Ever wonder why Leviticus matters now? Rev. Dr. Sarah Melcher shares a reflection. This sermon was preached at Common Ground, Xavier’s ecumenical worship service. She returns to preach again, Sunday, March 30th at 8 pm in the Clock Tower Lounge.
In surveys done in a variety of Christian churches, the Gospel of Matthew is usually ranked as church people’s favorite book of the Bible. The other Gospels are rated highly in surveys, to be sure, but what would be church people’s least favorite book? Leviticus. Yup. Leviticus, the book from which today’s Scripture reading comes. So, you might ask, why did you choose a passage from Leviticus for this evening’s worship service, Dr. Melcher?
The answer is that this passage is very special. According to the foremost expert on Leviticus in the modern world, Dr. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 19 is understood as the pinnacle of ethics in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Milgrom found the chapter to be so rich with ethical principles that, rumor has it, he would devote an entire semester to teaching Leviticus 19. So, what makes this passage so special?
First, it begins with an appeal to the community to care for the poor. During harvest, the Israelites are to leave portions of their field un-harvested, so that the poor, the widows, the orphans, those without land of their own, like foreigners, may find some food to eat. This is the case whether the harvest is for grain or for grapes. Presumably, these examples are representative. The point is for individuals who have food to share a portion with those who need food. If we take seriously the instructions of verses 9-10, then we too will share a portion of what we have so that the poor will be able to eat.
The next three verses (11, 12, and 13) have to do with being honest in our dealings with others. The reader is provided with ethical guidelines for how to be honest with others in the community. Not surprisingly, the reader is instructed not to steal, but the stipulations here go deeper than that. These three verses intend to caution all of us against indulging in any kind of deception toward our neighbor. The list in verses 11, 12, and 13 argue against engaging in fraud of any kind, whether that entails a misrepresentation of who we are or what we intend. It certainly covers any deception that would result in any financial benefit to us and speaks against that. Verse 12 argues that speaking an untruth in the name of God is something very serious indeed. If we would attempt to deceive another person and swear by God’s name in order to convince that individual that we are sincere, it is seen as profaning God’s name. So, we are not to involve God in any dishonest dealing as that would be a breach of our relationship with God. However, the next verse reminds us that we are not to act dishonestly toward another human being, for that is a breach as well. The final half of verse 13 reminds us that we are to have compassion toward another person. If we owe wages to someone or need to pay someone for work done on our behalf, then we are to pay promptly, not to delay payment until it is more convenient for us.
The next guideline we encounter in the passage is of particular interest to me because of my research in theology and disability. Verse 14 reads, “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” This verse cautions the reader against treating a person with a disability in a way that is un-neighborly. As we shall see, the passage as a whole advocates for treating all neighbors in a way that fully honors them. This particular verse is couched in negative terms, admonishing the reader against treating a person with a disability badly. However, the framework for our passage is about how one treats one’s neighbor, how one treats other members of the community. Many of these verses provide an outer limit for kind and compassionate treatment of one’s neighbor. Yes, some of these are phrased in negative terms, such as you should not do this and that, but the primary emphasis is to provide an outside framework within which compassion behavior toward one’s neighbors is defined.
Part of the literary structure of this passage features the voice of God encouraging the members of the community to conduct themselves in a certain way. At the beginning of the passage, God urges the community to be holy because God is holy. In that way, the writer of the passage equates ethical behavior toward the neighbor with living a holy life. In terms of the ancient Hebrew language, to be holy meant to be separate or distinctive. It meant to live a life that was different from the norm, a life that is dedicated to God and to God’s way of living. The rest of the passage is peppered with reminders of God’s voice and the general call to holiness. Phrases such as “I am the Lord, your God” and “I am the Lord” remind the reader where these guidelines come from, from the God of Israel. Another phrase exhorts the reader to “fear the Lord.” However, the root meaning of the word translated here as “fear” more broadly means to have reverence for God or to be in awe of God, not necessarily to be fearful. The implication is that if one wishes to revere God, then one will follow God’s commandments.
In verse 15, the passage discusses maintaining fairness and impartiality when hearing community court cases. No favoritism should be shown to either the poor or the rich. Each case should be decided on its merits, a truly admirable goal.
The following verse disallows someone from slandering his or her neighbor, spreading negative information throughout the community that would cause people to think badly of the neighbor. The verse goes on to say that no one should profit from harm that comes to another: “you shall not profit by the bloodof your neighbor.” In other words, the passage argues that no one should harm a neighbor, neither by one’s words nor by physical means. Leviticus 19 broadens the idea of causing no harm to the person who was deaf or to one who was blind; as it forbids causing harm to any neighbor.
The voice of God in the text reminds the reader not to let a resentment get to the point where you hate your neighbor. If you have been hurt by your neighbor, the passage recommends confronting the neighbor about the hurt you experienced. Rather than harboring hate within one’s heart, it is better to speak to the person who has caused you pain and to be clear about what the individual did that caused harm to you. Once you have been straight forward about your resentment and have expressed your anger directly to the person who hurt you, the hatred will dissipate. These ancient authors understood that spiritual principle very well, that in order to put resentment to rest, it is important to have a chance to talk about it with the person who was involved in the first place. Extraordinarily, the ancient authors show us how to bring peace and potential reconciliation to a broken relationship.
Finally the reader is commanded not to take vengeance against anyone. Retaliation is out of the question. It is also not permitted to hold a grudge, rather, the text states “you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The standard then, is to love your neighbor so well that it is like loving yourself.
The statement that you should love your neighbor as yourself is very famous in Christian circles. Yet, here it is in the Pentateuch, one of the first five books of the Bible. Of course, we are more accustomed to seeing this commandment in the Christian Scriptures. In Matthew 22, for example, “a lawyer came to see Jesus and asked him, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22 is a famous passage, much more famous than that in Leviticus 19. However, when Jesus issues the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, he is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. Of course, when Jesus repeats the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, he is quoting Leviticus 19:18. The two most important commandments Jesus cites were well established in Jewish tradition, which shows Jesus’s own rootedness in Jewish tradition. However, the juxtaposition of these two passages in what Jesus tells the lawyer is intended to convey two things: how to have a relationship with God that honors God and how to have a relationship with other human beings that honors the image of God within them. Both are crucial in a life lived under the reign of God. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Sarah J. Melcher is the current chair of the Theology department. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Emory University and M. Div. from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She teaches Scripture in Emancipatory Perspectives, which stresses African American and Feminist/Womanist approaches, and African American Biblical Interpretation. Sarah Melcher is passionate about theology and reflects that passion to her students.