Leviticus 19.1–2, 12–18
Christianity is always political. But not in the ways we imagine—for the Beatitudes are its constitution, and love is its only law.
Diana Butler Bass
I’m going to say something a congregation rarely hears from me. Are you ready? It’s this: ‘Let us listen to what the Book of Leviticus has to say to us today.’ That doesn’t happen often.
Leviticus is slap-bang in the middle of the so-called ‘Books of Moses’, the books that form the basis of Jewish law. It is number three of the five books of the law. It follows Genesis and Exodus, and is in turn followed by Numbers and Deuteronomy. Most of Leviticus deals with rules about the priesthood and also about daily life—for example, what you can and cannot eat or wear, and what are proper—and improper—sexual relations.
It reads oddly to us; what can you expect? It was written a long time ago. It’s a ragbag. Different topics are jumbled together, nestling cheek by jowl.
The passage we read tonight ends with ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
That’s a very high theme; but it is immediately followed by laws about not breeding different animals together, not wearing clothes of mixed fabric, and then rules about what happens when a man has sexual relations with a female slave.
Leviticus is a mixed bag.
But when Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment, he says (Matthew 22.37–40)
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [and] ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
Then he says, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Remember the Golden Rule that fulfils the law and the prophets?
Jesus is quoting from two books of the law. ‘You shall love the Lord your God…’ comes from Deuteronomy 6.5. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ is from our passage today. Leviticus 19.18.
From among all the laws in Leviticus about not wearing polyester-cotton shirts and not eating bacon or prawns and when you’re ritually clean or unclean, Jesus zeroes in on this one. We should look at it more closely. Jesus did.
When you look at Leviticus chapter 19, one of the first things you see is that parts of it read like a version of the Ten Commandments.
…revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths… (v.3)
Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves… (v.4)
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. (v.11)
There is a reason given for these laws:
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
And we are repeatedly reminded of that as we go through the passage:
I am the Lord your God.
Don’t mess with me, people.
You are a holy people of a holy God.
When people hear this, it sometimes generates a deep primal fear. For me, it’s like the fear of daddy finding out that you’ve coloured all over his best Bible. You’re feeling anxious, your pulse is racing, and you’ve got to get your story straight:
It wasn’t me! A man came in through the window and grabbed my crayons off me!
But it turns out that God’s holiness is something quite different from what we may have expected. It is the holiness of One who is love and only love.
The way God’s people are to be holy is to be a people who love God, and love their neighbour as themselves.
A teacher of the law once asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, and Jesus—as was his way—told him a story. Remember the story? It’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
This parable shows that our neighbour is anyone in need. The priest and the levite needed to get to church on time—but more than that, God’s holiness compelled them to show mercy to the traveller who had been robbed and beaten. But they don’t do it.
Jesus turns the question around, asking: ‘Who was a neighbour to the man who was robbed?’
Of course, it was the hated Samaritan.
Who is my neighbour? Not just anyone in need, but anyone at all. What must I do? I must be a neighbour to all.
Back to our reading from Leviticus. Who is the neighbour there? The ‘neighbour’ originally was the fellow Israelite, the member of your own kin, whether rich or poor.
But the idea of neighbour had already grown broader by the time Leviticus was compiled. Part of this passage was left out of the Lectionary. That’s a pity here. It also says,
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. 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. (vv.9–10)
There’s the beginnings of a welfare system here. The poor are being looked after, and so are the ‘alien’, the foreigners living in the land.
Foreigners are now neighbours.
When I was a chaplain at the Wesley Hospital, each day a Muslim pharmacy student would come into the chapel. She would place her prayer mat on the floor, kneel facing Mecca, and pray.
One day, I received a phone call from a woman in a suburban Uniting Church congregation. She asked me if I knew this was happening. I did. What was I going to do about it? Nothing. Why was I allowing a Muslim to pray in the chapel? I gave her a deliberately Old Testament answer: I told her we were showing hospitality to the stranger in the land. To her credit, she understood what I was saying; but she wasn’t convinced.
She also wanted to know what kind of example I was setting for our Uniting Church young people. I can’t recall how I answered her, but I remember thinking that in my own opinion, I was setting a pretty good example.
Members of other faiths are neighbours.
Jesus expands things much further. He says,
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’
That’s reasonable, isn’t it? There has to be limits. That’s what everyone says. Except Jesus:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
God’s love extends to our enemies.
Enemies are neighbours.
I don’t get into party politics from the pulpit, and neither should I.
But I do want to say this, and I should say it:
What does this mean for the way the Church advocates for asylum seekers and refugees? Should we process them offshore and then leave them to rot? Is that loving our neighbour?
What does it mean for people whose sexuality differs from ours? What about the ordination of gay people? Or same-sex marriage? Do we truly love our gay neighbour, our lesbian neighbour?
Who is my neighbour?
Am I a neighbour to others?
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
The thing is, God’s holiness looks a lot like compassion to us.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When Jesus says this, he means be like your Father in heaven. Don’t limit your love to those who are like you. Spread it around. Amen.
(Sermon for Epiphany 7A, 19 February 2017)