Leviticus 19 is sometimes called the Sermon on the Mount of the Old Testament, since like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, it is a collection of moral instructions for God’s people, including the specific command that is the second greatest commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Repeated twice in this chapter, we should understand the whole chapter (and Jesus says the whole Old Testament) as a lesson on that point.
“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy…”
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Since piety begins at home, God’s people are to fear their mother and their father, keep God’s sabbaths, and not turn to idols (19:1-4). When they offer peace offerings, they may only eat the feast for two days, preventing overindulgence, laziness, and greed – probably implying the need to share and be generous (19:5-8). Related, God requires business owners to leave leftovers for the poor (19:9-10). God’s people must not steal, lie, swear falsely, or rob anyone, even by being slow to pay what we owe, particularly to the poor (19:11-13). All cruelty, especially to the disabled, is condemned, as well as all injustice through favoritism or partiality (19:14-15). All gossip and slander are prohibited as forms of murder and hatred, and if you have a problem with someone, you must talk to them directly (19:16-17). God’s people are to reject all vengeance and grudges, and love their neighbors as themselves (19:18).
While mixing seeds and fabrics may have been prohibited as a sign of distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, this law also points to God’s insistence that His people not confuse and mix the “fabric” of the way God made the world, e.g. male and female (19:19). While justice is to be without partiality, God insists that those with less power (e.g. slaves) be granted greater benefit of the doubt, particularly in cases of sexual immorality (19:20-22). The people were required to trust God for the fruit of their newly planted trees, waiting until the fifth year to eat it (19:23-25). All idolatry is prohibited: whether through consuming blood, pagan hairstyles, tattoos, prostitution, or witchcraft (19:26-31). The chapter returns to where it began, reminding the people to keep sabbath, rise up before the elderly, love strangers as themselves, and keep justice, since God is the Lord and brought them out of Egypt (Lev. 19:32-37).
LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF
Jesus and the New Testament writers repeatedly insist that the whole law is found in this summary: love your neighbor as yourself (Lk. 10:27-28, Gal. 5:14, Js. 2:8). This is the law and the prophets, and all the laws are summarized and fulfilled in this one: love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 22:39-40, Rom. 13:9-10). Love is more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mk. 12:29-33). This completely contradicts those who claim that the law of God is opposed to love, or that the Old Testament was not about the love of God. Love is obedience to God from the heart. But to truly understand the law of God is to see how far short we fall of God’s love.
This love requires strict justice and fairness in some matters (19:11-13, 15, 35-36), but also loves mercy and generosity (19:9-10, 20-22). Even manners are love in the little things: clothing, hair, standing for the elderly (19:19, 27, 32). Love works hard, honestly, avoiding the need to receive charity, with the goal of being able to give generously to those in need (Lev. 19:5-6, 9-10, 34, cf. 2 Thess. 3:5ff, Eph. 4:28). While civil magistrates have a duty to love God by enforcing strict justice, they have no business coercing the “love” or charity of others. Government programs and the taxation they require only robs people of the opportunity to love freely.
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?
When the lawyer asked Jesus who his neighbor was that he was to love, Jesus famously answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29-37). The striking thing is that Jesus shifts the question from “Who is my neighbor?” (object) to “Who acted as a neighbor?” (subject) (Lk. 10: 29, 36). The point is that we are required to have a certain disposition, ready to love. Notice that the so-called rule-followers (the Levite and Priest) are the ones who fail to be neighbors, and the one notorious for breaking rules (the Samaritan) is the one who loves the nearly-dead Jew. The Samaritan is incredibly lavish, and Jesus emphasizes this: bandages, oil, wine, transportation, lodging, further care, future care, and all expenses paid (Lk. 10:34-35).
Most interpreters take the Samaritan to be a type of Jesus, an outcast, come to rescue the nearly-dead human race in Adam, which certainly works. It may also be the case that Jesus intends to be prefigured in the stripped, beaten, and robbed man among the thieves, setting the goal of neighbor-love as ultimately aimed at loving Him, through the least of these my brethren (Mt. 25:40). In either case, the conclusion is that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must reckon yourself an outsider, a foreigner, a threat, a criminal, already rejected, having nothing to lose (Gal. 2:20). In other words, love means reckoning yourself as among the rescued, as among the slaves because you were freed from Egypt (Lev. 19:34, 36).
As we consider our duty to love, we should remember the difference between refugees and apostles from the world. Refugees are fleeing from the world and frequently show up looking like the world, talking like the world, and full of the confusions of the world but they are teachable and hungry to learn. Apostles show up with a message from the world about how backward and narrow-minded Biblical thinking and living is. Refugees are welcome to come and learn and grow; apostles should be corrected a couple times and then not given the time of day (Tit. 3:10).
Throughout the text, the line is repeated: “I am the Lord,” and it seems that this should be taken as shorthand for the bookends: “I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2) and “I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt” (19:36). God’s holiness is directed at saving His people, and God’s holiness is bound up with His love. But this holy love is not content to merely “affirm” anyone just as they are or in whatever they want to do or be. No, this holy love is determined to bring Christ into every moment, to see Him in those around us (however weak or foreign or unlovely) until His image emerges clearly in them. We are called to this love because it is precisely the kind of love that God has bestowed upon us.