One rarely hears a sermon on Leviticus and usually when someone tries to read the whole Bible they can get through Genesis fine–they hit Exodus and Moses keeps them interested, but when someone gets to Leviticus, then they bog down and the Bible goes back on the shelf.
Leviticus is an important book. It is an instruction for the children of Israel on how to live in relationship to God and how to live in relationship to each other. People get bogged down with the lists and lists of moral codes and the capital punishment proscribed when many of the moral codes are not followed.
I don’t want to dismiss the many questions that this book poses, but I suggest we look at Leviticus with an eye toward the many important spiritual principles found there.
Leviticus 19:1-2 are actually verses that summarize both the Torah and Leviticus. The LORD tells Moses to tell the entire congregation of Israel with a simple message: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God is holy.”
So what is that all about? What does it mean to‘Be holy.’ The word ‘holy’ is the Hebrew word Kedushah. The meaning of this word really has two levels. The first level has a moral quality. God is good, righteous, pure, just and he expects his people to be good, righteous, pure, and just. This is one way of being holy. The second level of meaning simply means ‘consecrated or set apart.’ The LORD is a different level of Being he is a category unto himself. The people of God then, are also to be consecrated, set apart–to be a different kind of people. A different category of people.
This is what Leviticus is about–being holy and reflecting to the world the character of God and the holiness of God. By living lives of holiness, then, the people of God not only show the character of God, but also draw closer to his presence. They are truly an ‘assembly of God.’
Why did God want a people set apart, consecrated, different? Rabbi Yoel Spotts translates Leviticus 20:23-24 this way:
“Do not follow the traditions of the nation that I expel from before you, for they did all of these things [that is sexual sin, child sacrifice and idolatry] and I was disgusted with them. I said to you: You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to posses it, a land flowing with milk and honey – I am Hashem your G-d, who has set you apart from the nations” (ibid. 20:23,24).
The Lord looked at the immorality of the land and wanted the children of Israel, his people, to be markedly different. It wasn’t so much that they were better, but that the nations of the world were so bad. The nations indulged in sexual immorality, witchcraft, child sacrifice, idolatry. The people of God were to be different–they were to be a light to the nations.
Chapter 19 of Leviticus give the children of Israel clear and practical ways to be holy. What is interesting about Leviticus, and this chapter is no exception, is that holiness encompasses not only individual commands not to indulge in sexual immorality or idolatry but also, and equally as important, interpersonal relationships. And relationships to the poor and the sojourner.
Let’s go through these injunctions. What we will see is that principles emerge for the people of God at all times–that includes us. The injunction to be holy stays the same.
Leviticus 19 says that when the people collect the harvest, not to ‘reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather up the fallen grapes of your vineyard.’ Why? ‘You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.’
There were those in the ancient world who were homeless and who were ‘wanderers’ or ‘aliens’ which is what ‘sojourners’ were. They were not a part of the community in an official sense, but the LORD commanded the people to make the sojourners sharers of the blessings that God had provided. They were very literally on the margins, and the people of God were to allow them to share in the harvest–no questions asked, no circumcision check, no green card required. They could reap part of the harvest and eat the grapes of the vineyard.
The vineyard always means more than just a literal place where grapes were gathered. It is a symbol of the people of God and of God’s covenant with Israel. So the poor and the sojourner, the foreigners, were to at least touch the promises–to share even briefly in the blessings of Israel.
In our world, there are always those who are need. We know those needs in our world are legion. But we are not just supposed to be ‘givers’ we are supposed to be ‘sharers.’ God has blessed all of us and we are to see those in need in our parish and on the outskirts as sharers in the blessing. Even those who are just passing through. Even those who have no desire to follow Jesus. Perhaps by the love of God’s people they will desire to follow him.
One tendency of religious folk is to fall into the trap of isolation. We would love to simply avoid those who make us uncomfortable–perhaps those who smell of the streets. Or those in notorious sin. John Ortberg, a Willow Creek teaching pastor says, “Throughout history religious people have been attracted to the strategy of isolation: avoid [certain] people and live in religious quarantine…[then] the quarantine becomes a greenhouse for the most destructive sins: pride, exclusivism, self-righteousness. In isolation love dies; humility and compassion and generosity of spirit all suffocate.” As the people of God we are called not only to be givers but sharers with those who are hurting and broken in the world. We must never isolate ourselves.
But more than dealing with others on the outside of the community, Leviticus 19, as I mentioned, also deals with how the people of God relate to each other. Very simple and practical advice. To deal honestly and fairly with each other. To pay someone for their work in a timely manner. To not lie. To not ‘curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind,’ that is, to not take advantage of those who are weaker.
