Opening The Old Testament
All or Nothing: Reflections on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Yet, in each of these examples, a worldview is being presented; it is world where only certain things may be eaten, only men and women can engage in sex, and only when the woman displays no evidence of blood, since here "the life of the flesh is in the blood" (17:11). We certainly have the right to avoid all of this behavior, but we have no right either to pick and choose which one applies to our time (no homosexuality but shrimp is fine) or ridicule these priests for the search for purity and the holiness of God.
What we may learn from them is the serious attempt to live all of our lives as a search for holiness, not in the way they did, perhaps, but matching their most serious attempts to do so. When the priests warn us "not to render an unjust judgment" and "not to be partial to the poor or defer to the great" (19:15), they say such things because they find their God to be like that, thoroughly just to all God's people. And when they warn against "hating any of our kin (even) in our heart" (that is, silently and privately), they echo what they see in their God who hates no one in the great divine heart. And to "love one's neighbor as one loves oneself" is to act out the life of God, who cares especially for the neighbor and bids us to do likewise. That is a part of what it means to be holy as God is holy.
But in the Levitical worldview it is as important to eat right as it is to act right, as important to sacrifice correctly as it is to worship rightly, as crucial to engage in proper sexual behavior as it is to love one's kin. The Levitical worldview is whole and complete, part of an interlocking system of eating and sacrificing and acting in the light of certain "givens" that the priests lived by. Only certain foods; only certain kinds of sex; only specific sacrificial practices. But, the large question always comes: just who decided what is "right" to eat? Who determined with whom one may engage in sex? Who says which things may be sacrificed and which may not? And the answer is: the priests themselves. Their basic claims may not at all match my own; in fact they most certainly do not, shrimp-lover that I am. Therefore, I have absolutely no right to pick one priestly demand and discard another. It is a package, this way of thinking, for good or ill. Oh, I can certainly find value in the rules and ideas of Leviticus 19; they have a sort of universality that is appealing. Little wonder that 19:18 shows up in some prominent Gospel passages.
But tread carefully here. The priests ask far more of us Christians than most of us are willing to give. And they reject our slipshod, hand-picked use of their carefully constructed view of all things. When one preaches from Leviticus, whatever part of Leviticus, she has entered a different world and should make clear to her hearers that that world is far from theirs, asking beliefs and practices of us that the vast majority of us are no longer willing to pursue.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.