A short introduction to a new series of sermons on Leviticus
Love your neighbour as yourself.
Most people would identify this as one of Jesus’ key teachings. And they’d be right. It’s where Jesus got what we call the Golden Rule, the idea that we should treat people the way we want to be treated. You know, if you think of your neighbour, not as a threat, not as an obstacle or a competitor for limited resources, as if life was just one big game of Survivor, but as a person with as much right to live and to be happy as you have, and you put that thought into practice in how you treat them, then you are not far from the exact centre of Jesus’ mission.
And most people would argue that this is exactly how the New Testament improves on the religion of the Old Testament. On the principle that: Old Testament God – angry and vengeful, and New Testament God – happy and loving. And that in the Old Testament we hear a message of judgment., but in the New Testament one of forgiveness. But then most people would be wrong.
Of course, this verse, Love your neighbour as yourself, is quoted in Matthew chapter 5, and chapter 19, and chapter 22, and in Mark chapter 12, twice, and in Luke chapter 10 and Romans 13, Galatians 5, and James chapter 2, all of which are in the New Testament. That is true. It is the most quoted verse of the Bible in the whole New Testament. But it would be forgetting that those words come from the Old Testament and their original source is in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 18. Yes, you heard it right. Leviticus. Not in the Psalms which everyone loves. Not in the Proverbs which is full of practical wisdom. But Leviticus, possibly the most misunderstood and neglected book of the whole Bible.
Which I don’t think is fair. In fact, I’m going to be straight with you. Leviticus is God’s Word for you. And there is no God of love, there is no forgiveness, there is no understanding of what Jesus came to say and do, there is no fellowship with our holy creator or with our fellow human beings, without the book of Leviticus.
So, I could waste your time by listing all the things that make reading and understanding this book so difficult. Yes, it was written 3500 years ago. Yes, there is very little story, the narrative that holds the Bible together and makes it memorable. Yes, as Gentiles, non-Jews, living in the 21st century, it is hard to apply the principles of its laws to our daily lives. All those things are true. But I’ll tell you what else is true. There are gems in this book that are worth the effort to find. Love your neighbour as yourself. Be holy, because I the Lord, your God, am holy. And there are puzzles in this book that are worth the effort to try to solve. I mean, why is it so important whether something is clean or unclean? And even more importantly, there are concepts here that are crucial for understanding Jesus and his message. Sacrifice. Priesthood. The Day of Atonement and the Year of Jubilee.
In fact, I will make this promise. If you listen to me over the next few weeks, or better, if you listen for what God is saying to you through this book, by the end of it you will understand Jesus better, love him more and follow him more closely. And that is worth the effort.