The Readings: Leviticus 19:1-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28; Matthew 6:19-24
Leviticus 19 is a unique and important collection of diverse laws introduced by “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” and frequently punctuated with “I am the LORD.” In an environment in which the two most frequent uses of ‘holy’ are “holier than thou” and “holy s—,” and in which “Lord” is associated with oppression there’s some preliminary work to do.
‘LORD’ (typically in small caps) is a stand-in for the name YHWH, unpronounced in Jewish tradition, often vocalized as ‘Yahweh’. In an important Old Testament tradition the introduction of the name ‘LORD’ is tied directly to the Exodus:
“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them.… Say therefore to the Israelites, “I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians”’” (Exod. 6:2-3, 6-7).
‘Holy’ appears in the creation story in relation to the Sabbath (the Sabbath itself interpreted as a way of remembering the Exodus in Deuteronomy), but then not significantly until Exodus 3:5, the LORD’s initial appearance to Moses, kicking off the Exodus (“Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”).
‘The LORD’ and ‘holy’ are intimately tied to the Exodus. They are freedom words. Not surprisingly, Leviticus 19 recalls the Exodus as motivation (v.34, 36). And what’s the point of giving the people freedom if they keep acting like slaves? So: “be holy.”
What does ‘be holy’ mean? Leviticus 19 answers the question with a whirlwind of examples (e.g., “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute.”) and principles (e.g., “you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”). The collection is by nature not exhaustive. Rather, it sets the hearers/readers on a voyage of discovery.
The New Testament writers, celebrating Exodus 2.0, echo the call to holiness (John, Peter, Paul—in today’s reading). Recall Paul’s pivotal exhortation: “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is– what is good and pleasing and mature” (Rom. 12:1-2 CEB; boldface mine). Same voyage, same destination.