The Liberation message of Leviticus, and other thoughts on God’s Law

This month, I decided to preach the lectionary texts in church.  I don’t use the lectionary often, but when I do, God always uses those seemingly random scripture lessons in amazing ways.

Until I saw the text for February 20th.  On Leviticus.

You know Leviticus, right?  It’s the third book of the Torah and it contains those long lists of rules and regulations for Hebrew priests.

Among other things, it governs what to eat, how to dress, how to practice justice fairly, and what kind of punishments to administer for bad behavior.  When people read their Bible from cover to cover, there is a huge temptation to skip Leviticus altogether.

Nor is it a book you hear preachers preach on unless they find one or two laws that they use to condemn others (while ignoring larger portions of the book that they are likely disobeying, like wearing mixed-blend clothes).

But it was in the lectionary and, as I mentioned, God has an unusual way of showing up between the lines.

Leviticus 19 stands in a section (chs. 17-26) known as the “Holiness codes,” because of the key refrain in 19:2: “Be holy for I the Lord am holy.”  The codes remind Israel that one’s relationship with others and all of creation affect one’s relationship with God.

I was surprised to find some very interesting commands in chapter 19.  Verses 9-10 tell people to leave some of their harvest for the poor and for immigrants.  Verses 15-16 explain that justice should not be impartial, especially for the poor.  The rest of the chapter talks about how to appropriately relate to and treat women, the poor (yet again), animals, the land, and “the alien who resides with you.”

As I was wondering how I was going to preach on this chapter, it hit me.  I can’t really preach it if I want to keep my job.  If I were to simply retell these commands, I would sound very much like a socialist left-wing liberal communist environmentalist feminist who advocated for the poor, women, the marginalized, the environment, immigrants and refugees, and day-laborers.  Oh boy.

Truth is, we must always consider the source and historical background of the biblical text because if we don’t, we can read our own ideologies into the text rather than let the Bible speak for itself.  My job is safe after all.

There are so many things in Leviticus that we Christians do not follow because we know, first, that Jesus (as did Paul; see Romans and Galatians) freed us from the letter of the law to live in the spirit of the law; and, second, that times are a-changin’.  For instance, who among us would actually stone a child for talking back or refrain from a tasty barbecue pork sandwich?

Like Jesus, we have to reach deeper into this text because we are not a theocracy.  Leviticus was written for a very different culture and time.  Very few of us farm, we no longer have female slaves, and we have a federal minimum wage that governs how much we pay people.

But God’s Word still speaks to us, and there is still a message here to preach.

Leviticus is actually quite the opposite of what we think the Torah is.  We think the Torah–or law–is something that binds us or holds us in bondage.  When we read the book for what it is, however, we find that it is actually a very liberating book.  Leviticus helps us to rediscover healthy relationships–with each other, with creation, with the earth, and with those who are on the margins of society.  It liberates us from our own power-hungry, profit-margin scrambling, selfish desires to get ahead at the expense of others.

No wonder Jesus said that the two greatest commandments focused on the love that Leviticus and the Law expressed so long ago: love of God and love of neighbor.  The message of Leviticus–and the liberating Good News therein–would have it no other way.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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