Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
By Nora Conner
As I began to prepare for this message, I started by asking God what scripture I should use. And in my devotions, there was a passage that stood out to me. It was from the Old Testament book of Leviticus. And I thought, huh. That’s interesting. You don’t see a lot of devotions coming from Leviticus! But as I thought and prayed about it, I kept returning to these words:
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy. When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also, do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God. You must not steal nor deceive nor lie to each other. You must not swear falsely by my name, desecrating your God’s name in doing so; I am the Lord. You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight. You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord. You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord. You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
From Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, this is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Let me ask you—how many of you have read Leviticus? Now, I know the first scripture from Jeremy’s Bible drill last week was from Leviticus. But I mean the whole book, not just a verse or two. I know many of you have read the Bible all the way through at least once, and some commit to doing that every year, which I think is wonderful. But when you get to Leviticus, do you say, “Yay!”? More likely, it’s “yay…” You may grit your teeth and think, “Okay. Here we go.” Maybe skim a little here, rush through a section there, and think, “Whew! Made it!” when you finish chapter 27. And I will say, there are some things in there that are tough to get through. But if you take a step back and look at it as a whole, you realize there is an overarching theme and that there is an ebb and flow between the general and the specific. Leviticus finds the Israelites fresh out of Egypt and a long way from entering the Promised Land. They have received the Ten Commandments, and God is continuing to work through Moses to teach them what it means to be the people of God. And so in Leviticus we hear, This is what God says, so this is what you do. This is who God is, and so this is who you are to be. This is God’s principle, and this is how we apply it, what it means to us today.
And every now and then, you find a gem. Like the beginning of today’s passage. God says, “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy. Oh, and, by the way, tell this to everyone.”
Yes, Leviticus is an “interesting” book. There’s all kinds of stuff in there, and when we look at it with our 21st century eyes, it’s easy to wonder why it’s even in the Bible. It talks about things we probably never even thought about! However, wondering why it’s in the Bible is exactly the right question to ask.
In our passage today, we see the practice of holiness taking place in the Israelites’ day-to-day lives as well as in their religious life and worship. It includes a diverse set of rulings. Topics include family, things to do and not do, justice and mercy in social interactions, relations with non-Israelites, and matters relating to agriculture and harvest. In fact, there is a kind of seamless interweaving of rulings concerned with social, religious, legal, and practical matters. In this passage, we see that the practice of holiness informs and guides Israel’s life as a community and the life of each Israelite as a member of that community.
There are repeated reminders that God is the God of the Israelites, and the call for Israel to be holy as God is holy is central to Israel’s identity. God has set them apart to be his people, and they are, in that role, to practice holiness in obedience to God’s rulings.
Does that sound familiar? Of course it does. We know that much later, Jesus said that as his followers, we are to be and live a certain way. Are we people saved by grace? If we say we follow Jesus, then yes, we are. However, living in grace does not mean that living in holiness is optional.
Our passage today tells us that loving God means being holy. Being holy means being who and what we are called to be and do. Being holy means being fair, being kind, not being stingy, treating others like people. It means showing our love and respect for God by our actions in the things that matter to God.
Doing these things is doing them for God. God tells the Israelites these “do nots” because God cares about these people and situations. Doing as God says is a clear and visible way of showing God, representing God, doing what God would do in those situations.
There’s even some interesting subtlety in there. Like in verse 14, where God says, “You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip.” It’s easy to read right over these words and think, well, of course, and keep right on going. But think about it for a minute. These actions are more than just mean; they are meant to humiliate. A deaf person would probably not ever know that a person was saying something about them, except by the reaction of others. But they would see the reaction, and not knowing more than that, they would perhaps feel an undefined shame but have no recourse. The blind person would of course not see an obstacle placed in their path, but they would certainly experience the effect of it. And if others were around and did not move the obstacle or warn the person, they would be complicit in the act. Here God is saying, you’re not better than others, and don’t pick on the weak to make yourself feel important.
