Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.
15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 16 Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the LORD. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD. (CEB)
Leviticus isn’t a book we come across very often in the lectionary. It’s only used twice and, both times, it’s nearly the same text. The only other instance adds verses 9-14 to what we just read. I mean, we read the book of Numbers more than Leviticus (a grand total of 3 times in the regular weekly lections), and that’s the book that most people find downright impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, Well, I tried to read the Bible all the way through, but I got stuck at Numbers. Yet, the lectionary includes it more than Leviticus.
Part of our problem with Leviticus might be that it’s a very Jewish book. It’s full of stuff about the Law that some Christians view as mostly irrelevant, save for one or two specific proof-texts they might jump to. We like the prophets but, aside from the Ten Commandments, we Christians don’t typically care much for the law. And by that, I mean we don’t often read it or engage with it.
Yet, the Law is incredibly relevant. Any interpreter of the New Testament has to know the Law. Otherwise, they’ll miss the point of most of what’s said in the New Testament. Every Christian knows the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 19:19; 22:39) but he didn’t come up with it on his own. He got it from Leviticus 19. So did Paul, when he quoted those words in Romans 13:9, and Galatians 5:4. So did James, when he quoted them in James 2:8.
Leviticus 19 is part of what’s called the Holiness Code that was written for all the people of Israel, not just the priests. God tells Moses, “Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2 CEB). So, what does a holy life require? What does it look like? How do we define it?
There are, actually, a couple of options. Both are found in the Scriptures. The first option focuses on maintaining purity. It means we keep ourselves separate from the things that might pollute, whether it has to do with mud and blood, death and decay, or things that get in the way of proper ritual and the rites of religious life. This pollution can affect individuals and, then, pollute our community, so we have to keep it away from us. Holiness, defined this way, depends on fencing others out, keeping apart from those whose ways are judged less than holy, or simply whose being is judged less than holy.
This is the path of Ezra, who dissolved all the marriages of Israelite men to foreign women and made them send their foreign wives and the children born of them away (c.f. Ezra 10). They thought they could be holy again by getting rid of everything foreign that might pollute their people. Nehemiah did the same thing.
He says of those who married foreign women: “Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of various peoples; they couldn’t speak the language of Judah. So I scolded them and cursed them, and beat some of them, and pulled out their hair.” Sounds like a super swell guy, right? “I also made them swear a solemn pledge in the name of God, saying, ‘You won’t give your daughters to their sons in marriage, or take their daughters in marriage for your sons or yourselves. Didn’t Israel’s King Solomon sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was well loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Yet foreign wives led even him into sin!’” (Neh. 13:24-26 CEB).
So, pulling a page out of Adam and Eve, Nehemiah blames the women for the fact that men chose to sin. (It honestly makes me roll my eyes every time). The idea was that, if they could separate themselves from the influence of foreign religions, practices, languages, and gods, then they would not be tempted to sin in the first place, therefore, they wouldn’t sin at all.
The second option for holiness focuses on crossing those very same boundaries that set people apart. It involves placing ourselves in the middle of the messiness so that we can call out unjust power structures, work to set wrongs to right, work at building deeply true relationships with those we consider “other,” and moving toward a right relationship with God. This is the path of Leviticus 19, which links holiness with seeking justice and demanding that we love our neighbor as our self.
It’s the path of Jesus who ate with publicly-known sinners, from tax-collectors to prostitutes. He called out the injustices of the religious power structures of his day. He stepped across the lines that those religious leaders and power brokers had so carefully constructed. And, instead of fencing out the marginalized, the rejected, the known sinners, the poor, the suffering, and the sick; Jesus went to them, healed them, accepted them, loved them, and made sure they knew that they were loved by God. In doing so, Jesus offered them the kingdom of Heaven.
Holiness is a word that properly defines God. God is holy, which means that God is many of the things mentioned about that first option of how to live out holiness. God is set apart. God is other, different. That’s why many Jews and Christians have walked the path of holiness that fences out what is impure or different from them.
But, the thing about God is that, when we try to neatly define what we think words like holiness should mean, God comes along and blurs those definitions until they break down, and are redefined to reflect what God actually means by them. In fact, eventually, God showed us God’s definition of holiness with something called the Incarnation. When it comes to holiness as God means it, it has nothing to do with staying separate.
God chose to be Immanuel: God With Us. God became a human being in the incarnation when the Son of God took on human flesh, was conceived, and born of a young Jewish woman named Mary. God chose to cross the boundaries of what fenced out pollution and sin for the exact purpose of living in the messiness, and the violence, and the despair, and the suffering of our world. God came down from heaven to be with us, and to call out the injustices of abusive power, of rampant greed, and of definitions of holiness that are a good deal less than holy.
You see, another word that properly defines God is love. We cannot have holiness apart from love. Apart from love, nothing is holy. We must love our neighbors.
Now, some try to escape this demand of showing love to everyone by narrowing the definition of neighbor to mean one’s own people. The whole of Leviticus 19:18 says, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD,” (CEB).
So, if my neighbors are only my own people, then I only need to love people who look like me, believe like me, act like me, and think like me. That’s exactly the theology of white supremacists. And, I mention them because they exist and they’re getting more emboldened than they have been in a long time. It’s not something we can rightly ignore, or close our eyes and hope they’ll quietly slink back into their dark corner. They call themselves Christians. They love their neighbors as they define the word neighbor, which means white people. Clearly, they’ve never read Luke 10:25-37. That’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus expands the word neighbor to mean even our enemies and those who hate us.
Later in Leviticus 19, at verse 34, God demands that Israelites grant equal citizenship to immigrants in their land, and says they must love the immigrants as themselves. The demand to love our neighbor has no boundary line where we can feel safe to stop. Our neighbor is every person on planet Earth. We have no excuse for not loving everyone. We have no excuse for hating anyone.
So, what does loving others look like?
In one sense, it means that we work to create communities where every one of our neighbors can thrive. We break down the social barriers. We break down the economic barriers. We break down the religious barriers. We break down every barrier which separates us from others, which fences them out from communion with us. We work to ensure that our neighbors can share more fully in the life of our community.
You see, the call to holiness is defined around community that is just. It means favoritism is not shown to anyone, judgments are fair, we don’t bad-mouth or slander our neighbors, we don’t stand by while our neighbors are mistreated, we don’t hold hate for others in our hearts, we don’t take revenge or hold grudges. Loving our neighbor means that we treat each of our neighbors as we want to be treated—essentially, we have to put ourselves in their position and consider them.
That’s the ultimate test case, don’t you think? Would we be willing to trade places with the least of our neighbors? Are we willing to trade places with the poorest in our community, the weakest, the most marginalized and frowned upon? If we would hesitate to do so, it’s a sure sign that all is not yet rightly ordered in our community. It’s proof-positive that we have more work to do. This is the work to which we’re called as the church of Jesus Christ.
We can’t really love God and, at the same time, fail to love our neighbor any more than we can love our neighbor without loving God. The two go together, which is why Jesus called them the greatest two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (c.f. Matthew 22:37-40). In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there is no way to live out the holiness of God without benefiting our neighbors. There is no way to be holy as God is holy without crossing boundaries to live in solidarity and build true community with our neighbors. The way of life for one includes a way of life for all.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay