Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
February 19, 2017
William G. Carter
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. ... You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Say what you want about the Jewish scriptures, but they instruct us in how to live. The instruction comes through stories, as we hear of people like us who have lived faithfully and unfaithfully. Instruction comes through the preaching of the prophets, who stood up in complicated circumstances to tell the truth about God and God’s wishes for the human race. Sometimes the instruction comes in bite-sized sayings called proverbs, deep wisdom compressed into small nuggets.
And as we heard today, instruction comes through commandments. “Thus says the Lord" and there it is. You shall not steal. You shall not lie. You shall not defraud your neighbor. Any questions? God speaks directly, sometimes through a teacher like Moses. This teaching, this Torah, is for our well-being. As we heard Moses declare last week, “Do these things and you will live abundantly.”
Yet stuck in the middle of all the commandments that we’ve heard today from Leviticus is one that simply sparkles for me. It stands out. It seems different from the rest. I would say that it’s even my all-time favorite Jewish commandment. In case you missed it, it goes like this: “Thou shalt not curse the deaf.”
If you have ears to hear, let that one sink in. It names a specific human condition, a disability. Stealing, lying, and defrauding can be done by anyone to anyone. Sabbath breakers and idol makers come in all shapes and sizes. But to single out the deaf is curious, to say the least, and we don’t know why. Is it because, by accident or physical decline, to hear the word of the Lord? Moses doesn’t say.
But the reason it’s one of my favorites is because of its inherent comedy. “Thou shalt not curse the deaf.” As somebody said, “Why not curse the deaf? They can’t hear you any way.” Taken just like that, it’s ridiculous.
But maybe not, and I’m sure you know why.
A few months ago, I took my wife to a local grocery store. As I'm looking for a parking space, I see two men walking toward the store from the parking lot, probably a father and son. Neither is paying attention. They are walking in the middle of the lane. The son is fiddling on his cell phone, not looking around. The father is waddling slowly.
In the time that I pulled up behind them, I have lost two parking spaces in front of them. My impatience in moments like that is legendary. I start talking with an emphatic voice. "Come on," I say, with the windows rolled up. "Get a move on." The two of them plod along.
Finally they move on and I go around them. I say to my wife, "Ever feel like you want to lay on the horn?" She is much kinder than me and says nothing. So we park the car, walk to the store, get a cart, and push it up the aisle. A few minutes later, that same father and son wander in. They walk right down the middle of the aisle, and park it there, and pretty soon people are backed up behind them.
I start thinking of some wisecrack I could make, when the son turns to the father and begins to communicate in sign language. The father responds with his hands. With that, my wife leans up to say, "I don't think it would have done any good if you had honked the horn"
Oh, did I feel pretty small. And the reason I felt small was not merely because I had discovered their disability; it was because I had demeaned them in my heart as children of God.
That’s how the whole commandment plays out: “You shall not curse the deaf . . . for I am the Lord your God.” It is God, in whose image we are made, who is the standard for our conduct. That is, you don’t curse the deaf because God is God, and God made that person in the divine image.
Maybe that’s why the same verse, verse 14, goes on to extend the same kind of prohibition for how we treat those with another disability: “You shall not curse the deaf, neither shall you put a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear the Lord, for I am your God.” Fourteen times in this chapter, we have the refrain “I am the Lord your God.” It is a persistent drumbeat through this text. And it teaches us that all ethical action is grounded in God’s identity and authority.
Now it’s true that if you’re reviling the deaf, you are cursing them behind their backs. And if you are rearranging the furniture for those who cannot see, it is an act of cruelty. That is true enough. But it is this deeper spiritual dimension that makes the Bible more than a mere rule book. The character of God determines what our character can be. The way God is determines what we are called to be.
Jesus says as much in the Sermon on the Mount. “You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies…” (Matt. 5:43-44) How can he say that? Because that’s what God does: God loves his enemies, and sends the prophets, and finally Jesus, to the enemies who resist God.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” How can he say that? Because that’s what Jesus does on the cross: he prays for those who persecute him and says, “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34).
Then he looks at us and says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) The character of God determines what we are called to be. And do you know where Jesus gets this? From Leviticus, chapter 19, the theme verse for the entire chapter: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God is holy.”
So we’ve quickly moved a long distance, from not cursing the deaf to being holy. Or to frame it as a question, what does “not cursing the deaf” have to do with being holy?
I mean, we all have opinions about what holiness looks like. There was a kid in my high school. He went to a church called a “holiness church.” What did that mean? It meant he wasn’t allowed to smoke, he wasn’t allowed to drink, he wasn’t allowed to stay out late at night, he wasn’t allowed to hang around with kids diagnosed as “troublesome.” In other words, straight and narrow, never have any fun.
It was that same kid who dated a cheerleader secretly and said, “Don’t tell my parents.” It was the same kid who handed a shoebox full of marijuana to a classmate and said, “Can you hide this for me?” He brought the tequila to the high school football party. When his parents found out about the secret girlfriend, he ended up marrying her. So is that what holiness is all about?
To read Leviticus, it’s about keeping the commandments. We think we know what that means: make a checklist and mark the boxes. Keep the Sabbath? Check! Don’t worship other gods? Check! Leave your extra vegetables in the garden so the poor can come after dark and get something to eat? Check! Pay the wages of your workers on time? Check! Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal? Check, check, check.
In the history of keeping commandments, there are a lot of people who have made the lists. They love to do all the things on the list, because then they can feel superior to those who don’t even know there’s a list. And they can hold themselves higher that those who try to keep the list but keep falling short. And as I have said to you many times, if we reduce the Christian life to items on a list, we don’t need God - - because we have a list. Somehow I don’t think that’s what holiness is all about.
So what does it mean to be holy, as God is holy? What does it mean to be perfect, as God is perfect?
I think I know, because it’s there in the text. In chapter 19 of Leviticus, it’s there in almost every single line. It doesn’t have to do with checking the boxes on an ancient list. And it’s not about cardboard obedience and moral superiority. No, it’s about growing into the character of God, about having the same mind as Jesus our Lord.
And in a word, holiness is love. Love leads us into holiness, holiness leads us into love. It’s written all throughout this chapter.
“When you reap the harvest of your land,” says the Lord, “don’t take everything out of it. Don’t strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes for yourself.” No, restrain yourself, and leave the abundance for the poor and the outsider: for I am the Lord your God. Now, that’s love. And it is totally contrary to the notion that we should plunder the land for our own profit and benefit while some of the children of God are going hungry.
This text is over three thousand years old and we can’t seem to get it right. That’s because our love is not complete, it’s not perfect, it’s not holy. Love leads us into holiness, holiness leads us into love. They can’t be separated.
Or that famous line, the commandment that Saint Paul said is the summary of all the other commandments of the Bible (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14). He was a Bible scholar, so he should have known. You know the words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the place where that appears in the Old Testament. It’s Leviticus 19, verse 18.
But take note of where it appears. It’s the second half of verse 18. The first half says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Back it up one more verse and it says, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin, you shall not reprimand your neighbor.” Wait a second: you mean to say there’s difficulty in families? That people in the same family can hate one another? That is the context of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” If there’s no love, there cannot be holiness.
Our closest neighbors are those in our families. Holiness includes loving them. A few years ago, I cam across an article in The Atlantic monthly. For all of you romantics on the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, it’s an article about why relationships either thrive or break up. It is based on research about marriage, but it’s really about all kinds of relationships. Why do they flourish or die? Listen:
Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder - deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally - damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.