We read from Leviticus only once in every three year lectionary cycle. Chapter 19, from which we read a thin slice on Sunday, is the heart of the “The Holiness Code” in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the command to be holy like God.
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I am the Lord your God and I am holy.
‘Holy’ has a number of meanings in Leviticus and this passage reflects a debate about holiness and purity. Some argued that holiness meant that to be holy one had to separate oneslf from the dirtiness of everyday life so that the items, whether it was clothes or holy vessels or even the priests, themselves, should be kept separate and ‘clean’ for God. The other argument, that this passage reflects, is that holiness is to be part of everyday life. We are to infuse every act, every thing, with purity of action and usage that we would as if we were doing it before God.
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
Holiness means extending the same reverence to one another in daily life as the Hebrews showed to God when they approached the Holy of Holies. The principle is that worship of God cannot be holy if dealings with other people are not holy. Injurious conduct hurts both society and God.
“Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people…”
Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt speaks of complicity. It states that if you see wrongdoing, correct it. Otherwise you become an ‘accessory after the fact’.
Next comes the heart of the passage, from which Jesus quotes in today’s gospel: Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Treat others as you wish to be treated is the standard that God sets. The benefit of following God’s command is community well being.
Three times in Sunday’s passage and twenty-one other times within Leviticus, God punctuates statements with I am the Lord. This statement is the ‘seal of authenticity’, the sacred sign of the significance of the instruction. It emphasizes to the Israelites the importance that God attaches to just relationships between one another.
Jesus appears to have read and thought deeply about this passage from Leviticus. Sunday’s gospel reads, in part, that when One of them (the Pharisees), an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jewish tradition counts 613 commandments: 248 positive injunctions and 365 prohibitions. The laws were also divided into “heavy” and “light”. The heavy ones were absolutely binding and the light ones were less binding. There was no unanimous agreement about which laws were heavy and which were light, so the Pharisees and Scribes debated the merits of their particular divisions and the ranking of laws within the division endlessly. This was the basis of the question to Jesus.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
This is Jesus’ restatement of the Holiness Code of Leviticus.
- Who are the people that you dislike so intensely that you avoid them? St. Theresa of Lisieux a French Catholic Discalced Carmelite nun, who died in 1897, made a point of being extra kind to people she found disagreeable. When she died, one of the people whom she had confessed to finding very unlikeable, reported that while Theresa was kind to everyone, “I was her favorite”.
- If you used two headings for the 10 commandments, 1) Love God and 2) Love your neighbour, how many commandments would you group under each heading? Does the number suggest anything to you?
- In the past few weeks the gospels from Matthew have stressed the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, Scribes, Herodians and priests. Recall the question about whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, the challenge to his authority when he drove the money changers from the temple, or the parable about the banquet to which the invited guests refused to come. Yet in each of these instances, one can read the gospel as a sincere effort on Jesus’ part to answer their questions honestly and to use the question as an opportunity to inform them. In other words, Jesus practiced the injunction to love his neighbour as himself.