Text: Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18
The world sends us all kinds of messages about what the good life is. Vacations to Aspen, being financially independent, buying the latest iPhone, owning a vacation home, being able to buy products that erase our wrinkles, eating at five-star restaurants, driving a fancy car, indulging in whatever we find pleasurable, and that list is endless. And yet, when asked the question, “What is the good life?” most of us sitting here would shy away from such worldly responses. I recently read an article in Forbes Magazine titled: The Ten Golden Rules on Living the Good Life. For most of us it probably gets more to the heart of how we would describe the good life.The Ten Golden Rules on Living the Good Life are as follows:
- Examine life; always search for new pleasures and new destinations to reach with your mind.
- Worry only about the things that are in your control…
- Treasure Friendship, the reciprocal attachment that fills the need for affiliation.
- Experience True Pleasure. Avoid shallow and transient pleasures. True pleasure is disciplined and restrained.
- Master Yourself. Stop deceiving yourself, believing only what is personally useful and convenient; self-mastery requires ruthless candor.
- Avoid Excess. Even good things, pursued or attained without moderation, can become a source of misery and suffering.
- Be a Responsible Human Being. Approach yourself with honesty and thoroughness; maintain a kind of spiritual hygiene; stop the blame-shifting for your errors and shortcomings.
- Don’t Be a Prosperous Fool. Money is necessary but not a sufficient condition for the good life, for happiness and wisdom.
- Don’t Do Evil to Others. Evildoing is a dangerous habit, a kind of reflex too quickly resorted to and too easily justified that has a lasting and damaging effect upon the quest for the good life.
- Show kindness towards others. Kindness to others is a good habit that supports and reinforces the quest for the good life.
It’s not a bad list. But is Forbes Magazine the best source for those of us seeking wisdom on living the good life? Some of you are nodding yes, internally if not externally. And you may have a point – there are some powerful things on that list. But this morning it is this reading from Leviticus 19 that I want us to think about as we consider the question: What is the good life?
Before we get too far into this question of the good life, it is fair to ask a prior question: What is a Christian to do with the book of Leviticus? Filled as it is with obscure food laws, peculiar sex laws, and lengthy instructions about proper priestly activity, does it really have anything to say to us, especially when other parts of the Bible offer far better advice? Take for instance Peter who says in the book of the Acts that all things that come from the hand of God may be eaten. Who wouldn’t take that over all those obscure food laws in Leviticus? Or who among us would choose the peculiar sex laws of Leviticus over the beautiful prose of Song of Songs that celebrates sexual pleasure? And who would rather live by the lengthy instructions about proper priestly behavior when we could affirm what we have learned from the book of Exodus that all may be priests in a holy nation?
As 21st century readers of Leviticus we begin with a problem and it is this: Leviticus presents to us a quite foreign worldview, one distinctly different from our own. It will not do to drag a verse or two from this book into the 21st century and assume that it applies directly to our time. We have seen in recent years just how dangerous and damaging doing so can be as many Christians and non-Christians alike have used verses from Leviticus to wrongly build their case against homosexuality—one of the most hotly debated topics in religious discourse. So we must be careful as we explore what Leviticus 19 has to say to us about living the good life in 2014.
In chapter 19 we do not hear of the details of sacrifice or a sharp focus on laws against certain behaviors—though there are some of those—or concerns for proper priestly actions. In Leviticus 19 we hear of the laws that echo the more famous Ten Commandments—you shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not swear falsely by my name; you shall not defraud your neighbor. And, of course, the most remembered and quoted line of all that links it to today’s gospel lectionary text in Matthew: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But to merely quote this familiar line, as one scholar puts it, out of its Levitical context is not to understand what it may have meant to the priestly class who wrote it. John Holbert writes: “We need to try to follow the priests and their special concerns if we are to appreciate what they tried to do. The central concern of the priestly writing is enshrined in verse 2 of chapter 19: “You shall be holy, for I YHWH your God are holy.” The translation “holy” captures the rich connotations of the Hebrew “qadosh.” The word means “other,” “set apart,” removed.” Purity was the goal of the priests, and they extended their search for purity into every area of their lives. Hence their concern for eating rightly…for proper sexual relations…for right actions, right words, correct sacrifices, and proper behaviors in all things.”
