Law and Love
Can we talk for a moment about Leviticus?
Yeah. Leviticus...there's more to it than we think, I think.
Law and Love
February 23, 2014
Rev. Leanne Masters
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
Let me ask you, what’s the First thing that comes to mind with you think of “The Law” in terms of the Bible?
For some of us, the answer may be the 10 Commandments. For others, it may be that beautiful passage from Matthew where Jesus describes the “Greatest Law” as loving the Lord your God...and your neighbor as yourself.(1)
For many, however, even if we think of “The Law” first in these ways, there is this shadow hanging over our understanding of “The Law” that we having inherited from our tradition over the years.
This shadow that hangs over “The Law” primarily has to do with the lens through which the Gospel tradition approaches the law...namely through its handling of the Pharisees, that school of scholars and rabbis who interpreted the law for the general public.(2)
Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees are presented as strict fundamentalists, who had come up with a black and white interpretation of the law that provided the masses with an “easy” way of understanding what it was that they were supposed to do and what it was that they weren’t supposed to do in order to be righteous enough to earn God’s favor, a set of rules to follow that were not just taught but dictated and mandated. In this presentation, the Pharisees are purported to be more concerned with following the letter of the law, as opposed to caring about the spirit of the law, making this list of rules, not just as outlined in the Torah, but in the oral traditions and other writings as well, hard and fast and without exception. This distinction is made particularly apparent as Jesus debates such things with them as the observance of the Sabbath, as they make an attempt to attack him for doing such “work” as plucking grain and healing on the Sabbath, saying “don’t you know that you are supposed to keep the Sabbath Holy by not working?”...with Jesus responding, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”(3)
Thanks to this inheritance of tradition concerning the law, we tend to view “the law”, and especially the books of the Old Testament which contain it, with more than a little bit of a side-eye. We somewhat scoff at the idea that we can simply follow a set list of rules and be considered good-to-go. Besides, on the rare occasion that we actually turn to the books that contain the law, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, they seem to be so filled with outdated and, to our modern sensibilities, often bizarre teachings, that it seems best to simply set the whole thing aside. Especially Leviticus, with its ongoing list of purity laws and regulations. We choose to simply ignore it. Focus, instead, on the teachings of Jesus, like “The greatest commandment are these: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
And while I am not a huge fan of everything that you find in Leviticus, and belive that there are many parts of it is culturally based, and can best understood within the framework of a specific context, some of which is not applicable today, I believe that it is a mistake to simply write off a book like Leviticus because, in doing so, we lose an important understanding of God and God’s relationship with humankind, and what God expects our part in that relationship should be.
Since we don’t spend a whole lot of time in Leviticus, it is important to first take a look at what Leviticus actually is, and from there, we can begin to develop that understanding.
Generally understood as written by priests(4) around the time of the Exile, a time when the people of Israel were struggling to maintain not only their sense of identity, their history, culture and traditions, but their very relationship with God, the book of Leviticus can be divided into four distinct sections.(5)
Chapters 1-7 deal with the sacrificial system. Writing down what, how, and for what purpose various sacrifices should be made. This was designed to help people understand and remember how best to atone for various types and manners of sin and “get right with God.”
Chapters 8-10 outline the consecration, or ordination, of priests, giving authority and credence to the figures at the helm of religious life in the midst of the turmoil of the Exile.
Chapters 11-15 are the impurity laws detailing things like dietary restrictions, general and specific rules for “cleanliness” and “uncleanliness,” including describing the diagnosis and treatment of various forms of leprosy.
The rest of Leviticus, chapters 17-26, nearly 40% of the book, is reserved for what’s known as The Holiness Code, instruction on how to live a holy life which has the character of a direct address by God to the people of Israel(6) helping them to understand just what it meant to be holy.(7)
This is God telling the people how to live, not just in terms of piety, ritual and purity, but in terms of how they acted and interacted,(8) what their ethics were. Particularly in chapter 19, where we find our reading this morning, we find God declaring to the people that holiness, a life lived in right relationship with God in response to God’s gifts and God’s goodness, is not just a matter of following a set of rules and regs, but it is something that requires ethical behavior towards other people.(9)
In other words, despite our understandings and misunderstandings of Leviticus, it is not about just what we should do, but how the people of God should understand what it means to live a holy life in relationship with God...in work, in worship, and in daily living...and how we should be in relationship with each other and with God.
It’s this how we should be in relationship with each other and with God that is crying out to us from the text today, as the priests who compiled these words were hopeful that the people would hear them and would live a life that was good and righteous and holy in all aspects of their lives.
And it’s this how we should be in relationship with each other that we find Jesus echoing here today, as he expands on what he meant just a few sentences before when he said that, indeed, he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.(10) In his words here, and in other places, he helps us to understand how to live into what the holiness code in chapter 19 of Leviticus was crying out to the people in the time of Exile, what it was crying out to the people in the world of Jesus, and what it is crying out to us today.
Love each other, as God first loved us.
Don’t just lurve each other, but act on that love, living it out in the world.
Feed the Hungry.
Care for the poor.
Defend the defenseless.
Withstand injustice, and stand for justice for yourself and for all.
Pray for those whom you would rather not, and harbor no hate in your heart, even towards those who have hurt you.
Love each other, as God first loved us...striving for perfection in these things because we should strive to live into the perfect love that God shows us.
Love each other, as God first loved us...seeking holiness, that life lived in right relationship with God in response to God’s gifts and God’s goodness.
Sisters and brothers, may the law of the love of God rule in your hearts and in your minds and in your lives. May you know the love of God in your life, and may you love each other, all whom God gives you, as God first loved you.
Matthew 26 NRSVish
Aslan, Reza. Zealot:The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. pg 21.
Mark 2:27 NRSV
Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 4, K-N, Leviticus, Book of, by Baruch A Levine, pg 319 C.1.
As presented in Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, by John J Collins.
Levine, pg 316 B.2.b.(2)
Matthew 5:17 NRSV