Receiving God’s Law is a summons to imitate the holy and perfect heavenly Parent.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The reading from the Law may be selected with an eye to the readings from the Epistle and Gospel. The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus is a pretty conglomerate bag. Many statements sound like the Ten Commandments, repeating some of the specifics: honor your father and mother, keep the sabbaths, make no idols or images (verses 3-4, not in the reading). Also rules about sacrifices, especially how to and how not to eat them, verses. 5-8.
The umbrella theme, uniting this passage with the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-27) as a whole, is stated at the beginning: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (verse 2, NRSV). Presumably, all the detailed commandments of this chapter, as miscellaneous as they are, are required if the people are actually to be holy.
Some of the specifics of the chapter show holiness to involve compassion for the poor. Leave the gleanings of the fields, orchards, and vineyards where they fall for the needy to come by and gather them (verses 9-10). (The Ruth story well illustrates this practice.) Also the requirement that a day laborer receive his wages the same day (verse 13) is a measure of labor fairness. The deaf (or mute) are protected from being cursed (assaulting their disability), and the blind from being tormented with unusual obstacles in their paths (verse 14).
There are many short maxims inculcating fairness and honesty, especially in carrying out justice—which every substantial householder was involved in at the gates of the cities and in the plazas of the villages. “You shall not steal [same verb as in the 8th Commandment]; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another” (verse 11).
On doing justice, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor [!] or defer to the great: with justice [tsedeq, righteousness] you shall judge your neighbor” (verse 15). No partiality in judgment, even to the poor. An intriguing commandment is, “You … shall not profit [literally, “stand up”] by the blood of your neighbor” (verse 16). A warning against infringing inheritance laws?
The most important word comes at the end of our reading: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people [limiting tribal justice by retaliation?], but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (verse 18).
The final word about being holy as God is holy is—love your neighbor!
The Psalm reading continues reciting the vocabulary of devotion to Yahweh’s torah. If we assume that the details of Leviticus 19 are the content of God’s statutes, law, commandments, decrees, ways, promise, ordinances, and precepts (the vocabulary pool for each stanza in this psalm) we can extend the general terms of torah devotion to many aspects of concrete community life.
This stanza of the mega-acrostic composition (all verses beginning with the Hebrew letter He [pronounced “hey”]) is strongly marked by petitions—asking God to aim and assist the speaker in the right direction:
- Teach me, O Lord, the way …
- Give me understanding … [of] your law …
- Lead me in the path of your commandments …
- Turn my heart to your decrees …
- Turn my eyes [away] from … vanities …
- Confirm to your servant your promise …
- Turn away the disgrace that I dread …
- … in your righteousness give me life.
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
The Epistle reading includes the well-known passage about the people of God being God’s temple, and that temple is holy. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? … For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple (verses 16-17, NRSV).
This declaration is made still in the context of divisive parties in the community. Paul has used the metaphor of building a building, a foundation laid by one party (Paul), others raising the structure on that foundation (Apollos, maybe Cephas followers, see verse 22). The building metaphor transitions into the temple – the community of Christ becomes the temple that was the holy place of God in Israel’s past. “So let no one boast about human leaders. For … all belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (verses 21-23).
A new way for God’s people to be holy, as the Lord is holy, has come into the world of the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia. The followers of Jesus in Corinth have become the holy ones of God’s new temple.
The unusually long stretch between Christmas and Easter this year creates the maximum number of Sundays after Epiphany and before Lent. (Next Sunday is the eighth and last after Epiphany.) These extra Sundays are given to the hearing of major parts of the Sermon on the Mount. This Sunday we hear the conclusion of Jesus’ contrast between obedience to God’s Law as taught in the past and as now taught by Jesus with the new authority of God’s Anointed One (“my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Matthew 3:17, NRSV).
The previous discussions of some of the Ten Commandments (last Sunday’s readings) saw Jesus deepening and extending commandments familiar to Israelites over the centuries. In today’s reading, new ground is opened up. Some of the most distinctive Christian ethical precepts appear: passive resistance to oppression and evil, and active love toward oppressors and enemies.
Passive resistance. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evil-doer” (verse 38).
- If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.
- If someone sues you for your coat, give them also your cloak [overcoat].
- If an authority forces you carry a burden one mile, carry it two miles.
- If someone begs from you, give to them.
- If someone seeks to borrow from you, do not deny them. (Verses 39-42.)
Active love. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (verses 43-44).
- So that you may be children of your heavenly Father (image of God).
- Because God sends the sunshine and the rain on the evil and on the good.
- There is no reward in loving only your friends; tax collectors do that.
- Greeting only your friends is nothing special; people of the nations do that.
- You are called to be perfect, as God is; that excludes discriminating actions.
Some of the most important ethical precepts of Christian teaching are presented here. Especially in the twentieth century has non-resistance been a key to non-violent movements for peace and justice. “Perfect” is still out of reach, but these passages have supported many moves in the right direction, even in our own time.