There’s an intriguing photo online of a man with a tattoo of Leviticus 18:22 on his arm. Leviticus 18:22, a chapter before the reading from Leviticus that we read today, states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” As the person who made the photograph go viral noted, it’s a shame the man who had Leviticus 18:22 tattooed on his arm was evidently unaware of Leviticus 19:28, a few verses after today’s reading, which states: “You shall not tattoo any marks upon you.”
When it comes to biblical law, everyone picks and chooses, even the people who would consider themselves to be biblical literalists. We do, too, and I struggle with today’s reading from Leviticus because I really, really like it. It rings true to me about the desire of the God I worship and who knows and loves me. And I’m not used to liking Leviticus. I’m accustomed to saying that it is rooted in its time and place and culture, and that we should not use it as a guide for our faith. What I expect to find in Leviticus can be summed up in that photo online: laws that have been incredibly harmful to people about sex, gender, slavery and violence; and laws that are just sort of quaintly irrelevant to us today—tattoos, food laws, mixing two kinds of seed in a field or two kind of fabric in your clothes.
But there is more to Leviticus than what we are used to hearing. It’s not all about sex, stoning, and food. It’s about becoming holy by imitating God—or at least by imitating God as experienced by this particular people in this particular time and place. That call to holiness mirrors the end of the Gospel text where Jesus calls on us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. One goal of the faithful life is to be like God—humbly—not thinking that we ARE God, but in the process of seeking to align our wills and actions and desire with those of God, to become holy, to become blessed, to be at one with the divine.
So what are the hallmarks of God in this passage from Leviticus? God is generous, God is honest, God is kind, God is just, God loves. And so we are holy, we are like God, when we are generous, honest, kind, just, and loving. And the way we become holy is entirely about how we interact with our neighbors. If we have a field, we leave some of the harvest to be gleaned by our neighbors who are in need; when we have business transactions with our neighbors we deal honestly--we do not defraud, we do not steal. When we sit in judgment, we are swayed neither by earthly power nor by earthly want, and distribute justice. We love our neighbors enough to reprove them, and we refuse to take vengeance upon them when they wrong us.
So how can we embrace this vision of justice without being just the polar opposite of someone who prooftexts using other verses of Leviticus?
Well, we’re Christians. We follow Jesus. And that means that we view the law—and all the Hebrew Scriptures—through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus. We great every Hebrew Bible law with the words Jesus uses today: “You have heard that it was said…” and then we listen to Jesus’ answer. We prioritize what Jesus prioritized. Jesus had nothing to say about tattoos; he had nothing to say about homosexuality; he had a lot to say about justice and love.
There are two clear links between today’s text in Leviticus and in Matthew’s Gospel. The first is love. That sounds trite and easy and overdone, and as I was working on this sermon I kept thinking to myself, “Come on, you can’t just say it’s all about love, that’s like punting on third down!” but it’s not, really. As the collect today says, “O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.” The climax of what we hear from Leviticus today is that all of these instructions from God about how to interact with our neighbors stem from loving your neighbor as yourself.
Following the law through justice, generosity, honesty, and fairness is the living expression of love. Loving your neighbor as yourself means being able to put yourself in the other’s shoes and if you have a field to imagine what it would be like to be in want; if you sit in judgment to imagine what it is like to come before the judge; to imagine what it is like to be the victim of slander and gossip. And if you are in want, to know that the food left in the field is yours out of love; that justice is yours out of love; and on and on. And in the Gospel that moves from just loving your generic neighbor to actively loving your enemy. Not only are we called to be just and generous and honest with the people who reflect those virtues back to us; we are called to be just to those who treat us unjustly; to be generous with those who are miserly to us; to be honest with those who lie to us.
And the second link between the Gospel and Leviticus today is the admonition towards holiness or perfection; as in the Gospel verse: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I struggle with the idea of seeking perfection—I’m too Lutheran in my theology—simul justus et peccator, at the same time justified and a sinner, means that we know we’re never perfect, we’re always sinners, and are only justified through God’s grace. That is indelibly the center of my theology. So how can Jesus be asking us to be perfect? The Greek word translated “perfect” is teleios; the root is telos, or end. The implication of the Greek word teleois has to do not with being flawless, but with having reached your end; being complete and mature. Be complete, as God is complete. If holiness is being like God, being holy means being spiritually complete. Still a sinner. Still imperfect. But complete because the parts of ourselves that are lacking are filled in by God. And that is the ultimate blessing.
This passage we hear from the Gospel today is towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. Which begins with the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God….”
The Beatitudes aren’t just about divine karma—suffer now and get rewarded later. It is about how it is through what the world perceives as weakness that we become blessed, holy, like God. How it is in the absence of something that God fills us to completion. Because our holiness derives not from ourselves but from God. God says, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Not “You shall be holy if you do all the things I tell you to do.” We are holy, because God is holy. We are complete because God is complete. That is our telos, our goal. We are holy, because we can’t help being holy, because God is holy.