Preached in my Old Testament class at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, WI on December 5th, 2007...
This text is arguably one of the most significant passages in all of Scripture. It begins with the injunction to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” and concludes saying “love your neighbor as yourself”. And it is this very Scripture which both Our Lord and the Apostle Paul say is the summary of the entire Law and the Prophets and leads to eternal life. Eight times we find this Scripture referenced in the New Testament with similar references found elsewhere in Leviticus and Numbers, as well as its striking similarity to the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). You could say this is the “Short Catechism” for Yahweh’s people. So what is the origin of this Catechism?
The Hebrews have fled Egypt, they are encamped in the wilderness and the Lord is now dwelling among them. He has tabernacled Himself among His people. Into this context He addresses Moses at the Tent of Meeting giving him instructions, which are essentially the book of Leviticus. Within the book of Leviticus we find specific instructions on holiness, the Holiness Code, which extends from chapter 18 through 26. And it is within this Holiness Code that we find our text. So Yahweh has delivered His people, He is dwelling among them and He now intends to catechize, or teach, them regarding how to be His people.
He declares “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” thus saying that their identity is to be intrinsically linked with Him. More than anything else His chosen people are to be identified with His character, the culmination of which is His holiness: His sacred-ness, His moral perfection, His set-apart-ness. St. Gregory the Great unpacks it this way: God is telling them “Choose me and keep away from what displeases me. Do what I love; love what I do.”
Having declared the source of their identity He then provides examples of what holiness should look like. First, and most importantly, the evidence of holiness is made manifest in our relations to one another. And while these examples are very specific I would suggest that rather than being an exhaustive list of commandments they are illustrations of what holiness incarnated, or made real in your life, looks like. It looks like an obligation to those who are in need, allowing the Truth to reign in our life and relationships, fairness and compassion, righteousness impartiality…all of which can be summed up in one thing: Loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s important to note that these illustrations are punctuated by their identification with Yahweh. Each one ends with the refrain “I am the Lord your God”. So as we can see this Catechism has a movement from its foundation in Yahweh and an exhortation to be holy, to an illustration of what holiness incarnated looks like, to its culmination in love for our neighbor.
Another important point is that these illustrations are a cross-section of all our dealings in life. Our holiness is not intended to be “compartmentalized” into one safe place but to permeate every aspect of our existence. While some scholars, such as Martin Noth, would like to suggest that the disjointed-ness of these illustrations indicate they existed independently prior to being collected here in the book of Leviticus, I suggest; along with scholars as varied as Everett Fox and St. Augustine; that this seeming disjointed-ness is not evidence of their being a collected group of miscellaneous sayings. The purpose behind this is to show that holiness is intended to permeate of all the various areas of our life. And I believe Our Lord and St. Paul’s references to them as the summation of the Law and Prophets support this.
Having said all this it begs the question, “Do we allow our own identification with Yahweh to permeate every aspect of our life? Or do we relegate it to our time at Church?” Is our pursuit of holiness rooted in the character of God? Or is it rooted in our Church's particular brand of piety or mountaintop experiences? This Scripture suggests that our identity as Christians absolutely must be rooted in the character of Almighty God. And the only way to accomplish this is to devote ourselves to learning about, and receiving, godly character through our worship, our prayer and study of His Word. And our litmus test of whether or not we are growing in holiness is if it affects the way we relate to one another. To know if we are indeed “holy as the Lord our God is Holy” we only need ask ourselves, “Is there evidence in every aspect of my life that I the Lord with all my heart, mind soul and strength and that I love my neighbor as myself?”. To paraphrase Blessed Johnny Cash, "If you were on trial for being a follower of God would there be enough holiness in the evidence to convict you?"