Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
In Leviticus, Moses sits in the tent of meeting, awaiting Yahweh’s ongoing instructions for the covenant people on the brink of entering into the land of promise: Canaan.
Much of Leviticus consists of laws specifically geared toward the priestly office (how sacrifice is to be made, how to maintain purity, the doctrine of pollution, and so on). To follow these laws was to ensure being a good host for the presence of Yahweh to dwell in the land.
Be Holy, as I am Holy
But chapters 17-26 (the Holiness Code or the H text) of Leviticus shift from codes and instructions for the ritual priesthood to the everyday Jane and John of the covenant who may not be priests, per se. Laity indeed also play a crucial role in the welfare of Israel. As those who belong to Yahweh are transitioning from enslavement to Pharaoh to covenant with God, a new way of life must be established for religious leaders and laity alike, setting all who consider themselves children of the covenant apart from neighboring religious folk.
Preachers can speak to God’s desire that as those who love God we should imitate God and so find that we are becoming holy people. We are being transformed as we take on the postures of God in our day to day comings and goings. And our world is also being transformed as we embrace and live into the imago dei (the image of God). These codes speak to how anyone in “relational reach of an Israelite” must feel: welcome, fed, respected.1
These particular codes also are about maintaining the holiness of the land.
If all who reside in Canaan, according to the author of this material, reflect holiness to one another, then it is as if a holy aura accumulates to give shelter to all those creatures who dwell in that land. But if the people do not live into the holiness they are called to, the whole land is polluted.
Preachers may consider an ecological sermon from the theology of this text. Linking it to Romans 8:22, where is our creation groaning? Why? What sort of new world can you imagine before the congregation with your sermon? What sort of relational presence answers those cries on behalf of creation?
I think many sermons can spring forth from this theological claim of the text: the ways in which we reflect God in our relationships with one another either bless or curse the land, bless or curse our neighbors, bless or curse our world. To violate a relationship with our kin, neighbor, the alien in our midst, or our land is to violate our relationship with God. This is sin. And it defiles the people of God.
Common Law: Be a Good Neighbor
This helps explain perhaps Leviticus 19:15, which, in and of itself, is an awkward verse. There is not one law of the land for the poor and another law for the rich. All of God’s children are to abide by the same laws of neighborliness, and ordinary holiness, no matter how rich or poor in economic resources.
Yet, some of the laws strike more clearly at those who are of the richer class than those who are poor. For there seems to be an acknowledgment here of whom has power over whom:
“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)
“You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16)
And of course, an important selection of the law that our lectionary pericope skips over:
“When you reap the harvest of your land…You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10).
As the preacher prepares a sermon from this series of relational codes, some questions arise that only she can begin to answer from within her particular context:
- Who are the neighbors who we are profiting from as their blood is shed, or harm is done to them?
- Consider the way you define neighbor in a global context, in which our clothes are made by neighbors in once faraway places such as China or Bangladesh? How are they treated?
- Are we standing idly by while some neighbor (or group of neighbors) is in grave danger?
- What neighbors need to be awakened to the plight of our community in order to restore holiness and justice in the land?
- What grudges are being clung to, destroying the quality of relational life in our church?
Again, these laws are about purity and pollution. What does it mean that the bloodshed of our neighbors pollutes our land and prevents the presence of God from being tangible in our land?
Love of neighbor in the New Testament
The last verse of this section is quoted by Jesus (as seen in our gospel reading for today), as well as a rich young ruler inquiring about a life of following Jesus (Matthew 19:19), and a lawyer trying to test Jesus’ adherence to the law (Luke 10:27). But we also hear this law come through Paul in Romans 13:9-10 and Galatians 5:14 (“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”).
What we see in these texts is the fact that knowing the law in our head does not always guarantee living the law out in the world. Jesus must expand people’s notions of neighbor in order for the commandment to be lived out in full.
1. Rolf A. Jacobson and Karl N. Jacobson. “The Old Testament and the Neighbor.” Word and World, Vol. 37, No. 1 Winter 2017. 20.