Howard Wallace's home page

(Sunday between February 18 and February 24)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

With today’s reading we continue the emphasis in Epiphany on obedience and discipline in the life of faith. The reading is from a section of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26). This section is to be distinguished from the other parts of the book, and from the legal sections in the Books of Exodus and Numbers, which are mostly attributed by scholars to the Priestly writer. Although, both the Holiness Code and the Priestly writing were produced by priests, a comparison of the two reveals that there are significant differences, as there are also between the Holiness Code and other law codes in the Old Testament.

One of those differences lies in the conception of holiness stressed at the start of today’s reading: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’ But how, we might ask, is holiness defined? What does it mean to be holy in daily life? Other legal codes restrict holiness to matters of ritual holiness, for example, in abstention from Sabbath work (Exod 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15), from eating carcasses (Exod 22:30; Deut 14:21), and in relation to idolatry and mourning rites (Deut 7:5-6; 14:1-2). Other laws were concerned with ethical issues but ‘holiness’ was specifically defined in relation to ritual law. On the other hand, the prophets tend to give weight to ethical and moral behaviour in relation to faith. Note the central statement of Isa 5:16: ‘But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.’ What the Holiness Code does is include both ethical and ritual prescription within the definition of holiness. Today’s reading illustrates this amply.

The initial laws mentioned in Leviticus 19 are reminiscent of the Ten Commandments (see vv. 3-4). The law on revering parents relates to family life but the Sabbath law and that relating to idols firmly places us in the realm of ritual. This is reinforced in vv. 5-8 with law relating to the ritual of sacrifice. However, when we get to the main part of today’s reading, vv. 9-18, the interest changes dramatically. Verses 9-10 shift the area of activity from the home and temple, and from matters of abstention and correct ritual, to the daily affairs of work in the fields and vineyards. Holiness is evident for the Holiness Code in the very principles that govern daily activity. In work, and especially in figuratively reaping the harvest of our labour, we must give thought to those who are poor and alienated in society, who do not have access to the benefits of labour. The one reaping or harvesting should not greedily take every last benefit from their labour but leave some for those who do not have the same opportunities.

In vv. 11-16 we return again to laws that echo the Ten Commandments (vv. 11-13). Many of these laws presume relations on a more equal footing. In v. 13, however, an element of inequality enters with reference to paying wages to labourers promptly when promised. In the world of ancient Israel, and in many places even today, the briefest of delays in paying wages can mean the difference between eating and going hungry. Neither should people take advantage of those who are disabled in some way (v 14).

Verse 15 then speaks about justice executed in the courts of law. Neither partiality toward those who are needy nor deferment toward those of greater standing will inhibit the seeking of justice. Verse 16 is less clear in some aspects. The first part, which speaks against going ‘around as a slanderer’, addresses those who peddle rumour and slander to another’s detriment. To ‘not profit by the blood of your neighbour’ (lit.: ‘to stand on another’s blood’) has been variously interpreted. It could be speaking against the slander and lies that put another’s life at risk. Alternatively, it has been understood to mean to stand aside, or be negligent, at a time when another’s life is threatened. Or it might speak against surviving oneself on the basis of a risk to another’s life. All of these laws have their modern counterparts. Justice in our courts is something that is fragile and needs to be pursued without favour to those who can afford the better counsel or because another is vulnerable in society or in relation to the complexities of the legal system. Reference to slander not only speaks about individual malicious gossip but also of the peddling of half-truths and spin within our media. And we are all caught up in one way or another by gain at the expense of others, whether it be through unethical financial investments or by purchasing clothing produced in sweat shops in distant places.

The reading finishes in vv. 17-18 with two parallel sections. Each of the verses states a prohibition, then a remedy, and finally a rationale. Moreover, each verse is concerned with our thoughts, not our actions. They speak of hate and bearing grudges. They also offer positive alternatives in the remedies: reproving each other and loving the neighbour. While the first rationale could sound self-interested (‘or you will bear guilt yourself’) the second rationale functions in relation to all that has gone before: ‘I am the Lord’. That last statement is the motivation for all obligation and law, be it ritual or ethical (cf. vv 1b, 10b, 12b, 14b, 16b and 18b). It is the refrain that gives structure and unity to all these laws. We ought to live with care and love for one another without prejudice or favour toward those who are different, less or more privileged or disadvantaged in life.

As one writer puts it, this text is ‘a loud, clear, bold call to holy living.’ And holy living belongs as much in the field or vineyard, in the courts, in conversation, in keeping our daily commitments, in speaking about others, in responding to another’s dire straights, and in our own private thoughts, as it does in the place of worship. That is the radical nature of this text. All life is holy. All of life is to be lived as holy.

Psalm 119:33-40

Return to OT Lectionary Readings contents page Year A