Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Imitation of God’s compassion and mercy will guide God’s people

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October 29, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

The Lord’s holiness

Leviticus 19 appears in the section of Leviticus that many scholars refer to as the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-27), and holiness lies at the heart of Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19 opens with a call to holiness:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

Leviticus 19 contains instructions from the Lord to Moses, and they are addressed to the entire community of Israel. While many sections of Leviticus contain instructions specifically for priests, the whole community is called to keep the commandments in Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19:2 also explains why the Israelites should keep these commandments: the Israelites should strive to be holy to imitate God who is holy. Holiness is a complex concept at the heart of the logic in the Holiness Code.1 Holiness first names something central to who the Lord is: God is fundamentally set apart from creation and different from humans. Holiness is also something that humans can receive from God. Humans can increase their holiness through specific kinds of actions; this is why Leviticus 19 begins with a call to holiness and continues with a series of commandments guiding human actions.

Humans practicing holiness

Humans are called to imitate God’s holiness and become more like God even though their efforts will not erase the fundamental gap between them. Some human movement toward holiness involves reflecting how God is set apart from creation—some commandments guide the Israelites in how to be a people set apart from other peoples. Other human endeavors toward holiness entail imitating God’s character. Many Old Testament texts illustrate God’s character, and considering them can illuminate why various qualities of character are emphasized in the commandments for practicing holiness. For example, in Exodus 34:6-7, the Lord identifies mercy, faithfulness, steadfast love, being slow to anger, and justice as key qualities of God’s character, and these are reflected in the commandments of Leviticus 19.

Leviticus 19:15-18 exemplifies commandments that guide the imitation of God’s character.

Leviticus 19:15 calls for fair legal proceedings that are unbiased in relation to the parties’ economic resources; this commandment contributes to an emphasis on justice throughout Old Testament law.

The first half of Leviticus 19:16 instructs humans to avoid harming community members through dishonest speech—a kind of faithfulness.

The interpretation of the latter part of Leviticus 19:16 is debated. The New Revised Standard Version translation reflects one interpretation of this phrase: “you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.” Robert Alter’s translation stays closer to the Hebrew phrasing and helps readers see how it is open to different interpretations: “You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow man.” Alter explains that a common interpretation of this verse is a call to intervene and assist when a community member has been injured.2 Imitation of God’s compassion and mercy drives this kind of aid.

The commandments in Leviticus 19:17-18 continue the theme of good relationships with other members of the community. These verses caution against inward feelings and actions that harm community members. Each of these verses begins with a prohibition and ends with a positive directive. People should avoid hatred and grudges toward their neighbors, and they should refrain from acting on such impulses. Instead, one should hold neighbors accountable and offer correction when appropriate—both for the sake of one’s neighbor and to avoid complicity in their wrongdoing—and one should “love your neighbor as yourself” (New Revised Standard Version). This commandment functions as a kind of summary of the preceding teachings and has fittingly become a famous encapsulation of much of the Old Testament law. This teaching calls God’s people to imitate God’s abounding steadfast love as they interact with all the people they meet in their everyday lives.3

The conclusion of Leviticus 19:18 reinforces how God’s character is the foundation of these teachings. The “I am the LORD” motive clause is frequently repeated throughout the teachings of Leviticus and underscores that God’s people are called to keep these commandments because of who God is.

The greatest commandments

Jesus’ selection of Leviticus 19:18 as one of the greatest commandments seems fitting after considering its context in Leviticus 19’s instructions for all God’s people to imitate God’s character. In Matthew 22:36-40,4 Jesus famously identifies the two greatest commandments by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18—love for God and love for one’s neighbors. Jesus’ emphasis on love is not an innovation but a reflection of his deep understanding of the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament law—including Leviticus 19 and the Ten Commandments—guide God’s people in their relationship with God and other members of the community. As Jesus rightly recognizes, love is both a central quality of God’s character and an effective summary of much of the Old Testament’s teaching.


  1. Jacob Milgrom has an excellent detailed account of holiness in his Anchor Bible Commentaries on Leviticus, and this reflection draws on some of his insights. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, AB 3A (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 1594-1726.
  2. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Volume 1 The Five Books of Moses (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019), 432.
  3. While different Hebrew words are used for love in Exodus 34:6-7 and Leviticus 19:18, the word for love in Leviticus 19:18 is used of God’s love in other Old Testament passages, including Hosea 3:1.
  4. See also Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8.
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