How many of you have ever read the book of Leviticus? Did it make sense? Did it put you to sleep? It’s a difficult text because it’s primarily legal material, and I’m guessing that even the lawyers among us don’t find state or federal statutes easy or enjoyable reading. Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It’s complicated and confusing and while there are a few bits of narrative, it’s mostly like the material we just heard, a series of laws or instructions. What’s more, much of the material has to do with temple or tabernacle rituals, and priestly behavior. It’s only very occasionally, as in the verses we just heard, that the laws relate to daily life and ordinary people.
It’s difficult in another sense, because it’s set in a larger narrative context—the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Leviticus is set while the Israelites are at Mt. Sinai, receiving the torah, the law from God. And if you think about it, that’s odd in itself because a lot of the laws here have to do with what the Israelites are supposed to do when they occupy the land.
Our passage begins with the statement, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy, and jumps then to v.9. In between those two verses come a series of other commandments. Several like some of the verses in today’s reading are restatements of some of the Ten Commandments. In addition, there are certain instructions concerning sacrifice. The verses we heard today are notable in that they all focus on relationships within the community.
Remember the context. We are to read them as laws given in preparation for the Hebrews entering the promised land. In other words, they lay out a vision of an ideal community. It’s important also to note that while the instructions about what to do are clear; no penalties are mentioned. That means this is all about how society is to be structured, how people are to relate to each other and not about individual morality, sin and punishment.
Some of what we hear is commonplace and unremarkable—don’t lie, don’t slander, don’t be partial to the poor or defer to the great. And while none of what we heard is particularly surprising to us, it’s worth noting that the very next verse after “Love your neighbor as yourself” forbids planting fields with two different kinds of seeds, or wearing clothes that consist of different materials. And later in the chapter, a commandment against getting tattoos.
But others are more revealing. The Israelites are instructed not to harvest all of their crops, but to leave some for the poor and the alien. For subsistence farmers, who sometimes have to go without food to protect seed grain for the next year, those are hard words.
But these aren’t just rules about how to get along with one’s neighbors. They are framed by statements about God: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” In other words, keeping those commandments is more than an ethical obligation; it also says something about God’s people and about God. Or to put it another way, to keep God’s commandments makes the people holy as God is holy, sharing something of God’s nature. To create and live in a community in which the widow and orphan are cared for, the alien welcome is to share in the nature of God, to participate in God’s holiness.
Holy or holiness is a concept we don’t really talk about much. Sure, each Sunday we sing or say the Sanctus—Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts and the word appears regularly in our hymns and scripture. And so, if we have any notion of what it might mean, we would probably say that it has to do with God or God’s nature, and it primarily concerns worship—in worship when we encounter God, we experience the holy.
That’s certainly true and elsewhere in Leviticus, there are a great number of laws that have to do with preserving God’s holiness and the holiness of the tabernacle or temple. The Hebrew word translated as holy has at its root the notion of being set apart—the English word “sacred” derives from a Latin word which means very much the same thing.
What’s interesting in all this is that these verses have to do with ordinary life—taking care of the poor, the widow and orphan, prohibitions against theft, lying, slander; the payment of wages. We would not regard them as “sacred duties” even if we might see them as obligations derived from our wanting to follow Jesus. For us, they are not holy at all.
But for Leviticus, that’s exactly what they are. “Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.” In other words, keeping those commandments is more than an ethical obligation; it also says something about God’s people and about God. Or to put it another way, to keep God’s commandments makes the people holy as God is holy, sharing something of God’s nature. To create and live in a community in which the widow and orphan are cared for, the alien welcome is to share in the nature of God, to participate in God’s holiness.
We see something of the same in the gospel at the very end of the text when Jesus says, be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect. We might be inclined to see perfection and holiness as synonymous, but that’s not the case.
As I said, holiness in the sense used in the Hebrew Bible, means being set apart, being other than. God is other than us, that is one of our most profound experiences—when we encounter God with all of our defenses stripped away, we become aware of how totally other than us God is. But at the same time, Leviticus reminds us that we are called to be holy people, to share in God’s nature, God’s set-apartness from the rest of creation. And for Leviticus, as hard as it is for us to imagine, being set apart, sharing in God’s holiness means caring for the widow, the poor, and the alien, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
Jesus takes that notion even further. He does it by expanding the notion of neighbor. No longer is the one we should love, our neighbor, the person like us, our relative, a member of our ethnic or religious group, someone in our socio-economic status. Now, we are called to love the human being who we perceive to be wholly other than us, our enemy, who we are inclined to hate.
But we are to do it, not out of some sense of duty or responsibility, but again, because of God’s nature, and more importantly because of who God has created us to be. For Jesus’ call to be perfect does not mean some sort of moral or ethical perfection. Rather, the word translated as perfect has in it the sense of an end goal or purpose.
Who are we? Who has God created us to be? We want to answer that question on an individual and personal level and so we should. For what purpose or end has God created us? How are we to put our god-given talents, our skills, to use for the shaping of our own personhood, and to ensure our flourishing as human beings? How do the ethical decisions we make—to love our enemy as well as our friend or relative—contribute to making us all that God intends us to be?
While the question of our individual purpose and meaning is important, more important, from the biblical perspective, is the purpose and meaning of the community to which we belong. In the reading from Leviticus, indeed throughout the Torah, we see a vision of the people of God that cares for the oppressed and embraces the foreigner. In the New Testament, the vision of God’s new people is the same. The body of Christ is a community in which the old barriers of gender, class, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, no longer exist.
In John’s gospel, Jesus at the last supper tells his disciples, “By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That, my sisters and brothers, is our task as the church. That is our calling. That is who God intends us to be. To have love for one another, to share that love with the world on our doorsteps, to share that love, not just with our friend or neighbor but even with our enemy. To share that love,w with the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed, the stranger and foreigner. When we do that, we are God’s holy people. Amen.