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Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

I feel that it’s my obligation as the commentator to let you know that if you strictly preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, this will be your only opportunity to preach from the book of Leviticus. You may do what you will with that information. However, I should say, Leviticus is a theologically rich book that is often overlooked for the more exciting stories of other books from the Pentateuch like Exodus and Deuteronomy. While it can be challenging to know what to do with the long list of laws, when we look between the lines, we find Yahweh’s character at work.

This passage from chapter 19 directly points to Yahweh’s character as the motivation behind a list of social principles and laws. Most scholars divide up the book of Leviticus so that the final section of the book (chapters 17-27) and it’s source (the Holiness Source) derive their names from the command in verse 2, “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” These chapters are called the “Holiness Code.” The Lectionary passage has us read the initial command in verse 2 and then some of the principles listed that are foundational to the laws listed in the Holiness Code. This helps us understand why versus 3-14 are left out. For instance, it would probably make more sense to describe “You shall not render an unjust judgment” (v. 15) as a principle or value as opposed to direct laws such as “you shall not steal” (v. 11).

The preacher should at least read through these omitted verses, if not the whole Holiness Code. It could be useful in the sermon the point to some of the specific laws and how they are God’s holiness in action through the people.

When we read this passage, we may miss the revolutionary aspect of the call. In the canonical context of Scripture, the command to “be holy” seems quite ordinary. In the context of Leviticus, it should jump out to us. Much of the book focuses on instructions for the priest, how and when to perform sacrifices and offerings, etc. But this final section is concerned with social standards for God’s people. The Holiness Code can also be described as Yahwism ethics as it turns its attention to the social structure of these people. This isn’t to say that the rest of Leviticus has nothing to do with the social structure but simply that the Holiness Code is more explicitly about social standards and expectations.

So, what is revolutionary about the command to be holy? Well, it’s the placement of where we find this commandment. This commandment isn’t merely found in the instructions to priests and excluded from the people’s social standards. We, of course, would expect the priest to be holy, but the ordinary person? This is revolutionary. Holiness is not just for the priest or others in charge. We must read this commandment as an invitation to all. “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” To the ordinary person in the setting of this book, this is a rather shocking invitation. Holiness is usually reserved for God, with a select few people receiving the frightening call to do their best to meet those same standards. But for the people of Israel, all people are invited to share the primary characteristic of the Most High God, the Creator, the Lord of all.

Notice my wording there: all people are invited to share in holiness. This language of sharing or, we might say, participating in, God’s holiness comes from the reasoning given in this passage: “for I the LORD your God am holy.” This connects the holiness of the people directly to the holiness of God. The reason people strive for holiness is that they worship a God who is holy and who, clearly, desires for them to be holy as well. One could derive from this as an important note that the holiness the people are called to is not their own. They do not possess this holiness apart from the source of the holiness. They don’t accomplish holiness; rather, they participate in holiness. This is an invitation to participate in God’s primary characteristic.

The focus of the assigned passage then turns to some standards or values that translate to the modern Christian community more easily than some of the Holiness Code laws and the broader context of the book. These commandments are a revolutionary invitation to participate in an egalitarian society (for its time). All have access to the holiness, justice, and love of God.[1] In this passage, participating in God’s holiness is first described in the phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18).

We can’t deny that Leviticus emphasizes the restrictive nature of participating in God’s holiness. Through the years, Christians have taken their cue from this and also focused on creating a comprehensive and rigid list of things permitted and not permitted for those seeking to be a holiness people. Of course, holiness does require living in such a way that may result in abstaining from certain practices. But, our focus as the people who receive the Holy Spirit of the crucified Christ should be on the characteristics of that Christ. When that leads to abstaining from practices that result in brokenness, we accept that as a part of our call. But, when we emphasize restrictiveness over holiness, we, like the Israelites, are bound to be sucked into the temptation of self-righteousness and miss the message that this is not our holiness but God’s.

This is the purpose of Christ’s coming. Christ comes to, like the Holiness Code, attempt to reveal that holiness is not bound up somewhere and reserved only for a select few special people called priests or pastors. Instead, God’s holiness is accessible to all people. Our participation in that holiness requires a particular way of living. No, it isn’t in stripping ourselves entirely from all bodily pleasures that we participate in holiness. This way of living is not that simple. This way of living requires us to align our lives with a God who lowered Godself to the point of a simple baby born in a feeding troth. This child who would go on to be killed for revealing just how accessible God’s holiness is; even a Samaritan can participate in it. Even a prostitute can participate in it. Even a Roman soldier can participate in it. Even a tax collector can participate in it. Even a eunuch can participate in it. Even a leper can participate in it. Even you can participate in it.

[1] See Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.