February 23, 2014
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
Leviticus! The Lectionary avoids Leviticus like the plague. This reading from Leviticus is one of only two in the whole 3-year lectionary cycle for Sundays. Most Bible readers avoid Leviticus too. Who wants to read about how ancient animal sacrifices were supposed to be conducted or how the Israelites dealt with lepers? Yet Leviticus has at its core a powerful focus on loving, covenant faithfulness, on clinging close to the Lord even in the most mundane of our daily tasks.
The passage chosen for today’s reading is actually two snippets from the same chapter. There’s a gap of about 15 verses between them. The first snippet starts Leviticus 19; it announces the Lord’s authority as revealed through Moses. It contains one of the two key teachings of the chapter: “Be holy as I am holy.” (St. Peter quotes this teaching in 1 Peter 1:15.) The point is that our lives should be patterned after God’s life. That our seeking after holiness finds its goal in God’s own holiness.
What is holiness?
Since Vatican II, the Church has repeatedly emphasized the “universal call to holiness,” that all Christians, whether priests, religious, or laity, are called to union with God in Christ. We are all called by Jesus to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48 – in the Gospel reading for today). The holiness we are talking about is not a selfish religiosity, but an entering into the love and life of God. It is freedom from our selfishness, our sinfulness, and freedom for a loving union with God. This kind of spiritual perfection, personal holiness, cannot be restricted to mere obedience to a moral law code. Rather, it should be defined in terms of relationship. Holiness is about deeper and deeper union with God, about a more intimate experience of God’s love and a more complete giving of oneself to him. What might begin with humble obedience finds its destination in the radical freedom of love.
Holiness in Daily Life
Leviticus 19 focuses on what holiness looks like in day-to-day living. It expands on the Ten Commandments and emphasizes especially what our relationships with other people should look like. It highlights honesty in speech, fair dealing with others, and paying just wages to workers. It also warns against partiality and favoritism. It rejects slanderous, lying talk. The point of all these prescriptions is to reveal what holiness really is, how it pays off in our regular activities. A holy person is trustworthy and won’t defraud you, while an unholy person might. A holy person won’t lie to you or lie about you or treat you unfairly. All these teachings affect our daily dealings much more closely than esoteric theological speculation. Leviticus is very practical here, when it comes to explaining how to be holy like God is holy.
No Hate in Your Heart
Now the second snippet selected for today (Lev 19:17-18) teaches us not to “hate” our brothers and sisters. Jesus also teaches not to hate others, even our enemies, but to love them (Matt 5:43-44). Hatred is really the exact opposite of love. If love is about wanting the good of the other, then hatred is about wishing evil on others. Hatred not only harms the person being hated, but harms the hater as well since it distorts his soul, causing him to desire evils contrary to nature. Holiness is all about love, so hatred is directly opposed to holiness. Hatred also includes a kind of definitive judgment of another person, where one has given up hope for the other person and has decided to reject that person’s life as not worth living and so wish evil upon him or her. Both Leviticus and Jesus teach us not to reject another person in this way, not to hold hate in our hearts.
Reproof vs. Vengeance
While hate is forbidden, sometimes we are called upon to “reprove” another person, that is, to remind another person of his or her moral obligations, to point out where he or she is failing. Even the New Testament supports occasional reproof, or moral exhortation (e.g. Luke 17:3; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:3). But reproving a person is not the same thing as taking vengeance on another person. Reproof involves warning a person about their conduct, while vengeance involves punishing a person for their actions. While punishment can justly be administered by the courts, we are not permitted to take out personal vendettas against other people. We can’t “go rogue” and take justice into our own hands. The Bible reserves vengeance to God. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19 RSV). In addition, Leviticus teaches us not to nurse grudges against other people. A grudge, or an attitude of hate-filled unforgiveness, can destroy a relationship and damage the soul of the grudge-bearer.
Love Your Neighbor
Last, but not least, Leviticus 19 sums up all of the commandments about holy conduct toward others in the phrase: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18 RSV). This simple principle, which Jesus quotes and promotes (Matt 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27), is central to God’s law. The greatest commandment is to love God, but Jesus labels this commandment to love our neighbor as the second greatest commandment. Why? Because it summarizes all of the laws about relating to other people. If we love others as we love ourselves, we will never lie to them, defraud them, harm them, hate them, or treat them unfairly. All the teachings about relating to others in Leviticus 19 and in the whole Bible can be summed up in this one commandment.
It’s surprising, isn’t it, that Jesus gets some of his best material from Leviticus?
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.