A sermon on Leviticus 19 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 20 June 2021
In Australia we live under the rule of law. The rule of law is the belief that the law applies to everyone, that no one, no matter how rich or powerful they are, is above the law, that our leaders and governments must obey the law, and that even decisions that any level of government make must be consistent with the law or they can be overturned. It is the belief that the law is blind to privilege and power.
We take the rule of law for granted, even if we don’t know what to call it. It’s one of the reasons that we Australians are generally law abiding people. We drive on the left side of the road, we keep to the speed limit, mostly, we pick up lost wallets and hand them in to the police. We do that because we assume that the law is good that keeping the law is good for us and that breaking the law will have bad and well-deserved consequences.
But that doesn’t happen in every country of the world. In many countries the law is just a tool that the powerful use to stay in power, and there is one rule for the rich and another rule for the poor. Judges can be bought and sold, and justice belongs to the highest bidder. People don’t assume that the law is their friend. People tend to do whatever they want and risk the consequences.
What we see in the law of Moses is a commitment to fairness. The law doesn’t belong to the rich. It doesn’t belong to the powerful. It belongs to God who gave it for the benefit for all. There is also a commitment in it to compassion, that the law should be used not to keep the poor down but to help them. And the overall guiding principle is one of love. Because God’s holiness is most clearly seen in his love, especially for the poor and weak. And to be holy is most clearly expressed by the same commitment to love.
Leviticus 19 begins with the words,
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
This is the bedrock of God’s law, the foundation on which it stands. The Lord is holy. He is not like us who are tempted by greed or fear to control our environment and the people around us. And the Lord is not like other gods who either fight among themselves or are used as the tools of oppression by the rich and powerful. He is above all that. His purposes are guided by his own will which is what is good for us and promotes life and health in his creation. He is free in order to love and his love his free. He is holy. And the foundation of his law is his call, his command that we should be holy like him. Because in his law the Lord has enshrined the principles that are good for us, that are good for the whole community and that are good for his creation.
It’s a good reminder that obedience is not a heavy burden. God wills what is good for us and obedience to his will promotes life and health in our life and through us to our community and our environment. As Jesus said,
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light and you will find rest for your souls.
Put simply, in obedience we discover what it means to be truly human. It leads to joy and harmony and strength and health. Disobedience, on the other hand, is toxic. It is poison. It leads to unhappiness and decay and weakness. It destroys what God has made good. It leads us away from our true selves into a kind of shadow life which is no life at all, which is really and truly a living death.
What we see in the law then is the expression of God’s will and what it means for us, in concrete examples and situations, to be holy like him. For example, Leviticus chapter 19, verses 9 and 10 say,
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.
Gleaning is picking up that grain that has been left behind in the harvesting process. The principle in this law is to leave something behind for the poor to eat. There was no social security. There was no old age pension. But the poor were still to be cared for. They were not to be left behind. Instead, at harvest time food was to be left behind for them. Farmers were not to harvest every single stalk of grain and they were not to go over their crops a second time with a fine toothed comb. But it was to be left as food for those who had nothing else.
It’s a good reminder that the poor among us are as much members of the community as the rich and that when they go without, the whole community suffers. Sarah’s Breakfast Club at Corowa Public School is a great example of this principle going on today. Too many children go to school hungry and their education suffers. And studies have shown that when children have a good breakfast, their educational outcomes improve. This might be a great ministry to be involved with. Corowa Food Bowl is another great initiative in our community. Run by Amaranth at the old railway station on Tuesdays to Friday from 10 till 2 it’s a great way of giving food from the supermarkets that would otherwise go to waste to those who need it. We may not be farmers, but it is still possible to find ways to share what we have with those who aren’t so lucky. As Paul said in Ephesians chapter 4,
Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Ultimately, we work not just for ourselves and to provide for our own families, but for all members of the community.
Verses 13 says,
Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
Here the law protects the most vulnerable in our community. In verse 13 the hired man is the person who has no full time job. He doesn’t own a farm. He doesn’t have his own business. He doesn’t have consistent work, but he relies on the seasonal work that becomes available from time to time. Harvesting grain. Picking fruit. Sowing crops. According to the law, such a day labourer was entitled to his wages after work before he went home each day. These people and their families often lived hand to mouth. The day’s pay would go towards buying the food for that evening and the next day. Now it might seem reasonable for an employer to delay making that payment for twelve hours. Possibly when there was a cash flow problem. As if he could say, “I can’t give you the money right now, but I’ll have it when you come back tomorrow.”
