The book of Leviticus is one that many people avoid reading. It is full of laws about, for example, the sacrificial system and special ceremonies and customs to be observed. Relevant for Jewish priests two millennia ago, perhaps, but not for us, surely? Yet Jesus in the sermon on the mount shows us how to get to the heart of such laws, and it is useful to do the same as we think about that Leviticus passage.
The most obviously relevant parts of the reading are at the beginning and the end. The last verse is the law that Jesus said was second only to the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart: Love your neighbour as yourself. In its context we can see that this law really does summarise the preceding instructions – or rather, the preceding instructions give practical examples of how to love our neighbour. Let’s see how they work out – not so much looking at the letter of the law, but at the spirit of them. What do they show about God, and about how they want us to behave in the 21st century?
We begin with instructions about not maximising your profits! The context is harvesting by hand – leave some for the poor and the immigrants to glean. But the principle applies to many situations today: the ‘haves’ are duty bound to look after the ‘have nots’.
The next few instructions are more easily applied to life today – do not steal, do not lie or deceive one another (we can deceive without telling a lie), do not defraud people. Swearing falsely is an attempt to deceive that drags God into it – that is profanity. The instruction about the wages of a hired man were given when a day’s wages bought the next day’s food – if they were withheld the labourer and his family did not eat. Two principles are at work – paying one’s dues promptly, and not causing suffering to anyone. Cursing the deaf or tripping up the blind are obvious misuses of power; not so obvious is a judge showing favouritism to the poor – that is as bad as favouritism to the strong.
Throughout the reading the reason for these laws is given: ‘I am the LORD.’ These words remind us of the statement at the beginning: ‘Be holy, because I the LORD your God am holy.’ The word ‘holy’ means ‘set apart’: God is set apart from the rest of his creation in that he is the creator, with no beginning or end. We are to be set apart from the rest of God’s creation in the sense that we are special, set apart for God, his chosen ones. We are his representatives in the world, and that we means we are show by our lives something of what God is like. The reason God wants us to behave with such love and generosity towards our neighbours at home and in business is because that is what God is like.
The natural reaction to such teaching is to look for the get-out clause – how can we get away with being less generous? Who is my neighbour? The sermon on the mount leaves us in no doubt about Jesus’ attitude.
1) What do these laws teach us about God?
2) How would you rewrite these laws for today’s world?