Then, there is the verse that Jesus repeated, ‘You shall not hate your brother [or sister] in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor…You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.’
To live justly with each other, to deal fairly, to be honest, to love your neighbor as yourself. These were all actions that God defines as holy. Why? To love’s ones neighbor is to reflect God’s heart and character to the rest of the world. This action is a way that God’s people consecrates themselves–sets themselves apart. The moral code was important but loving neighbor as yourself was even more important.
Love your neighbor. Sounds so idealistic and right. It is simple but difficult. If, when you are in the process of seeking holiness, what if your neighbor is a jerk? What if another person among the people of God is a jerk?
I love the way Rabbi Spotts comments on this text. He says, “As often occurs, we have been preceded by many generations, as the rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Nedarim 9:4) posed the question [of loving your neighbor as yourself, even when he doesn’t deserve it]. Their answer provides a startling new perspective on the nature of the Jewish nation, one which must be taken very seriously. The rabbis respond with a parable: Imagine a butcher chopping meat. Accidentally, the butcher lands the knife on his left hand, severely damaging that limb. Would it then make sense for the wounded left hand to return the favor and intentionally injure his right hand which held the knife? [no!]”
And then he goes on to say, “The parable is illuminating. The Jewish nation is like a body. Each Jew plays a role in keeping this body healthy. While each Jew has his own individual responsibility, the Jewish people as a whole have a mission, and thus every Jew must work in total cooperation and harmony to achieve that goal…Only by seeing ourselves as part of the whole and appreciating that we are but a finger or an eye in the body of the Jewish nation can we hope to attain holiness.”
Sound familiar? Rabbi Spotts sounds like another rabbi named Paul and our chief rabbi, Jesus.
A body. A people set apart for holiness. Serving the poor, dealing justly with others, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe Leviticus is not so far fetched after all.
What did Jesus say? ‘Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect…Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,’ and ‘a new command I leave you, love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples. If you love one another.’
We live in interesting times both as a church and as people in the West. There is a disdain for absolutes, for clear statements of morality, for truth with a capital ‘T.’
Now, more than ever before we need a clear, definitive strategy for evangelism and apologetics. By ‘apologetic’ I mean not to say we’re sorry, but I use the word in the sense of the Latin apologia, that is, ‘to give a defense.’
‘By this, all people will know you are my disciples…’ that you are obnoxious. ‘By this all people will know you are my disciples…’ when you can win an argument. John Ortberg says that among Christians who are fighting for the truth, our opponents do not often qualify for love. ‘An old saying suggests that the first casualty of war is truth,’ he writes, ‘This is not quite true. The first casualty of war is love.’
Now love, again as Scripture and Christ himself describe it is not namby-pamby warm and fuzzy. It is self-sacrifice, sharing and loving with whom we may have no desire to share or love. When Jesus washed the disciples feet, he washed Judas’ feet, too. I want you to always remember that.
The best apologetic for our faith is found in the way we love, our neighbor and each other. In the 2nd century Christian apologist Tertullian wrote. “It is mainly the deeds of love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us! ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another..see how they are ready to die for one another.”
The greatest apologetic for our faith is when we leave our selfishness at the font and live for God and one another, when we put aside our own agendas. When we love as Christ loved. Writing on John 13 scholar Donald Guthrie writes a story about Dr. Robertson McQuilkin who was, for many years the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.
Dr. McQuilkin’s wife, Muriel, also had an illustrious career in speaking and did many radio and television appearances. In the mid ‘80s, Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and began to deteriorate. It got to the point where Dr. McQuikin found it more difficult to do his job. Some Christian friends said that Columbia was becoming very successful and that he should give Muriel over to professional (nursing home) care and that he should continue doing great work.
But he could not bear the thought. He resigned from Columbia to care for his wife full time. ‘It was a choice between two loves,’ he said. But it was really no choice at all. In the face of love, sacrifice, career, all of that falls by the wayside.
As he cared for her in her last days he wrote, “It is more than keeping promises and being fair. As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life. Daily I discern new manifestations of the kind of person she is, the wife I always loved. I also see fresh manifestations of God’s love–the God I long to love more fully.”
In a day of selfishness we need this kind of picture of love. What God wants from his people is a holiness that looks like this. A love that thinks of the other person before ourselves. A love that puts our needs lower than our spouses, and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
God wants a holy people, set apart for his work in the world. If we want to show the world we are his disciples, we will love each other. We will love those who deserve it and we will wash the feet of the Judas’ even among God’s people. ‘Be holy,’ says the Lord. ‘As I am holy.’