This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on February 19th, 2017.
Hearing the word “Leviticus” in today’s church might be as foreign as hearing the name of “Spartacus,” the Thracian gladiator, in the church. Indeed, some preachers might feel one must be a gladiator to prepare a sermon from Leviticus.
The preacher might want to start her sermon on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 by dealing with the book of Leviticus and its regular neglect by many preachers. She may want to address the thought of some that this biblical book is not relevant today and perhaps not easily understood and even boring. One might have the view that today’s world has nothing to do with sacrificial rituals and regulations as emphasized by Leviticus. By contrast, there may be those who see the person and work of Christ in the book as they interpret it through allegory. Notably, the preacher must be resolved on her view of the book before preaching the text.
Yet there is no question that Leviticus is relevant today and is a book about worship. But how the preacher views and interprets it will influence the preacher’s sermonic development.
It may be accurate to say that for many people, verse 18 of this pericope – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – is a memorable rule of conduct; otherwise, they know little about the book. The preacher should not neglect the fact that this verse is the one on which the other verses of this pericope rest, within the context of verse 1 that says “You shall be holy.” One must, therefore, explore what being “holy” means for God’s people and how it relates to the Christian community. One must also recognize the “holy” character of God is behind all his commandments; hence, “for I the Lord your God am holy.”
In addressing our holiness, the preacher should consider that holiness – being set aside from the world for God’s purposes and devotion – is about the metamorphosing work of God, not us. What follows verse 1 helps one understand how to live out holiness as acts of worship.
Looking at these verses and the repetitive use of “You shall not,” may bring the Ten Commandments to mind. One might consider these verses as prohibitions that take life or its enjoyment rather than seeing them more appropriately as promoting, producing and giving life. They urge God’s people to act right and do right, through their attitudes and actions. The preacher will help her hearers by illustrating the sights, signs, and sounds of these principles and practices in a lifestyle of holiness.
The preacher must further consider the significance of the repetitive ending statement that “I am the Lord,” after God says, “I am the Lord your God” (v.v. 2, 10)? Is this a reminder that God’s people must act and do right because of their relationship with God and his overall authority? Is this a reminder that what makes someone or something holy is God’s presence?
Fundamentally, these verses say, “Be a good neighbor.” Give life to yourself, others and honor the Lord.
In some African American churches, the worship leader or preacher will say to the congregation, “Turn to your neighbor and…” They may speak an admonishment or make a hand gesture, like “Give them a high five,” a non-verbal expression of affirmation. Some people don’t like this admonishment and refuse to engage.
For those who respond most will turn to a person nearby and then do what they have been asked. I often wonder if that is the extent of someone being your neighbor – is he the person nearby? Might that suggest that being a “neighbor” has something to do with proximity or geography?
The matters of who is your neighbor and where you find your neighbor must be explored by the preacher, and to those who first heard these verses, it probably meant a fellow Israelite. But in the background of this exploration must be Luke 10:25-37 and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
One could say that these verses are about “turning to your neighbor,” while the preacher recognizes that some will turn and some will not, some will turn happily, and others will turn begrudgingly.
The preacher of these verses must address the fundamental theme as to who is your neighbor. The preacher will find a rich minefield by exploring the relevance of the different people referenced in these verses and how they are translated by The Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation as the poor (vv. 10, 15), the stranger (v. 10), fellow (vv. 13, 16, 18), laborer (v. 13), deaf (V. 14), blind (v. 14), the rich (v. 15), your kinsman/kinsfolk (vv. 15, 17), and your countrymen (vv. 16, 18). These verses note an interest in how one interacts or relates to these groups of people.
But there is also a strong emphasis on “the least of these” or people some consider living on the fringes, like the poor, vulnerable, immigrant, and the stranger. The preacher might consider the duty to provide or help them by using the 21st century equivalent to verses 9-10: When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. The preacher must not ignore or neglect to preach these verses, even if controversial. They are essential to helping the congregation understand how to love their neighbor.
This pericope provides an ethical code for interacting with others as it also tells us to turn to our neighbor, any person with whom we interact, who needs our care and concern. The preacher must enjoin the congregation to “turn to your neighbor.”
Joseph C. Parker, Jr.
David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church
Tags: neighbor, leviticus, love, preach