Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for Reformation Sunday, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.
In most versions of the lectionary, Old Testament readings from Leviticus occur once or twice every three years.1 Leviticus surely stands among the least treated biblical books in the lectionary, and a greater neglect may occur in churches that do not follow a regular pattern of scripture lessons. My own preaching and teaching ministry has sadly lived down to this reputation. Although this isn’t the place to debate the merits of the lectionary or the use of Leviticus in the Christian church, perhaps we can agree that Leviticus at least deserves a little more of the love it asks us to show to our neighbor. As we celebrate Reformation Day later in the week, isn’t fitting that sola scriptura should remind us of this forgotten book?
Of course, it’s not going to be easy. Even our extremely brief selection from Leviticus 19 contains some of the very reasons why the book as a whole doesn’t come close to our “canon within the canon.” We struggle with the apparent randomness and disorder of the laws as well as the obscure background of Israelite religious rituals. And, if the main point is neighbor-love, can’t we just stick with today’s gospel reading where Jesus reaffirms this command for his followers (Matthew 22:34-36)? Let’s not, however, be too hasty. It certainly behooves his followers to study Jesus’ own sermon text in its original context. As for randomness and obscurity, modern commentaries can certainly help us understand the meaning of our passage in its context.2
If we decide to make the best of this challenging situation, I believe our congregations can understand this ancient text of scripture as speaking a fresh word from God for them as they struggle with relationships. Most church members aren’t looking for a quick fix to their problems or easy answers to their questions. They struggle to love their neighbor precisely because of the high expectations they have for themselves, namely to treat others impartially, honestly, and lovingly — the very expectations Leviticus 19:15-18 had for Israelites. Whatever final form your sermon on this text may take, here are some possible insights to consider when thinking about reforming relationships.
Who is involved? Several portions of Leviticus focus specifically on priests, for example, but the mandates of chapter 19 are meant for “all the congregation of the people of Israel” (v. 2). While there is certainly some range in OT usage of the term, “congregation” (‘ēdâ), both the context and the content of the commands in chapter 19 embrace all people. If all members of the community are addressed by these ideals, it is also true that everyone — neighbor, people, brother, friend — is an object of the actions in view. The easily overlooked person in the midst of human relationships is the God whose authority and intimacy is highlighted by the repetition of “I am the Lord” (vv. 16, 18, etc).
What is commanded? The essence of all the precepts in our passage, of course, is the statement, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18). But the context helps to put skin on the bones of this moral imperative. Love is not a mere feeling or disposition toward another person; it ushers forth in standards for relationships, calling for truthful speech, equal justice, and a willingness to keep our neighbor from going astray. One scholar has noted the interesting and rare grammatical construction, where the verb “love” (‘āhab) is followed not by the expected direct object marker but by a preposition (lĕ), as if to say, “love to your neighbor.” He concludes that the verb “has a more concrete meaning than mere, abstract love. It denotes the act of being useful and beneficial to its object.”3
How do we live this out? Here I would call attention to the blessing of negativity in this passage. Yes, I know the old Johnny Mercer song asked us to “eliminate the negative” in favor of “accentuating the positive;” but frankly there are just too many uses of the word “not” in this passage to ignore. The nine “you shall not’s” (in Hebrew; NRSV combines some of them) help to clarify and specify what is mean by the three “you shall” commands. While the Bible does not encourage an ethic grounded totally in avoiding what’s wrong, neither does it leave us without some guidance about doing what’s right. Whether it’s saying “no” to some things and “yes” to others, there should be consistency between our thoughts/desires (what’s “in your heart”) and our actions.
Why should we live this way? Above all, this passage finds its energy and rationale in verse 2: “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The concept of holiness is elusive, but the accent here is on God’s nature as we reflect his image in our lives. In much of Leviticus, being holy refers to ceremonial fitness for being in the presence or service of God. Chapter 19 reveals that holiness embraces more than what we call religious activities today. God’s holiness requires us to live justly and truthfully in relation to others. Strengthening this theological motivation is the phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself.” At the deepest level, loving others flows from the recognition that they are “like us,” that they bear the image of God with us. With Reformation Day approaching, we might do well to reacquaint ourselves with the way this brief passage of Leviticus reforms our thinking of what it means to fulfill the law of love.
1The same basic passage appears here on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (but only in the “complementary” readings) and earlier in Year A on the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (not observed this year because Lent began early).
2A thorough, technical treatment is found in Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-26, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2002).
3Abraham Malamat, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’: what it really means,” Biblical Archaeology Review 16 (1990): 51.