Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
“Leviticus is a strange book.” This dismissive attitude is our usual starting point in encountering the section of Torah that reminds us to never tattoo our bodies, plant two kinds of seeds in the same garden, or wear polyester! Why the bizarre rules God? The answer lies in Leviticus’s repeated divine imperative: Be holy, for I am holy. The holiness of God (God’s ‘other-ness’) is transferred to the people as a divine gift by the following of God’s Law. God’s holiness is what separates God from the tragic ways of the world. In the following of God’s Law the Israelites participate in this holiness, and separate themselves from the nations. The Israelites were not separate in order to lord it over their neighbors. Instead they were to serve as windows into God’s own being. The externals of the Law (no tattoos or polyester, for instance) were hardly the point (although in their time and place the injunctions all had their reasons) rather the willingness to acknowledge God as ‘holy- other’ and submit to God’s Law in order to show God to the world was the goal in mind.
Chapter 19 reminds us that alongside the strange and foreign laws found in Leviticus are also found laws which offer striking insights into God’s being: reserve food for the poor and the alien (19:10), do not defraud others or withhold fair wages (verse 13), care for the blind (verse 14), do not show partiality in law (verse 15), do not hate or take vengeance (verse 18), do care for the aged (verse 32), do not cheat (verses 35-36), and love not only the neighbor but also the alien as oneself (verse 34).
Jesus never preached from a blank slate. His formative years were immersed in the Law, the writings, and the prophets. When a lawyer came and asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, immediately Leviticus 19 came to mind. This ‘strange book’ clued Jesus in to the ‘holiness’ of God, and the most precious of all divine commandments (see the gospel reading below)
Psalm 1 is an appropriate response to our lesson from Leviticus in that it contrasts those who follow the way of the world (heed the advice of the wicked, take the path of sinners, sit in the seat of scoffers) with those whose delight is in the Law of the Lord. The ones who turn away from God’s laws are like chaff that the wind drives away, while those who meditate on the Law of the Lord day and night are like trees who produce their fruit in due season. The former is blown away by the wind; the latter do not whither, but receive endless nourishment from God, and prosper in all they do. The image of those who delight in the law ‘producing fruit’ is important. The followers of the Law are not trees planted by streams for their own good The followers of the Law are gifts to the world by the fruit that they produce.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
The ancient world was replete with itinerant orators who wowed crowds with their flowing rhetoric and silver tongues. The messages of the traveling pitchmen varied, but the end result was the fleecing of money from the gullible crowds. Paul offers a contrast in 1 Thessalonians 2. Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus did not come to Thessalonica with “impure motives and trickery”, or “words of flattery with a pretext for greed”, but with a message from God not intended to please mortals. Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus cared so much for the message, and for the people hearing it, that they presented God’s word even in the face of great opposition. Paul writes, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of god but also our own selves.”
Jesus’ appointment book on the Tuesday of Holy Week was penciled in with the who’s who of Jerusalem elites all wanting the people’s messiah to answer their challenging questions. Jesus received inquiries from Sadducees, lawyers, chief priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, and their disciples. Finally, Jesus flipped the tables and asked a single question about the relationship of the Messiah to David. Suddenly the cat had everyone’s tongue! From that point until Jesus’ trial and arrest none of the Jerusalem elite dared ask Jesus another question.
The last inquiry give to Jesus is the most significant of the whole lot. A pharisaical lawyer asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The rabbinical tradition counted 613 commandments in the Torah–365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. They realized that not all commandments were the same; some were known to be of extreme importance, others of lesser importance. An interesting and healthy debate centered on which was the most important of all. Many different teachers had weighed in with their choice commands. Jesus himself, earlier in the gospel of Matthew, had admitted differences in the importance of commandments. In Matthew chapter five, referring to the Law, he warns of those who would break the “least of these commandments.” Later he chastises those who neglect the “weightier matters of the law”—for Jesus, not all the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots” were the same. And so the Pharisee asks Jesus to tell him which commandment is elevated above all the rest.
Jesus does not miss a beat in responding, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is a portion of the Shema which is the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayer service for the observant Jew. It is a recited commandment, known as a mitvah. It is also tradition for Jews to say the Shema as their last words before death. It is as meaningful to the Judaism as the Lord’s Prayer is to Christianity. This was an incredibly appropriate selection. The lawyer (according to the parallel text in the gospel of Mark) was pleased. But before the lawyer could respond with his pleasure, Jesus jumps just as quickly, to include a second command, “The second is this, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (taken from our Hebrew Bible lesson above).
It should come as no surprise that a corollary to loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength is loving our neighbor. To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength is to respond to God with a human measure of the same love that God gives to us. To love God is to participate in divine love—a love that reaches out in self sacrifice. Perhaps it would be better to think of the two commandments not as 1 & 2 respectively, but as ‘two-for’ package deal. They are related as a cause and an effect. To love God is to love neighbor—and this sums up all the Law and the prophets, and therefore these two laws are the greatest.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the holiness and love of God. We are invited to participate in each of these divine attributes as a grace gift from God. These two attributes are related, for God’s holiness demanded law after law concerned with protecting the vulnerable. Love of neighbor will always reflect the holiness of God who is the protector of the poor, the widows, and the orphans. Our worship of God should have both a vertical axis (love for God) and the corollary horizontal axis (love for neighbor). In both we should delight in the Law of the lord, which shows us how to produce fruit in season.