Lev 19:1-19 is supposed to be a picture of a nation. A foreigner coming in to the people of Israel should see a Godward holiness. They will see that the people of God who live lives revolving around the nature of God -- his character, what He likes, what He dislikes. This shapes their identity. Today, we'll see in these verses how a Godward holiness also shapes our relationships with other people.
(A) The Source: neighbourly holiness comes from being God’s people
As you read Lev 19:1-18, there is a recurring phrase that concludes every paragraph. This is the phrase "I am the Lord your God". What does it mean that God inserts this phrase after every bit of instruction? Some imprint of His authority is there in every statement. It says something about our relationship with God. The danger we face is that sometimes we are so familiar with God's transcendence (that He is mighty and powerful) and imminence (that He is also near to us). This truth has one practical implication. How do you pray? Do your prayers reflect His authority and transcendence?
We learnt last week the important principle wrapped up in this phrase. Just as God is holy, so we too, as His people, ought to be holy. In these verses, we see that God and His relationship to us and our call to be holy in a Godward way is the ground for our neighbourly holiness. We cannot practice neighbourly holiness unless we have Godward holiness. Therefore, this phrase is repeated multiple times here because God is marking them based on their relationship with each other.
When we read Lev 19:11-12 and Lev 19:1-4 together with the Ten Commandments in Exo 20:1-12, we see that these verses in Leviticus are a part of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments can be split into 2 tables of the law. The first speak about the primacy, worship, supremacy, rest of God. The next 6 commands in the second table are directed towards man -- honouring those who give life, honouring life, honouring sexuality, honouring truth and those around us. This is the same pattern that is repeated in Lev 19. Godward holiness and relationship with other men are related.
What is Moses trying to say to the people? Notice that verses 11-12 follow a section of commands in verses 9-10, and in fact, we would expect the reiteration of commandments to take place at the top of this section. Moses is simply showing that God's holiness revealed on Sinai is also mixed in with everyday life. Often, we wonder what God's will is, and think that if we knew God's will, we will do it. Leviticus shows us that there's nothing mysterious about God's will. God intends for His people to be holy, and His holiness can be displayed practically in daily life.
These verses also teach us that how we live and treat those around us is not grounded in the aim of being nice. It's not about living out the "Golden Rule", often simplified as doing unto others what we want them to do for us. This rule has an idea of reciprocity, and also aims to benefit the self. The Bible says something more. It says that we ought to behave and live in a way that reflects our relationship with God. We begin with God. Our Godward holiness is the root from which our neighbourly holiness springs. Anyone can be a nice person and live out the Golden Rule, but only God's people who know God can live in neighbourly holiness, in order to reflect His own holiness.
(B) The Law: loving your neighbour as yourself
Lev 19:9-18 can be divided into 5 paragraphs. Let's take a closer look at these verses to see how God intends for His people to live in community with others.
1. During harvest, as they sought their own profit, they were to also make generous provision for the poor and the sojourner (Lev 19:9-10).
The people of God were not to maximise their profits. They were also not to profit in a way that neglected the poor, but were to also leave a section for the poor. Notice also that it's not a handout. God intended for the community to provide opportunities for the poor to work. This is Biblical teaching. It's not a "by the way" and convenient care for the poor, but this care was built into the social system. They were to be a society that echoes and reflects the care and provision of God. Jesus too, insisted that we ought to care for the poor. The LORD’s people are generous and gracious.
How can we do so?
- Deliberately devote a portion of your annual income (maybe once a year) to giving to those in need
- Look for some way that your profession/school can support a charitable cause and participating in it wholeheartedly.
2. In personal dealings, God wanted them to be utterly true in their dealings, words, swearing, especially with the LORD’s name (Lev 19:11-12).
In these verses, there is a repetition of the word "falsely". Thus, the principle here is that the LORD’s people are truthful and honest because God's name marks their dealings.
What can we do?
- Commit yourself to tell the truth and keep your promises to people even if it costs you
- Refuse to use God's name in vain (e.g. remove "OMG" from your vocabulary); pause every time you hear God's name to show Him reverence and think about who He is.
3. In public, the people of God were to be considerate and thoughtful for their neighbour’s due and good, especially in areas of payment and for those who are defenceless (Lev 19:13-14).
