Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The lectionary from Leviticus begins with the familiar Levitical refrain: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD am holy” (19:2b).
What follows in this chapter is a miscellaneous series of laws beginning with the commands, familiar from the Decalogue, to honor father and mother, keep the Sabbaths, and make no idols in verses 2b-4, while verses 5-8 consist of ritual laws that provide the guidelines for the proper consumption of the sacrifice of wellbeing. The second part of the lectionary reading, verses 9-18, focuses on the ethical behavior of the people.
It is important to take into account the narrative context of the laws of Leviticus: the story of the exodus. Freed from slavery in Egypt, the people have not entered the land promised to them, and these laws look ahead to the time when they have settled in their homeland, outlining the way in which they are to conduct their lives once they are residents in the land promised to them. For example, the laws concerning gleaning and the payment of the day laborer are not directly relevant to the people while they are still encamped in the wilderness.
When one considers the future of the people once they are settled in Palestine–the future, that is, from a narrative perspective–the laws still do not function as individual prescriptions for right behavior because they do not include punishments for those who fail to follow them. They are best seen as part of a vivid description of the ideal community that is devoted to God. The grounding for this new community is, of course, Yahweh’s redemption of the people from slavery in Egypt. The memory of this redemption and their history as a people oppressed is built into the laws both by their narrative context as well as the emphasis on the ethical treatment of one’s fellow Israelite, especially those who are most vulnerable. In this way, the people’s concern for the disadvantaged reflects God’s own compassion for those who are susceptible to the manipulations of the powerful.
God is, thus, shown to be at the heart of the laws of the Torah. Indeed, it is the very character of Yahweh that provides the grounding for the ethical behavior of the community. The oft-repeated command, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 45; 20:7, 26; 21:8; cf. 22:32), does double-duty, implicitly naming God as the enforcer of these laws and also inextricably linking the quotidian details of the people’s daily lives with God’s own nature. Notice also the number of times one finds the divine assertion, “I am the LORD,” echoing throughout verses 9-18 (verses 10, 12, 14, 16, 18). The connection of the law with the character of God thus marks daily human interaction as sacred. The way one treats one’s neighbor is, thus, an act of devotion to God, and more than that serves to align the human realm with God’s vision for creation.
The laws of Leviticus 19:9-18 enjoin the people to be honest in all their dealings with one another, in financial dealings, in the courts, and in the fields so that they might create a community in which people can be trusted, in which laws are not just empty words, and everyone can live in safety. Interestingly, the language of these laws undergoes a gradual shift throughout these verses. It begins by identifying each of the particular groups to which the people are to respond ethically–the day laborer, the poor, the blind–interspersed with the more general term “neighbor” but by verse 18 the language of “neighbor” dominates.
Indeed, in the final verse of the unit, one finds “neighbor” no longer connected with those that might be considered “other”–those who are in any way not “like” the dominant group–but with one’s own family: “You shall not hate anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (verse 18). “Neighbor” is now identified as those who are kin and are part of the whole of God’s “people.”
The proximity of two powerful statements: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “I am the LORD” is a striking reminder of the basis of Christian community, a basis we share with the community of ancient Israel. We are fundamentally marked by the grace of God in our lives, working to bring us out of despair and darkness–in a word, “sin”–and into full communion with God and one another.
The command to love our neighbors as ourselves requires us to acknowledge that we have been loved more than we can comprehend and calls us to reflect that love to the rest of the world, a world made up of neighbors who need love and community as much as we do. Thus, Christian labor is participatory labor, enabling us to partner with God in the divine work of transforming the world so that it reflects the ever-loving character of its creator. Kathleen Norris writes: “God speaks to us…reminding us that by meeting the daily needs of the poor and vulnerable, characterized in the scriptures as the widows and the orphans, we prepare the way of the Lord and make our own hearts ready for the day of salvation.”1
1 Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work’, (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 22.