Matthew 22:34-40; Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-19, 33-34 (I’ve cropped off part of one lesson and added a couple of verses to the other to bring out some comparisons.)
Everybody loves Jesus’ teaching about the Great Commandment: Love God with your whole self; love your neighbor as yourself—that’s the whole Bible in one sentence, says Jesus.
I could have focused exclusively on our lesson from Matthew this week, maybe repeating a lot of what I said a few weeks ago about St. Paul’s version of this commandment: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
But here I go insisting that we also look at a book in the Bible that a lot of us tend to avoid: Leviticus! It’s a book full of detailed instructions that even the most conservative Christians consider irrelevant, except when they indulge in LGBTQ-bashing. And because bashers love to quote two isolated passages out of context, that gives those of us who vehemently disagree with them even more reason to avoid this book. Why bring it up now?
Because … if we love the Great Commandment, we can’t ignore Leviticus. Jesus and Paul are both quoting Leviticus! The very book that some Christians invoke to excuse their hatefulness turns out to be the same book that at its heart condemns all forms of hatefulness.
Yes, the book is full of all sorts of admonitions that no Christian I know practices today. That’s why I included the verse that comes immediately after the one about loving our neighbors: “You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” Who loses any sleep about that stuff? These are what we now call purity laws, and the early Christian leaders, especially Paul, decided that these sorts of regulations only applied to Jewish Christians who still wanted to keep kosher. They were considered irrelevant to non-Jewish Christians.
But the heart of Leviticus, like the heart of the rest of the Bible, was about how we treat one another, not about ritual purity. (Remember, that’s what many ancient rabbis thought as well, as we saw a few weeks ago.) And this chapter shows us the heart of Leviticus. All of its instructions are about becoming a holy people, but the enduring, cross-cultural teaching about holiness is that loving God only comes through loving others, and not just neighbors but even foreigners.
I, for one, I had not looked at Leviticus that way until I read an interpretation of it from, of all places, The Queer Bible Commentary—yes, there really is a queer Bible commentary. Here’s what the commentator says: “It is my favourite biblical book … Leviticus is the most important book in the Hebrew Bible—it is the ‘lively centre’ of the Torah, or Pentateuch, a kind of canon within a canon—and at its center one finds two versions of the Golden Rule’” (p. 77)*.
So what about those so-called clobber passages (18:22, 20:13)? Two responses: a) they are about culturally conditioned interpretations of ritual purity that no longer apply; b) in context, scholars have begun to notice, they seem to be part of a general prohibition of incest, whether between males and females or between males and males. As one scholar paraphrases it: “Sexual intercourse with a close male relative should be just as abominable to you as incestuous relationships with female relatives.” (Yes, these commandments are directed at males only.) So let’s not worry about these passages, any more than we worry about wearing clothes “made of two different materials.”
The heart of Leviticus, its enduring cross-cultural message is this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” ”When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” That’s its heart. So said Jesus, St. Paul, and several rabbis of their time. The heart of Leviticus is about loving neighbors AND foreigners (with or without green cards). It’s the very opposite of LGBTQ-bashing, immigrant-banning interpretations. It’s utterly opposed to a major faction of a certain political party (not to mention any names).
If we love the Great Commandment, we can’t ignore Leviticus.
*David Tabb Stewart, “Leviticus” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. by Deryn Guest, et al. (London: SCM Press, 2006), pp. 77-104)