Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Christian Case for Leviticus

From the Old Testament lesson for the Daily Office today:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.
 When you offer a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord, offer it in such a way that it is acceptable in your behalf. It shall be eaten on the same day you offer it, or on the next day; and anything left over until the third day shall be consumed in fire. If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is an abomination; it will not be acceptable. All who eat it shall be subject to punishment, because they have profaned what is holy to the Lord; and any such person shall be cut off from the people.
 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
 You shall not render an unjust; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
(Leviticus 19:1-18, NRSV)

In the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, it has always been fashionable to denounce and belittle the Book of Leviticus as “un-Christian” and appalling in its violence, its emphasis on “external” purity, and its equating such things as the mixing of fibers in clothing with the holiness of God. So deeply engrained is this bias and arrogance that modern practitioners continue this tradition freely and without censure in most churches today. In the contemporary Episcopal Church this is commonly done from the perspective of sexuality, due to Leviticus’ clarity in proscribing same-sex relations. Each era in Christianity, it seems, has to continue the practice of vilifying our forbearers in faith by reading this book either out of context or without understanding its profound insights through humble, patient study.

But short of an outright prohibition on reading the text, there is no way to avoid seeing the Gospel in today’s reading from Leviticus. The linkage between cultic ritual, moral consciousness, and communal justice/mercy is obvious, down to the very words so familiar to us in Jesus’ teaching: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These eighteen verses present to us the Gospel in miniature. We belittle them at our own expense and to the detriment of our faith.

Beyond this, the Book of Leviticus—meant for the Jewish people, but also Holy Writ and thus God's word and profitable to Christians—speaks to us about one of the great concerns underlying all of Jesus’ ministry: the organic interrelationship between God, neighbor, the true self, and the created world around us. Living in this integrated way is a main thrust of the Mosaic Law and the Gospel; not living in this way is a sign of deep spiritual and societal disorder and illness.

When we live our lives “out of order,” various maladies strike us, and we begin to develop ever-more elaborate systems to justify our sicknesses and injustices…forming our own caricature of the Law. An example of this springs to mind. A friend told me of being in seminary and hearing about a classmate found to be involved in the making of pornography. Once this was revealed, the student in question was not removed from seminary for this obviously disordered action. He was eventually removed—wait for it—for making pornography without using condoms! Gee! Who is getting legalistic and exterior now?!

Whether it be in our political, economic, ethical, or spiritual dimensions, we are called to live a completely whole life before God, in other words “to walk with integrity.” None of us (most especially the present writer) does this on our own. The life of faith is demanding for a very good reason. It requires humility, repentance, and the infusion of God’s grace at every turn. We can only become truly ourselves in a life of total, freeing dependence on the God who made, redeemed, and loved us so much that he gave his only Son for us. That is the message of the Gospel, built squarely on the foundations laid in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Pentateuch. Churches, communities, and traditions in Christianity that cannot take this life and calling seriously or who reduce this vocation to the mere outward observance of some political or socio-economic code will ultimately be destroyed—and deservedly so. As St. Paul reminds us, God is not mocked, and our God asks not for a portion of our lives, but for everything.

What God has ordained is a changed person, not a change of clothes. Leviticus, Christ Jesus our Lord, and all the Holy Scriptures teach us this: we should be less concerned with judging the teacher than receiving the teaching.

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