If you can’t remember the last sermon or lesson that you preached, taught or heard on a text from the book of Leviticus, you’re not alone. Even most of the preachers and teachers I know who are committed to communicating the Scriptures’ full truth seem reluctant to talk about Leviticus. By appointing just one text from Leviticus in its three-year cycle, even the Revised Common Lectionary suggests that it shares our aversion to it.
It’s not just that many Christians believe that by perfectly fulfilling Leviticus laws, Jesus eliminated our need to obey the ceremonial ones. It isn’t even just that Leviticus sometimes seems so, well, earthy and crude. It’s also that Leviticus seems more out of touch with 21st century realities than most of the Bible’s books.
Of course, the New Testament quotes two verses from the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. The apostle paraphrases verse 2’s “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” in 1 Peter 1:16. What’s more, both the gospels and New Testament letters repeatedly quote verse 18’s, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
However, those who wish to preach and teach Leviticus 19 in its full beauty will want to “drill down” past verses 2 and 18 in order to tap some of its resources. To do that, we’ll need to help our hearers understand some of the context of this rarely read book.
The Lord initially addresses Leviticus to people whom God has freed from Egyptian slavery but who have not yet claimed the land God has promised their ancestors and them. The book looks ahead to the time when God’s Israelite children receive that land of promise and want to know just how God wants them to live in it.
Yet as Callie Plunket-Brewton suggests, Leviticus 19 doesn’t offer prescriptions for individual behavior in the Promised Land. Instead, God longs for this to be a kind charter for the kind of community that takes seriously God’s gracious presence among her.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday begins with verse 2’s relatively familiar, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” This offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore just what it means to be “holy.” Is there a quantitative or qualitative difference between the holiness that characterizes God and that to which God summons God’s adopted sons and daughters?
Brent Strawn points out that God’s holiness has several facets. While God is intrinsically holy, that holiness seems to include an element of separation. God is holy in part in that God is wholly other from what God creates. What’s more, God’s holiness appears to include a kind wholeness and completeness. God’s holiness is of one piece, without exception.
However, Leviticus 19 suggests that God also reveals at least part of God’s holiness in its laws. Since perhaps especially the late 19th century, at least some North American Christians have seemed to tend to think of holiness as largely personal. We’ve come to assume that a holy person is one who especially prays, reads the Bible and goes to church a lot. Some traditions have emphasized a kind of holiness that avoids the taint of “worldly” activities like smoking, drinking alcohol, gambling and some kinds of dancing.
Leviticus 19:9-18’s verses on which the Lectionary invites us to focus, however, summons us to think of holiness as bending God’s children away from ourselves and towards other people. They focus on how God’s holiness manifests itself partly through Israelites’ interactions with their neighbors. They suggest that the way we interact with other people matters, not just to our neighbors, but also to the Lord. We are “holy” (2) when we love our neighbors in concrete ways as we love ourselves (18b).
Plunket suggests that dealing honestly with each other is really the beating heart of verses 9-18’s guides for holy loving. After all, there God invites God’s Israelite sons and daughters to interact justly with each other in “business,” in the courts of law and even in their fields. When that happens, it’s not just individuals, but also whole communities flourish; they’re able to live out the purposes for which God created them.
However, God seems to be especially concerned that God’s children live holy lives in their interactions with their most vulnerable neighbors. To be holy, insists God, is to look kindly on those who are “poor” (10, 15) and “alien” (10), as well as the “hired hand (13) and those who live with physical disabilities (14). It is, quite simply, to treat them the way God treats them.
Yet Leviticus 19’s “neighbors” aren’t just, as Plunket goes on to point out, “others.” In it, after all, God invites God’s adopted children to be holy in their interactions even with members of their own families and communities. In verses 17 and following God says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart … do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against your own people (italics added).”
Leviticus 19’s preachers and teachers might want to ask themselves and their hearers if God is perhaps inviting Egypt’s former slaves to shift from a theology and ethics of scarcity to that of abundance here. After all, for more than forty years the Israelites have had to live a kind of “hand-to-mouth” existence in which, while God always gave them plenty to eat, God deliberately doled it only out in “day-sized” portions (except on Fridays).
Now, however, God is leading Israel into the land of promise that her spies have told her flows with milk and honey. So the Israelites will no longer have to operate from a stance of careful portions. She will, as long as she remains faithful to God, have more than enough to eat and drink. We can only imagine, however, that such a move required a whole new way of thinking and living, a wholly holy way of thinking not just about themselves, but also their neighbors. A holy way of living that Leviticus describes quite vividly.
Yet one might argue that a “theology” and ethics of scarcity still dominates some 21st century thinking. It’s not just church boards that wonder if they have enough resources or are trying to do too much with them. It’s also corporation boardrooms and national war rooms that are tempted to base decisions on fears that we won’t have enough space or resources.
While God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to be good stewards of all of God’s countless good gifts, God has also been in most cases extraordinarily generous with those gifts. Yet it’s very hard to treat our neighbors, especially vulnerable ones, in holy ways when we’re always wondering if God has given us enough, if those neighbors will drain our limited resources.
Finally, however, it’s also very important for Leviticus 19’s preachers and teachers to remember that it’s more than just “Chicken Soup for the Ethical Soul.” This is more than God’s summons to all of God’s people to be nicer people. God, after all, grounds this whole text in God’s holiness. “Be holy because … I am holy (italics added) ” (2). Note, too, how often God inserts some form of the reminder “I am the Lord” into Leviticus 19 (10, 12, 14, 16, 18).
We love our neighbors as ourselves because God gives himself away in love towards God’s whole creation. We deal honestly with each other because God deals so honestly with us. We care for our vulnerable neighbors because God cares so passionately for and about them. And in so doing, we contribute to the well-being and flourishing of the whole creation that God so deeply loves.
Note: Sermon resources for Year A Lent and Holy Week are on our website.
In his book, Now and Then, Frederick Buechner describes how as a seminary student, he was assigned to work part-time in an East Harlem parish. He says about the regular parish staff members whom I think Leviticus 19 would call “holy”: “They had caught something from Christ, I thought. Something of who he was and is flickered out through who they were. It is not easy to describe. It was compassion without sentimentality as much as anything else, I think—a lucid, cool, grave compassion. If it had a color, it would be a pale, northern blue.
They never seemed to romanticize the junkies and winos and deadbeats and losers they worked among, and they never seemed to let pity or empathy distort the clarity with which they saw them for no more if no less than what they were. Insofar as they were able to approach loving them, I got the impression that they did so not just in spite of everything about them that was neither lovely nor lovable but right in the thick of it.
There was a kind of sad gaiety about the way they went about their work. The sadness stemmed, I suppose, from the hopelessness of their task—the problems were so vast, their resources for dealing with them were so meager—and the gaiety from a hope beyond hope that, in the long run if not the short, all would in some holy and unimaginable way be well.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Commentary