Sermon preached June 23, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Leviticus 18:19-26; 19:9-15, 18-19, 33-34; 25:8-17, 25-28
So here is the Bible I received from my church in the spring of my third grade year – “Young Reader’s Bible.” Doesn’t this just look like the kind of Bible young readers would want to carry around with them – hip, sleek, elegant. May 26, 1968 – doesn’t this just say “1960s”?
Another feature of the Bible was that it used different print sizes. The smallest type was used for long lists of names or rules or materials. Most of the Book of Leviticus is printed in this smallest type.
But here we are. Someone suggested Leviticus for the sticky Scriptures sermon series this summer, so here we are. Leviticus – oh joy!
Before diving into the text, a few words about the book may be helpful. Leviticus takes its name from a Greek term meaning, “of the Levites.” The Hebrew name for the book translates “the manual of the priests.” This is a text focused on rules for Levites, for priests, though there are a number of other rules and laws intended for everyone. There is a great deal of instruction about worship and animal sacrifice. Such material really begins in Exodus 25 and extends through Numbers 10. Robert Alter in his wonderful translation of the first five books of the Bible, The Torah (The Five Books of Moses) writes of the material in Leviticus: Most of the laws… are focused on topics that may seem less than urgent to audiences not part of the ancient world in which they were framed (539)…. The preoccupations with dermatological conditions, genital discharges, mildew, the recipes for fritters and breads used in the cult, and the dissection of animals and the distinctions among their various inner organs does not correspond to modern assumptions about the content of great sacred literature (544-545).
So we have this book full of rules and laws that arise from a cultural situation very different from our own. Much of the material is more concerned with ritual purity than with broad moral issues. Some have argued that many of the rules and laws had a survival function for a small, nomadic community. Cleanliness can mitigate disease. But we who live in a very different social milieu, with numerous public health laws, and with a dramatically different understanding of religious life (there will be no animal sacrifices here today), is there anything in Leviticus for us? How might we discern what has continuing relevance from what seems distinctly culture-bound and time-bound? The question matters because for all its obscurity, passages from Leviticus are still hauled out to condemn certain behaviors. Are these good readings of the text?
I think there are some things for us here in Leviticus, though I would be content to leave a great deal of the book in the smallest print of my Young Readers Bible. 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 (19:2). I think this is at the heart of Leviticus, being holy, being transformed by God toward a divine-like character. Eugene Peterson, in the introduction to his paraphrase of Leviticus, writes this about holiness. Holy refers to life burning with an intense purity that transforms everything it touches into itself. Leviticus, at its heart wants to communicate something about God and the divine-human relationship.
Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book God in Search of Man: a philosophy of Judaism, writes about this as well. Human life is a point where mind and mystery meet…. Man is driven to commune with that which is beyond the mystery. The ineffable in him seeks a way to that which is beyond the ineffable…. Beyond the mind is mystery, but beyond the mystery is mercy. Out of the darkness comes a voice disclosing that the ultimate mystery is not an enigma but the God of mercy. (353)
This desire to connect with God, merciful and holy, is the heart of the laws and rules of Judaism and of Leviticus. The rules of observance are law in form and love in substance…. Law is what holds the world together; love is what brings the world forward. The law is the means, not the end; the way, not the goal. One of the goals is “Ye shall be holy.” (323).
At its heart, Leviticus is about holiness, about a fire burning in our lives that transforms us. It is about our relationship with a holy God. But what does holiness mean beyond this image of the burning fire of life? Leviticus helps answer this question, too.
Holiness is about justice, about fairness. When harvesting, one is supposed to leave a little in the fields. “You shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” Alien here is the term used for immigrant or non-citizen. “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity.”
And if all this discussion of fair wages, of caring for those on the margins wasn’t strong enough in itself, there is the whole section on the year of jubilee. “It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” No family could stay poor forever. No family could accumulate wealth forever at the expense of others. What a radical idea of justice, care and fairness. By the way, there is no good historical evidence that this part of the law was ever put into effect.
While the specifics may be time-bound, fit for an agricultural society, the principle of justice and fairness behind the specifics is strongly communicated.
Holiness is not only justice and fairness, it is love. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
At the heart of Leviticus is God and human relationship to God. God is holy. God’s heart burns intensely with love and justice. Human persons, being touched by God, are to be transformed in the direction of love and justice. This is the heart of Leviticus. This is the end to which all the specific rules and laws were directed. But rules can become unloving, laws can become unjust. Heschel: Rules are generalizations. In actual living, we come upon countless problems for which no general solutions are available. There are many ways of applying a general rule to a concrete situation. There are evil applications of noble rules. Thus the choice of the right way of applying a general rule to a particular situation is “left to the heart,” to the individual, to one’s conscience. (327). Leviticus provides within itself a principle for discerning which of its rules and laws might be more time-bound, more culture-bound.
Most would agree that rules about two kinds of cloth are time and culture bound. We don’t get too worked up about that. While tattoos are often a subject of heated discussion, few of us, even those of us not fond of tattoos, regard them as matters of deep moral significance. Yet again and again, this next verse is seen as an inflexible moral law: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.”
Do we hold on to this verse, even when we are willing to let go of so many others, because of our discomfort with human sexuality as a whole, or especially of same sex attraction? Have we allowed what is sociologically normative, that is, there will always be more heterosexual attraction than homosexual attraction, to become morally normative? Do we know much about the cultural context of the verse in Leviticus? We do know that there were some religious groups that used sexuality in ways deemed immoral and inappropriate. Is this verse directed toward such practices?
What about justice? What about love? If holiness as justice and love are the criteria for posing questions about verses in Leviticus, perhaps we should ask about justice and love in interpreting this verse.
In his insightful chapter on homosexuality in his book Jesus the Savior, theologian William Placher writes: Friends I respect who struggle with this issue sometimes say, “But the church needs to take a stand somewhere”…. Even if one concludes that [homosexuality] is a sin – and, for reasons already noted, the biblical evidence does not persuade me of that – it is also a form of behavior that gets people fired from jobs, beaten up, called rude names, generally treated with contempt in many parts of our society, and sometimes even murdered…. Those who grow up gay generally have a hard time of it in contemporary America…. The pattern of Jesus’ ministry would clearly imply that, even if homosexual behavior were a sin, here is precisely not the place to “draw the line.” Far better to draw it in the face of sin like greed, which our culture generally treats with something like admiration, especially when it is masked as “success.” (102-103)
Equally powerful are the words and witness of South African Archbishop and Noble Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. A student once asked me, If I could have one wish granted to reverse an injustice, what would it be? I had to ask for two. One is for world leaders to forgive the debts of developing nations which hold them in such thrall. The other is for the world to end the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation, which is every bit as unjust as that crime against humanity, apartheid…. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice. It is also a matter of love. Every human being is precious. We are all – all of us – part of God’s family. We all must be allowed to love each other with honor. (God is Not a Christian and other provocations, 54)
People of good faith disagree about how to interpret the passages from Leviticus around human sexuality. If we take the book of Leviticus seriously as Scripture, though, we should find our interpretive key in the notions of justice and love. Justice and love are what matter.
At the heart of Leviticus we find the heart of our own faith because we are invited to discover something of the heart of God. God is holy. God’s heart burns for justice and love. God seeks to transform us in the direction of justice and love. That’s our journey, the journey to which we are invited by God in grace. Oh joy. Amen.