The Book of Leviticus gets its name from the Levitical priests who served as leaders of religious services among the people of Israel. Leviticus contains a mix of religious, civil and moral regulations, and at the heart of the book is chapter 19, which contains rules about holiness — especially holiness in social ethics. Although people today are often suspicious of the word “holy,” with self-righteous individuals being accused of acting “holier-than-thou,” holy is a very positive term in Leviticus. Holiness is the central characteristic of God, and it has multiple meanings for the people of Israel: Separateness, righteousness, justice.
The chapter begins with God saying to Moses: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:1-2). Because God is holy, the people of Israel are to be holy: Separate from people around them, and both righteous and just in their dealings with one another. Chapter 19 addresses holiness in family relationships, sacrifices, farming, and business, and in the 18th verse of the chapter, love of neighbor becomes central to a life of holiness.
“You shall each revere your mother and father,” says God to the people, “and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves” (Lev 19:3-4). These two verses are similar to the Ten Commandments: Rules about revering mother and father, keeping the sabbath, and avoiding idols. Holiness begins with revering mother and father, the people who have given life to their children. Sabbath-keeping is commanded as well, a practice that was instituted in Genesis 1 and appears frequently in the Old Testament: 15 times in Exodus, 24 times in Leviticus, 67 times in the rest of the Old Testament books. The sabbath reminds us that our value comes from who we are as children of God, not from what we do as workers in the world. Unfortunately, our Internet-connected global economy keeps us focused on work every day of the week.
This industriousness can tip over into idolatry, which happens when we put more emphasis on money, possessions, sex, or success than we do on God. “Popular television shows contain a lot of sin,” I wrote in a column for USA TODAY, “but even more idolatry.” In House of Cards, the idol is power. Conniving politician Frank Underwood schemes and sleeps his way through Washington, moving from Democratic majority whip to vice president to president.
Mad Men idolizes success. Suave 1960s advertising man Don Draper, who invents and reinvents himself throughout the series, believes that “success comes from standing out, not fitting in.” Unfortunately, his “standing out” does terrible damage to his family members, friends and colleagues.
Surprisingly, the idol of the drama Breaking Bad is family. After being diagnosed with cancer, chemistry teacher Walter White builds a drug empire on the belief that he needs to provide for his wife and children. But even a good thing can cause death and destruction once it becomes an idol. At one point, Walt’s wife says, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
Idolatry is nothing new, of course. Leviticus warned against idolatry and Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols,” an observation that continues to ring true as people make idols of sex, power, beauty, success, money and even children. None of these is inherently evil, but they become sinful when they are treated as divine.
Leviticus goes on to offer a number of laws on community and social morality, demanding honesty and justice in dealing with others. In echoes of the Ten Commandments, God says, “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name” (Lev 19:11-12). Also forbidden are unjust judgments, partiality toward the poor, and deference to the powerful. Slander is prohibited, as is hatred, vengeance, and the bearing of grudges (Lev 19:15-18). The section ends with a commandment that identifies love as the organizing principle of all the other commandments: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18). A person who follows the commandment to love is simply not going to steal, lie, defraud, slander, hate, or bear a grudge.
This passage ends with a focus on the holiness that comes from a life of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Leviticus 19 is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it contains this verse which Jesus included in his Great Commandment (Matt 22:39), and which the apostle Paul referenced when he said, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). With love as our yardstick, we stand a good chance of being a holy people who serve a holy God.
1. Where do you see the temptation of idolatry in your own life?
2. What are the most dangerous idols in the world around you?
3. How is love of neighbor connected to a life of holiness?
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