Who would do such a thing, you wonder? It happens all the time. Schoolyard bullies are the obvious examples, but we see it in less obvious ways as well. Any time someone is made to feel less-than because of some limitation, that person is telling them they are not a child of God. Any time we think, “Well, they deserve it. If only they had…If only they would…,” we are saying that they are not worthy of God’s love and care.
Another interesting note is found in verses nine and ten. Here, God tells the Israelites to leave some things in the fields when they harvest. Why? So the hungry can eat. There is no sense in having surplus that is wasted when others are hungry, so God shows them a better way. God doesn’t just provide for the ones in need; God also shows those who are more fortunate that is their responsibility to see that it happens. God is caring for the hungry—he is doing it through his people.
In some cases, the commands are matters of conscience, so they are things only God and the person would know, and the victims would have no recourse. But God cares about decency and honesty.
As strange as it may sound, Leviticus represents the heart of Israel’s theology. It records more words from the mouth of God than any other book in the Bible. Its many prohibitions feel burdensome to us, though, and it was to Israel, too. For them, their way became “for the sake of the law,” rather than “for the sake of God,” and of course they struggled under the weight of it. They got caught up in following every detail rather than understanding the reasoning behind it. And then God sent Jesus, not to replace the law, but rather to fulfill it. Jesus completed the reason for the law. God knew what we needed, and so he sent Jesus to say, this is what I mean by that!
So you see, in shrugging off this “burden,” we need to be careful that we don’t lose sight of the meaning and blessing it contains. Yes, through Jesus’ sacrifice for sin we are released from Leviticus’ system of ceremonies, but our passage today is really about the nature of God, of God’s way with us, and our appropriate response. It represents the moral law, an explanation and application of the Ten Commandments for the people, and as we’ll see in a bit, this account of the moral law shapes Jesus’ teachings.
In Leviticus, the people’s life with God and with one another is the practical expression of their holiness: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” And while this certainly sounds like a command, it is also a declaration. How, you ask? Here, God is not just demanding that we be holy; God is also telling us that we will become holy. God is saying, “You shall become like me. Be in company with me, and you will grow to be like me.”
You know, the Bible does tell us that, for good or for ill, we become like what we worship. And God tells us, by worshiping him, we will become like him. God says, I am holy, and you will be holy.
This passage actually calls for a way of life that is pointedly different from the ways of the world, doesn’t it. The idea of holiness, in Leviticus and in the Old Testament generally, is that of being set apart. Still, God’s people sometimes want to be like the rest of the world. In 1 Samuel, we hear the Israelites call out, “Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” The Israelites are finding that it’s work to be good, to be holy, and they just want someone to tell them what to do. But the work of being holy is exactly that: work. It means swimming against the tide of prevailing human ways. It is always work, a work in progress through the process of sanctification. When we look in the mirror collectively and individually, when we see how far short we fall of the holiness toward which we are destined, and we could all too easily give up. But hear again and again God’s covenant promise: “You shall be like me.”
I want you to notice something else in this passage, too. God’s claim on these people is a done deal; they are already “the elect.” The law is given, not as their gateway to salvation, but as salvation’s way of life. To be sure, the law is beneficial for all humanity; but it is this people’s special calling to embody this way of life, as a public witness to the beauty and blessing of God.
And so it is with us. This passage teaches us that there is no separation between what we believe and what we do. There is no divine command that pertains only to ethics and not to action.
So, what are we to do? What does this mean for us today?
Well, you may have noticed that we have been hearing a lot about holiness lately. We haven’t always called it what it is, but in the past few weeks, we have heard Pastor Mark talk about reaching our potential for God and about losing our marbles for God. Last week, we heard Jeremy tell us about being freed from a life of sin, and that we are commanded to go and sin no more. Have you noticed there’s a theme going on here?
