A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on January 26, 2014 by Marci Glass.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The Book of Leviticus gets its name from the Levitical priests who used it as a manual to help them in their worship plans, among other things. It is a book about worship. And about holiness.
But if you have only experienced Leviticus in the American culture wars, you might be thinking, “I’ve been reading the wrong book”.
Because, to our ears, it seems like a book of rules. Of who is in and who is out. Of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It tends to be used to wound, to exclude, and to control people in today’s usage.
But it was written by people who were trying to figure out how to set themselves apart from the cultures around them. When you are a small minority, it makes sense that cultural identity, practices, and beliefs would matter.
God had called the Israelites to be God’s own people, set apart. But it is hard to do. It is hard to be set apart. It is easier to go along with your friends at school, or your co-workers. It is easier to be seduced by Madison Avenue’s advertising, telling you to go along with the crowd.
Go ahead, eat that shellfish like the coastal Phoenicians do. I’m sure that they were transported from the Mediterranean in refrigerated 18 wheeled camels and there is no chance that you could get sick and die.
Go ahead, marry that sexy Canaanite woman. When you have children, I’m sure she’ll agree with you that they should worship the One true God and not worship her gods.
Go ahead and let that person with the funky skin rash come to your dinner party. Even though leprosy is terribly contagious, I’m sure that what they have is something else. You’ll be fine.
These rules and guidelines were for the benefit of the community. For the welfare of the community. For the shalom, the wholeness, the health, of the community.
In Leviticus, holiness occurs as an instruction, a command. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Leviticus has a “trickle down model” of holiness. God is HOLY. God’s priests are set apart from the people to mediate that holiness down to the people. Sanctification doesn’t happen at the beginning of the faith journey, but is its goal. If you live a life of obedience to God’s commands, holiness is the outcome.
And I don’t know about you.
But I’m not so good at that.
I try. Don’t get me wrong. And I do pretty well each day, until I get out of bed and actually start talking to people.
But I actually am quite a fan of this particular passage of Leviticus. (And I never thought I’d say those words).
It includes instructions to leave a part of your harvest for the poor to glean, allowing you a way to provide for people as they work to provide for themselves.
It offers some Ten Commandments kind of instructions too, about how we relate to God and to each other in community.
And it is greatly concerned with how we treat our neighbors. This is one of the passages quoted when the lawyer asks Jesus about the greatest of the commandments in Luke’s gospel, leading to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
“Now an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you understand it?”
The expert answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-27)
We’ve been struggling to answer the lawyer’s next question ever since.
Who is our neighbor?
For the writers of Leviticus, your neighbor was the Israelite man who lived next to you and who submitted himself to the Law and the Holiness Codes. There were expectations of hospitality and welcome for the stranger, but strangers were not neighbors in Leviticus.
Jesus expands our understanding of neighbor, both in the Good Samaritan Parable, and also in his daily living. Eating with sinners, outcasts, and women. Touching lepers and the unclean. Jesus showed us that his Holiness was what was contagious, not our uncleanness.
Jesus calls his followers to see the world in a more expansive way than the writers of Leviticus were able to see it.
Our neighbors become the people who need us the most. And, even though I doubt it was the intention of the Levitical writers, this passage supports well what Jesus did and how he showed us to live.
“Who is my neighbor?” is the question the lawyer asks when he quotes Leviticus. But this passage from Leviticus might actually better answer the question “how do I be a good neighbor?”
Providing for the hungry.
Dealing fairly with both the rich and the poor.
Paying a fair wage at the end of each day.
Not cheating the deaf or the blind.
Seeking justice over vengeance.
No lying or stealing.
Turns out, we aren’t terribly surprised by this list. It isn’t a huge shock. We know how to be good neighbors.
But some days it is harder to live out than others.
Because we are imperfect people who love to use our lists to judge others while conveniently forgetting to apply them to ourselves.
And this is where I am thankful for grace, the free and unearned mercy of God that loves and accepts us where we are, but refuses to leave us where it finds us.
I look forward to hearing stories about the neighborhood breakfast that started yesterday. I know it will take some time to build and we’ll need to discern how to best journey alongside our neighbors. I also know it will come with inconvenience. We might have to adjust the ways and times we have historically used the building so we can be welcoming to the neighbors who come to join us for breakfast. We will have to get up early on Saturdays and come cook or clean when we would, perhaps, rather sleep in.
Being a good neighbor may not always be easy. But we trust it is how we are called to live, and so we will figure it out together.
I know many people who would like to just get rid of Leviticus altogether. We don’t care about its restrictions against lobster, polyester, and men’s beards—so why do we keep a text that has been used to wound and limit God’s love?
But the truth is that when God’s Grace hits the Levitical holiness codes, the world is a different and a better place.
How can we encounter these lists as life giving and instructive without using them as restrictive weapons?
Isn’t that how Jesus read them—by taking the important commands to love our neighbor as ourselves and then making sure we saw a new way to envision a neighbor?
So I’m now on record as being a fan of Leviticus. And I hope it calls us to be better neighbors and live in community more faithfully.
Because the fact is, as people who have received salvation by God through grace, we should be living differently. When you have received this gift that has expanded the restrictive holiness and purity codes of either Leviticus or of our society, you are thankful. You are freed to love and serve. You are empowered to speak up for justice when people try to limit and control God’s love.
Friends, we are holy. we are sanctified people who have been loved into salvation through a completely unmerited and undeserved gift from the Creator. We have been set apart to live into that love and grace. May our lives show and share that kind of holiness with the world.
Let us never stop asking the question, “who is my neighbor?” And may that answer continue to change, including people each time who we previously had determined weren’t included.