By Rev. Allison Johnson
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Love your neighbor as yourself. I wonder how often we’ve heard these words, spoken them ourselves, and lifted them up as what it means to be a Christian. While the importance of these words is obvious, as Jesus lifts up this commandment as one of the greatest, it seems we’ve watered down this phrase into a call to simply be nice. Don’t rock the boat. Smile at people. Avoid conflict. Turn the other cheek. Let things go.
Using Leviticus as a lens through which we interpret this commandment, we see that loving your neighbor is more than being nice – it is a call to holiness. What do you think of when you hear the word holy? What do the people in our ministry contexts think of? Sexual purity? Proper attire at church? Refraining from swearing?
Leviticus 19 can be split into three sections, and the section we find ourselves in emphasizes obligations to other people. The call to holiness is shaped by obligation to others. Perhaps this is not where our mind drifts when we think about holiness. For Israel, to be holy as God is holy is the call to be distinct from the Canaanite culture. To be God’s holy people meant to actively navigate the boundaries between the culture and being in covenant with God. To be holy is a call for Israel to live out their end of the covenant and be a blessing in the world.
The small list of commands in Leviticus helps us begin to navigate how the people of God are called to be set apart from the culture, whether it be Canaanite culture or the American culture in which many of us find ourselves. Judge with justice. Don’t show partiality. Don’t gossip. Don’t profit off of the blood of your neighbor. Don’t hate anyone, and if you do, confront them about it. Don’t seek vengeance. Does this seem nice to you? Does this seem like holiness?
These commands lift up the well-being of others; they are a call to genuinely value the humanity of the people with whom we are in community. Loving one’s neighbor in this way is love that is active; love that is a verb and not a feeling. Loving your neighbor through the lens of God’s holiness is about being set apart for the sake of others. It is not about personal gain, individualism, selfishness, or violence that we see being valued in our current culture.
These commands – the call to be holy – move us to confront evil within ourselves and the evil in our midst that harms our neighbor.
Do not profit off of the blood of your neighbor. What do you classify as the blood of others? What if it’s taking someone’s life? But maybe it’s more than that. What if it’s hurting them with your actions? What if it’s hurting them with your words? What if it’s hurting them with your silence? What if it’s hurting them by not standing up for them when they need you? What if it’s that you won’t take a risk on behalf of another? What if it is the harming of others through our prejudices? What if profiting off of the blood of our neighbor meant seeing them as competition rather than a beloved part of God’s family? So, what if this command is a call for us to avoid harming others, but also a call to actively live in such a way that benefits them?
We are not called to be holy because God needs us to, we are called to be holy for the sake of the world, that others might experience God’s blessing through us. That others may experience abundant life, too. That is why God gives us the law, so that we can dwell together the way God had intended.
We are indeed set apart; not because we are better than others, but because God desires wholeness for the world. And God is silly enough to think that we could help bring that wholeness to others, that we could be a part of others experiencing God’s justice, mercy, liberation, grace, and radical love.
So, echoing the words of Martin Luther on this Reformation weekend, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
How are we being called to be set apart – different – in order that others may experience wholeness? How may this command to holiness be set apart from values we see in our culture? How can we be bound to our neighbor? Remember, people of God, in the words of Martin Luther, “God does not need your good works. But your neighbor does.”
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