I am the Lord your God…(Leviticus 19 considered)

Leviticus gets a lot of bad press.  The book of restrictions; hundreds of rules covering food, fashion and all manner of human behaviour.  When someone of a very conservative opinion wants to tell you what’s wrong with society, a quick tour through Leviticus gives them all the ammunition they need.  “See how we’ve abandoned the commandments – the statues of God?”  Sure enough, many of these regulations have been set aside by modern believers – even some modern Jewish believers are less observant than Scripture says is desirable.  Times change, is the defence.  We no longer feel it is right to stone children for disobedience.  Women are not seen as property; our feelings on slavery and economics have changed, yet the law is the law, isn’t it?  I will happily confess that, where “biblical law” is concerned, I observe and obey selectively.  I search the law with intent to discern the way God calls us to live – and I claim biblical precedent for this approach; think of the challenge to Jesus about which was the “greatest” commandment…

The rules laid out for us this morning are rules for relationship – and we’d like to think that those still merit our consideration.  This particular section of Leviticus seems to focus on the same concerns that we see outlined in what we have come to call the Ten Commandments – expressing the holiness of God, the sanctity of the sabbath, and the need for integrity in our dealings with our fellow human beings.

Revere your parents.  honour God; leave a little for the poor and the alien; don’t cheat, steal or lie.  Be fair in your daily encounters and don’t bear a grudge.  Love your neighbour as yourself.  There are all good, sensible, honourable ways to live – and as followers of Jesus, we find that there is nothing here to disagree with.   Jesus offers us these same suggestions – in parable and in practice – throughout the gospels.  Jesus wasn’t making up new rules – he was calling attention to these ancient ideals in new and alarming ways.

We can rightly claim that we want to follow these principles because Jesus told us to – but Leviticus gives us even better motivation.  Over and over again – eight times by my count (in this morning’s reading) – those who recorded the law gave the only reason they needed for such behaviour: “I am the Lord (or the Lord your God)”  These instructions for good human relations come out of the character of God; they reflect God’s desire for the good of Creation.  Why should you honour your parents?  I am the Lord your God.  Leave some of your harvest for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.  Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.  The refrain is purposeful – not to inspire fear, but to draw attention to the one who stands at the centre of every promise, and draws people to the hope of something better.  I am – the one who met Moses in the wilderness – who led the people out of bondage; the one who created with a word all that is, was and every shall be – God claims a people by offering them a new way of being.  Compassionate; honest; loving; just.  Those who endeavour to live in this way will find they have a share in the redemption of Creation.  Their exodus from slavery to freedom is a metaphor for the process that will bring God’s reign to earth.

Now, the possession of these ‘holy rules’ did not guarantee anything.  And the notion that ‘if only we follow the rules’ we will be saved; well that didn’t help either.  We have a preferential option for poor behaviour it seems, and God knows it.  So it’s no surprise that Jesus comes emphasizing the law and even repackaging it for his ‘modern audience’.  “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”; Jesus offers a litany (in Matthew’s gospel) of better behaviour – kingdom behaviour – and wraps it up with a troubling phrase “Be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.”  And to think, only last week, I stood here and told you Jesus wasn’t calling us to perfection.  “What about it, preacher man?  Can you talk your way out of this one?

What if I tell you that the word generally translated as ‘perfect’ comes from a greek word that means “ultimate goal, object or aim.”  What if I tell you, based on that understanding of the word,  that this is a call to be ‘God-like’ – to remember that we have been made in God’s image.  What if the purpose of such instruction is to help us model ourselves after God, whose character is reflected in love of neighbour and tolerance of error and the subversive correction of injustice (rich are poor; foolish are wise; slaves triumph over established power of Egypt…).

Idealist nonsense, you say.  Careless interpretation too.  How can we presume to be ‘god-like’ without breaking the commandment and making gods of ourselves?  But rather than argue over interpretive principles, what if we asked ourselves how the world might be changed if we were to follow these relationship commandments?  We might remember that Jesus felt so strongly about  these behaviours that he build parables around them, and used the application of those rules to openly defy the power that eventually arrested and executed him.  We might be encouraged by the thought that the reign of God, promised and sought by the faithful of countless generations, is in our midst even now.  It has taken flesh and dwells among us – we have been called by name to an eternal task that plays out in the here and now.  And if what we say we believe about the majesty of God and the person and purpose of Jesus is even remotely true; if we believe that the Spirit of God is with us and working in and around us, then these are the rules we must live by – rules that repair and redefine human relationships; rules that honour integrity, justice, compassion and love.

Of course, our behaviour may not instantly change all that is troublesome and terrifying about the world we now live in; there are some problems that require more than just one or ten individual life-changes to solve.  But our willingness to live as God calls us to live – to live in understanding, empathy and mutual care and respect – these habits will change the way we see and understand the world, and that is the first step toward the kingdom long promised.

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