Holbert goes on to say:
We 21st-century religious types tend to label such attempts ‘rigid‘ or ‘cultish‘ or ‘narrow-minded.‘ Why on earth should I worry about what I eat beyond reasons of my good health?…What impact ought such a priest to have on my behavior when he says, ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.’ Do we not find it absurd to cease heterosexual relationships with those we love if even a tiny drop of menstrual blood remains after a woman‘s period, because some old priest warns us against it?
In each of these examples, he concludes “a worldview is being presented; it is a world where only certain things may be eaten, only men and women can engage in sex, and only then when the woman meets certain criteria. We certainly have the right to avoid all of this behavior, but we have no right either to pick and choose which one applies to our time (no homosexuality but shrimp is fine) or ridicule these priests for the search for purity and the holiness of God.” These specific laws in Leviticus are for a certain time and people and they have little to do with living in the 21st century.
By now you may have noticed that the question I am asking is a bit different from the question that Leviticus 19 asks. Leviticus 19 asks: “What is the holy life?” And I’m asking: “What is the good life?” Why good instead of holy? Well, “holy” seemed a far reach for me. And I’m thinking it may feel that way to you, too. “Holy” can lead us to ponder this question too narrowly, since most of us don’t tend to think of ourselves or our daily actions as holy. Asking the question what is the good life feels more congruent with 21st century biblical and faith questioning, and it is relevant to the question of a holy life if you define “the good life” as a life filled with meaning and purpose.
The first thing that we have to establish about this text this morning is that it was addressed to “the congregation of the people of Israel.” Even these ancient holy codes are about how we live in community, how we treat one another, which is the same concern that Jesus had when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The good life is first and foremost about how we live together as humanity, how we make connections with one another, how we live in relationship with one another, how treat one another and even how we provide for one another. That speaks to the part of the text that instructs us to leave the edges of the fields for gleaning for the poor and the immigrant. And it’s where Jesus says, “If someone asks you for your coat give them your cloak as well.” The world often preaches a message about the good life as being, “What’s in it for me?” but the good life that we read about all through the Biblical text from Leviticus to Matthew is about “What’s good for all of us, not just 1% of us?” The good life is always lived out in community.
That’s not to say that the good life excludes those things that bring us individual pleasure, but the good life always faces outward. The good life knows that the difference we can make in the world is always more powerful when we stand together in solidarity for the rights of all. We see this message, even in the culturally distorted passages of Leviticus. And then, in the Matthew text, Jesus comes along, quoting from his own tradition, but taking it a step further saying: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” For Jesus, you not only know the way, you change the way you live to exemplify that good thing. You can be someone who feeds the hungry, but it’s another thing to change how you eat so that others have more access to higher quality food. It’s one thing to march for marriage equality, but it’s another thing to stand in solidarity and not enjoy the benefits of an unjust system just because you can. It’s one thing to enjoy the rights and privileges of this country, and yet be silent when it comes to advocating for the rights of children born in this country to parents who are not citizens. Loving our neighbor, and living the good life, requires something of us. It requires a re-orienting of how we function in the world; it requires us to be deliberate, to choose to be set apart from the norms of this, our own culture.
And that is what Christians are to do with Leviticus – to realize that it is not the details of what a priestly class had to say to its congregants thousands of years ago that matter, rather it is these two truths. First, the good life, the holy life, is about community and the common good. We cannot live the good life outside of relationship. Second, in order to live the good life, we have to be willing to be set apart, to choose to live in ways that honor all of the community and are often counter-cultural.
As hard as I have tried to steer clear of the word “holy” it is precisely this idea of being set apart that I believe ultimately leads us to the good life. Human holiness, Leviticus insists, derives from God’s holiness. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Levitical holiness or biblical holiness is not a human attribute to be obtained through our own righteousness; rather it is a divine gift, in which we partake of God’s own holiness, just as we partake of God’s own image. “You shall be holy,” is best read as God’s promise: “Because I am holy, you will be holy. It is my gift to you. It is who you are.” When we can tap into that promise, we live the good life.