The word "oppress" is used to describe dealings with neighbours, and it carries with it the idea of a power structure/hierarchy, and tyranny. Lev 19:13 also shows us how this oppression can take place in how money is withheld from employees when it is due them. Verse 14 also teaches us that God's people were not to mock or ignore the needs of the disabled. What kind of a world is this? This is a picture of a society that is utterly fair and respectful. It shows us holy people who are also able to consider the rights of another, and to be able to stand up for them, even it it costs us something. There is supposed to be a righteousness in the way Israel conducts their public life. The LORD’s people are kind and God-fearing.
What about us?
- Look for ways you can serve others in school or at work, putting the needs of others before yourself
- Use words to encourage and bless them even if it makes you look silly; pray and ask God to show you ways to practice other-centeredness
- Pay back debts and try to protect the rights of other people; refuse to be self-centered with your time and make time to ask how others are doing; spend time with the disabled and give them time of day.
4. In court, they were to be just and impartial, honourable and respectful to their neighbour (Lev 19:15-16).
In their dealings in court, God's people ought to act in righteousness. They were also to be impartial (c.f. Jas 2:1-5). How is this relevant for us today? How often do we deem people to be cool/not cool? What about thinking of people as those that can give us something in return/those that do not? Do you take the words of children seriously? How do we treat the rich/poor? Do we show the poor dignity, by doing simple things like stopping, having a conversation,even if we cannot give them money? Lev teaches us that we owe our neighbours the right of respect. The LORD’s people are just and honourable.
How can this be lived out practically?
- Always respect your opponents and enemies with fairness and equity
- Refuse to speak ill of others, gossip or spread untruths about them, even if they're your enemy
- Be the bigger person in conflicts and letting things go if possible.
5. In their hearts, they were to be loving, fair in speech and forgiving to their fellow Israelite (Lev 19:17-18).
These verses speak about the inner life. The LORD’s people are to love and take care of each other.
What can we do?
- Choose to put others' needs before your own in time, money, prominence, word, honour
- Go out of your way to honour and encourage others
- Give gifts to encourage them; withhold words when you know they will hurt; refuse to be sarcastic, cynical or cruel in expression
- Release anger and hurt to God so that He can be the judge of your situation; absorb the pain caused to you so that we can imitate Jesus and not afflict others with revenge
- Refuse to practice tit-for-tat retaliation.
What do we see from these verses? This is far beyond the Golden Rule, which is transactional and speaks of reciprocity. Here, we are being told to love our neighbour as ourselves, because of who God is.
(C) The Application: a holy community of love, drawing upon Christ's wealth
As we study the ancient covenant community of God, we see the world and lives that God intended for His people to live. What kind of a world would this be, if we obeyed and lived according to these verses? Yet for each one of these characteristics, we see the opposite being played out in our world. How, then, do these verses in the Old Testament apply to the New Testament people of God in Christ? Can it?
Jesus' answer for us is in Lk 10:25-37, which is a story familiar to us. It is the story of the Good Samaritan, and this whole story hinges on the action of loving our neighbour. At first read, the compassion and love of the Samaritan for a stranger is impressive enough. But there's more. When Jesus told the story, His listeners would be amazed because He spoke of a Samaritan showing such love and compassion. The Samaritans and Jews did not have a good relationship. In this radical story, Jesus was extending this neighbourly holiness beyond just Israel. This is the same charge and call to the church today.
For many of us, we read these verses and understand it. But deep down, what if we are so tired and drained and dry, and we feel like we are being overwhelmed by our own problems? How are we to muster up enough strength to care for another person? Lev 19 is meant to show us how we ought to live but also serves to remind us that we cannot live it perfectly on our own strength! Let's stop looking at the limits of our own resources and effort. Instead, let's look to the One who was our Good Samaritan, who was compassionate and came to the aid of the helpless and vulnerable. Jesus, our Saviour, was the One who gave up His own riches, and brought all the sick and wounded to His Father's home. Let His compassion fuel us. As we continue to live as the people of God, let's trust that as we offer up whatever we have in obedience, God will work through our faith. After all, we are a people that act in neighbourly holiness to reflect our holy and loving God.