition, that “it is the most important commandment in the Torah” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 25].
While we might not find every word in Leviticus appropriate to our time, these are important words that do reflect the message of grace and compassion that are present throughout scripture. They reflect the covenant commission given to Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants that peoples of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).