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Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

February 17, 2014

The first time I read the Old Testament, my least favorite book was Leviticus. It was just one boring and bizarre law after another. I told new readers of the Bible to skip this book.

I was wrong. Leviticus is crucial for understanding the faith of ancient Israel, and chapter 19 (and particularly these verses from the middle of the chapter) represents the heart of this book. In the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy we find the Ten Commandments–the greatest summary of the laws of Israel; but in Leviticus 19 we find the most profound interpretation of those Ten Commandments. A careful reading of this chapter demonstrates that each of the Ten Commandments is being reflected upon or expanded in some way.

Let me comment briefly on a few of the verses from the lectionary reading:

Verse 2: God is “holy.” To be holy means to be set apart. There is nothing like God. God is in no category. Therefore, God is the ultimate in holiness. We also, who give ourselves to God, become holy through that relationship. When we worship God and seek to do God’s will we are transcending normal human values and typical ways of doing things. We are going beyond self-interest and self-protection. We are entering a realm of being (faith) and a realm of action (self-giving love) that may seem absurd to a secular world. True religion cannot be reduced to either worship or ethics; for the Israelites, true religion is always the two in combination. It is a relationship with God through worship that opens up a new world of ethical living that results in a healing, healthy community.

Verses 9-10: In ancient Israel, those who did not have their own land were subject to starvation. These verse are, in effect, Israel’s welfare program for the poor and aliens. Regardless of why the poor became poor (perhaps some were foolish in managing their land and thus lost it?), and regardless of the fact that aliens are not citizens, they are to have access to free food. Israel had no central government (and even later when it did, it had little organization or power), and so it had no way to administer a government welfare program. Therefore, farmers had to be urged not to harvest along the edges of their fields and orchards and vineyards, and to let that food be gathered by the landless. This is not an ideal system. Other than conscience, there is no enforcement; and there is no way of knowing whether enough food is being left for the poor or not. This system still would have resulted in starvation for many. A centralized government, such as the U.S., can certainly do better. We should certainly not do worse. The ethical genius of the Israelites is that they saw that every person–even the “unproductive” poor and the aliens–were to be valued and protected and cared for.

Verse 13: Laborers have always been vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. I remember many summer jobs that I had as a teenager, and in almost all of them I was cheated by my employers. I was not given the raises I was promised, and I was not paid for all the hours I worked. Such practices persist today–as one of my children can confirm. Israel’s laws are designed to protect those facing possible exploitation and injustice in the workplace.

Verse 14: The deaf and the blind are also especially vulnerable. The blind cannot see when a dangerous prank is being played on them, and the deaf cannot hear how they are being insulted and lied about. In addition, those with disabilites are often made fun of simply because of their disabilities. Again, Israel’s laws come to their aid to try to prevent such abuses.

Verse 15: With all of Israel’s special attention for protecting the poor and the vulnerable, one might expect Israel’s laws to bend justice in the favor of the poor. Not so. Justice means all are treated the same. The rich do not get an advantage (which is very hard to prevent!), but neither are the poor given an advantage. Doing an injustice to a rich person to “make up” for the injustices the rich do to the poor is not justice.

Verses 17-18: The laws of Israel are not just about outward behavior, but also about our inner attitudes and feelings. A community cannot stay healthy and productive if hatred is allowed to fester. So hate itself must be addressed. Can hate be outlawed? Not really, but it can be addressed and lessened through honest and productive communication. When we are angry with someone, our common tendency is to say nothing, but to let resentment build up. At some point the resentment will spill over into negative action. Israel seeks to prevent this by urging the resentful person to talk to the other person, to confront in a constructive manner, before the resentment becomes hostile. To talk out one’s feelings of anger and hurt so that the relationship can be fixed through apologies and appropriate changes is not only an avoidance of bearing grudges and taking vengenance, it is an act of love. Love does not mean like. Love does not mean warm feelings. Love means caring about the welfare of others (including those with whom we are in conflict) and the community as a whole. Working out our conflicts so that we are no longer hating is the most valuable work of love that we can ever do for the good of the community.

Behind all of these laws is the principle of love. Love your neighbor as yourself: even if that neighbor is poor and unproductive, or an alien, or has disabilites, or can be readily exploited, or is someone who has wronged you.

This passage from Leviticus 19 was quite important to Jesus. He obviously meditated deeply on its meaning and implications as he shaped his own message. And just as Leviticus 19 is an interpretation of the Ten Commandments, so Jesus gives an interpretation of the Ten Commandments–and the law as a whole–in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Especially in Matthew 5 we can see the influence of Leviticus 19.

Jesus is even more challenging and specific than Leviticus 19. Our neighbors whom we are to love even include our enemies.

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