March 5, 2009

Reading Leviticus

This year, I am reading the Bible all the way through in version that provides a lectio continua reading from Hebrew scripture and Gospel, a psalm, and a verse or two from Proverbs each day. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and it is fascinating. It is such a carefully ordered approach to life in community, exactly the kind of guide an ancient people needed in order to maintain their God-chosen identity in the midst of pagan society.

It is also fascinating to consider how modern people have interpreted this guide in a time, place, and culture so different from its original genesis. It strikes me that we have done a lot of picking and choosing. For example, many modern folks want to enforce the guidelines about sex (Lev. 18), but would not dream of obeying some of the other parts. For example, I personally have never been in a church that offered burnt animals as a pleasing gift to God (Lev. 1; 4; 5; and many other chapters). There are lots of church people who say they take the Bible’s commands literally and yet wear polyester-cotton clothing (Lev. 19:19), even into worship, or associate with others when they have a skin problem like eczema or acne (Lev 13). You get the point.

And then there is this:

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (Lev. 25:35-38, NIV)


The news is full of stories about our fellow men and women who have become poor. I know many churches that have long been concerned about the poor. There are soup kitchens, food drives, clothing closets, and building projects, all intended to help others. But I don’t hear much, if anything, about us promoting (or creating) programs to make no-interest loans, or opening stores that sell at wholesale. I do hear a lot of church people who are worried about how they will keep their lights on, their sanctuaries heated, and the preacher and musicians paid.

When we pick and choose which commands to obey, we need to be careful not to pick those that fit in with our own thinking and seem to advance our personal ideas of the realm of God, while rejecting the ones that are hard to accept. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus had quite a bit to say about money, and almost nothing about sex? Somehow, I think we have gotten our priorities wrong. Maybe one outcome of this recession/depression is that it will force us to reflect on matters of money in a way that prosperous times do not.

And it seems to me that the holy intent of the ancient commandments – all of them – was forming community. We’ve lost sight of that. In fact, all too often, the way we apply the rules accomplishes just the opposite: it shuts people out and breaks up community. Maybe as we get back to basics, we can learn the preciousness of relationships, the unconditional love of God, and the blessing of the community of faith, a community so vast it embraces everyone whom God loves. Which, after all, is ….everyone.

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