There’s a book in the Bible that gets really bad press. It is is cited as being irrelevant to modern life, because it talks about “in the camp” and “outside the camp”. It seems to contain pages and pages of laws about sacrifices and offerings and festivals and the Temple, none of which seem relevant to Christian faith. It has chapters devoted to what you can eat, and what you can’t eat. It talks about how to deal with skin diseases and sexual misbehaviour.
And we know that a couple of verses in this book have, most unhelpfully, been quite abused by some people in some churches, being misused to berate, judge, and condemn some people in society—in ways that are quite out of keeping with the original intentions and application of these verses.
Have you guessed which book? If you thought, “ Leviticus”, you are right.
Leviticus—the book of the Levites, the group within ancient Israel that were responsible for all that took place in the Temple—contains all of these things. And those passages that gave directions about worship, sacrifices, offerings, ordination, priestly activity, dietary matters, relationships, illnesses, and more, were important for the people of Israel in centuries past.
But in the present—how relevant are these things? That’s a fair question (but it requires an explanation much longer than can be given in this short article).
There is one thing in Leviticus, however, that is important. Very important. So important that it has been quoted at many times in subsequent generations. So important that it shapes faith and discipleship for us even today. So important that is provides the guiding principle for life in a global pandemic.
There is a story when Jesus engages in conversation with a teacher of the Torah (the law), recounted in Mark 12:28–34 and parallel passages. To the question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus responds by citing two commandments, each drawn from Hebrew Scripture.
The first commandment, “love God”, comes from Deuteronomy (Deut 6:5; 10:12). Deuteronomy literally means “second law”; it is believed to be the book discovered in the Temple under King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8–11; 2 Chron 34:14–16) which was the catalyst and guide for the widespread reforms that Josiah undertook. Deuteronomy contains the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:1–21), as well as the Shema, which became the daily prayer of the Jews (Deut 6:4–9), and a series of blessings (28:1–6) and curses (28:15–19) which formed the basis for the beatitudes spoken by Jesus on the mountain (Matt 5:3–12) and the parallel set of blessings and woes on the plain (Luke 6:20–26).
The second commandment, “love your neighbour”, actually comes from Leviticus (19:18), a book which, as we have noted, contains a comprehensive set of laws which cover a wide range of issues and situations.
The command to “love your neighbour” culminates a series of instructions regarding the way a person is to relate to their neighbours: “you shall not defraud your neighbour .. with justice you shall judge your neighbour … you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour … you shall not reprove your neighbour” (19:13–18). It sits within the section of the book which is often called The Holiness Code (Lev 17–26), a section which emphasises the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7, 26). Being holy means treating others with respect.
It is not only Jesus who quotes these words from Leviticus. In the treatise of James, the brother of Jesus, the command to love your neighbour (Lev 19:18) is quoted. It leads into a discussion of the need to fulfil the Law as a whole (2:8). James makes reference to two of the Ten Commandments (2:11), before drawing a succinct moral conclusion: “so speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12). These verses appear in this Sunday’s epistle reading.
The command to love your neighbour is also quoted by Paul, not once, but twice. The first time is in Rom 13:8–10, in a section of that letter where Paul claims that “love is the fulfilment of the law”. The second is in Galatians, where Paul reminds his audience of a key theme of that letter, that “you were called to freedom”, before asserting that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:13–14).
It is worth noting that both James and Paul link this central command to the issue of liberty—James 2:12, Gal 5:13–14. Keeping the law is not a matter of bondage and oppressive restrictions; rather, loving your neighbour is an expression of freedom, for as we orient ourself to the other person, we release our own person from what might hold and constrain us.
So the big three of first century Christianity—Jesus, his brother James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, and the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul—each refer to this one commandment from Leviticus, and give it prominence amongst all the other commandments. It is one of the two “greatest commandments” (Mark 12:31), it is “the royal law” (James 2:8), it is the one word that sums up all the other commandments (Rom 13:9) and fulfils the whole law (Gal 5:14).
And for us, today, in the world of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Delta strain, these ancient words of wisdom hold good as the guiding principle for all that we do. We love our neighbour by taking all the precautions necessary: careful hand washing and sanitising, wearing a mask when in public, getting vaccinated, social distancing when we are permitted to interact in person, staying at home when we are required. As we reduce the risk of transmitting infections by these means, we show that we truly love our neighbours.