But that meant asking the man and his family to miss a meal. To go hungry. In many circumstances that could be life threatening. In essence the law was saying don’t make your minor problems cause major problems for someone else. In this case, don’t let your cash flow problem make other people go hungry. Especially for people whose work makes your cash.
It’s a good reminder that we all rely on each other. In a community no one succeeds on their own. My work helps your work and your work helps someone else. We depend on each other. And it’s important not to let our minor problems cause major problems for other people, especially when they are living on the edge of survival.
Living in the middle of a pandemic provides an easy example. Because it is easy for the young and healthy to think this is just a bad flu. If I catch it, I won’t die. And yet they are part of a community in which not everyone is young and many have health problems. A cash flow problem for the rich is a minor inconvenience. But for the poor it is life threatening. In the same way, COVID for the healthy could just mean a sore throat and two weeks, a month in isolation. But for the sick it is deadly.
Verse 14 says,
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.
Here the law protects the vulnerable from those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. The deaf can’t hear the curse that is said to their face. The blind can’t see the stumbling block put in front of them. The wicked might think that they can do what they like with such people, but they shouldn’t think that they can get away with it. For the Lord is the protector of the vulnerable. His law protects their rights. And justice is on their side. What is done is done in the sight of God and he reserves the right to make the wicked pay.
In the same way it is wrong to tempt an addict. It is wrong to sell credit to the poor. It is wrong to demand money from pensioners. It is wrong to manipulate people with guilt or fear. It is wrong. It is wicked. And the Lord sees. And he will bring it back on those who have preyed on the vulnerable.
Verse 15 says,
Do not pervert justice. Do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.
The rule of law requires the impartial application of the law in every case for every person. Only when every law applies to every single person can we say that no one is above the law. For the law does not exist to protect the power of the rich or to promote rebellion among the poor. But it exists to protect the community and every single person within it. There is no excuse for bending to the wishes of the powerful. There is no excuse for rioting. And civil disobedience is only a peaceful protest when the disobedient are prepared to suffer the consequences. I might chain myself to a tree to save a forest. Or I might skip work to march for peace. But I can’t complain if I spend a night in gaol or have my wages docked.
Verse 18 says,
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself I am the Lord.
The trouble with most human beings is that we tend to see our own actions and choices in the best possible light, but to see the actions and choices of others in the worst possible light. We think that person is lazy, but I will get to it eventually. We think that person is selfish, but I am simply standing up for myself. We think that person is cranky and mean, but I am just having a bad day. And we use blaming words for others like “always” or “never”. You are always late. You are never on time. But if we make a mistake we’ve got a good reason and it rarely ever happens so we expect others to understand. As Jesus said, we see the specks in other people’s eyes, but we are blind to the logs in our own eye. Probably because of the log.
But the law says that we should treat other people like we want to be treated. We are not to take the law into our own hands to take revenge. Nor are we to invite the wickedness that has been done to us into our own hearts so that we bear a grudge. It is not wrong to be angry when people hurt us. It is not wrong to want justice. What God’s law is protecting us from here is becoming what we hate. So that the hurt that is done to us consumes us from the inside and moulds us in the shape of those who hurt us. Evil cannot be overcome by evil. It can only be overcome by good.
We’ve been talking about the rule of law in Australia, but ultimately it is only an illustration. An example. What we are really talking about is the law of God, and ultimately it is the law of love. Love your neighbour as yourself. Do to them what you want them to do to you. Don’t do to them what you don’t want them to do to you. Don’t do to them the wrong they have done to you, because that makes you as bad as them. It is the law of God. And the end of each law he says, “I am the Lord,” as if to say, I see what has been done. I will see justice done. And we will all appear before him to give an account of our lives. All our actions. All our choices. God’s law is only blind to power and privilege. But it is not blind to our justifications and excuses.
But it is the law of love. To the Israelites it says, “You were once slaves in Egypt. You were once weak and vulnerable. You were once mistreated and abused. You cannot treat people in your own community like that. Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” And to us under the gospel of Jesus it says, “You were once sinners. But now you are forgiven. Treat people the way that God has treated you. Love your neighbour as Christ has loved you.” Ultimately it leads not to the rule of law, but to the rule of love that fulfils God’s law and achieves his purpose in our life. Our good. Our health. Our life. And not just ours, but everyone’s.