I have a question for you. Does talking about holiness make you uncomfortable? That’s understandable. The word “holiness” has been coopted by our culture and can have a negative connotation. “There you go again, acting holier than thou.” But here we are talking about what holiness really means. Loving God, really loving God, means being holy.
I mentioned before that Leviticus represents the heart of Israel’s theology, their way of understand God. In verse 18 of our passage today, we hear, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now where have we heard that before? This verse is quoted by Jesus, but did you know it’s actually in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Let’s hear it from The Message, chapter five, verses 38-48 in Matthew, and this is Jesus talking:
“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
In Leviticus and in Matthew, and throughout the Bible, holiness is what who claims God is called to be, or to put it better, it is what they are called to do. It is not characterized by some ethereal state of being, but by how you act in everyday places and relationships, how we act in everyday places and relationships.
Now, we’re United Methodists, and we like John Wesley, don’t we? And those of you who have studied him know that John Wesley had a thing or two to say about holiness. In fact, a hallmark of John Wesley’s Methodist revival was the great seriousness with which they took Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:48 to be holy, their striving for perfection in Christ. And why would Jesus command such a thing if it were impossible? It means loving as God loves, with every breath God gives us. Impossible? Too much? Well, Wesley had an answer for that: “God well knew how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, ‘This is impossible!’ And therefore stake upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of God, to whom all things are possible.”
So what does holiness look like? Holiness in Leviticus meant not harvesting all the way to the edge of the field. And later on in the Old Testament, that meant that Ruth and others like her did not go hungry. Holiness is not always about making grand sacrifices, and it is not about just saying pious prayers. Holiness is not taking what belongs to someone else. It is not telling a lie, even when the lie seems harmless. It is being a good employer who makes decisions that benefit his or her employees as well as the business. In Leviticus, and today, holiness is at least not making life more difficult for others, and it is not standing idly by when a neighbor is in trouble. You are holy when you do not gossip or slander or hold a grudge.
You are holy when you serve food at our Pantry and at the Nathaniel Mission to families who are hungry. You are holy when you give a ride to someone who could not come to church or a doctor’s appointment otherwise. It means sacrificing your Saturday to take care of our beautiful facility. It means teaming up your love of sewing and your leftover fabric to make clothing for children in crisis. It means knitting and crocheting prayer shawls and scarves and hats for people in times of need. It means praying with someone who may not be strong enough to do it on their own. It means sharing your time and love with the children and youth who are here for Kids’ Café and Wednesday.comm each week.
And it isn’t an accident that we’re moving this direction, either. St. Luke has had nine values in place for several years. You see them on banners around the church, and we highlight one each month in our Sunday weekly bulletin. It just so happens that the one highlighted this month is,
We value intentional spiritual growth into Christ-likeness.
What does this mean? It means seeking holiness.
Looking in the Message again, in the book of Romans (12:1-2), we hear the Apostle Paul putting it like this:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Jeremy shared a devotion on this passage with the church staff last week, and he reminded us that we will be transformed. The question is what it is that will do the transforming on us. Being transformed is something that happens to us, and it will either be done by the world or by God. When we seek what God wants and respond to it, we are transformed by God and not by the world.
Yes, God’s command to holiness and love in our passage today resists any attempt to confine it to a time period. The mandate of holiness and the call for love of neighbor frame the concrete guidelines of life that God desires for his people for all times.
How we love God is evident in every action we take. Our behavior toward others is a witnesses to the very character and nature of the God we worship and serve. The question is, is our witness for good or for evil. Like it or not, there is a critical connection between our holiness and God’s holiness. Whenever we open our mouth, open or close our door, extend our hand in gestures kind or rude, our neighbor catches at least a glimpse of our God.
I ask you: Do you belong to God? Do you want to be free of the internal conflict of saying you believe, but find yourself looking for excuses to not be who God calls you to be? Then I invite you, I encourage you, to hear God’s call and be holy.