I began looking at Leviticus 19 a couple weeks ago in terms of its original context. This is part two in which I hope to draw some important connections with the New Testament, in particular Jesus and Paul. Because of the scope of what I’m trying to cover, I will conclude with a post connecting Leviticus 19 and the letter of James with some concluding remarks. I will warn you ahead of time that this is long and could easily have been a thesis paper for seminary, but I believe it is well worth your time and was edifying to me as I studied and wrote it. First, I would like to rant a little and clarify something.
The title given in some Bibles for this chapter is “Various Laws”. Indeed it seems to be an amalgamation of leftover laws, thoughts and ideas that didn’t make the cut or reiterations of laws found elsewhere. Yet, we should remember that the system of chapters and verses was added after the fact and certainly the designation of “Various Laws” for this chapter is not part of the inspired word. While people who publish Bibles like to add these little things (not to mention all the sidebars, boxes and inserts in many Bibles) in order to help us read the Bible, they act as a filter and mediator for our reading of the text. The title “Various Laws” tells me what to think about the text that follows. Instead, we should assume that those ancient editors who put together the version of Scripture that we have today did so with intention and purpose, not haphazardly. What appears to be a random collection of laws probably serves some particular purpose. The fact that Leviticus 19 contains the verse on which Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hinged (19:18b) should also tell us that something more than “Various Laws” is going on here.
Jesus, Paul and James all refer to Leviticus 19:18 in different contexts. With the previous post on Leviticus 19 in its original context as our background, I would like to consider each of the eight passages in which it is mentioned and attempt to synthesize the importance of this verse and chapter of Leviticus for a New Testament theology.
The Great Commandment
The most important parallel references are in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 in which the scribes or Pharisees question Jesus about which commandment is the greatest in the Torah. Matthew’s Pharisees intend to “test” Jesus with their question, while the scribe in Mark affirms Jesus’ response and is in turn affirmed by Jesus with the words “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. In both cases the answer to the question is the same. The greatest commandment is the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This was the expected traditional Jewish answer, but Jesus adds another qualifier to his answer and quotes Leviticus 19:18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember that Jesus was only asked to give one command, the greatest. Instead Jesus, I believe, correctly interprets the Torah and refuses to separate love of God from love of neighbor. In Matthew he then orients the entire Hebrew Bible around the connection of these two commands by saying “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40).
We should also read these passages within their greater context of questioning by the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus’ responses aimed at undermining oppressive structures, religious, political or otherwise. Matthew 22 begins with a parable about the kingdom in which the uninvited and unwanted become guests of honor at the wedding feast. Both Mark and Matthew connect this with the question about paying taxes to Caesar and Jesus’ subversive response. Mark concludes his chapter with the observation of the poor widow who gave “everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44) and was thus deprived of subsistence by an unjust temple tax. Therefore Jesus’ insistence that all of the Torah and Prophets depend on the understanding that our social relationships reflect our relationship to God and vice versa means that justice and right-relatedness is at the very heart of his understanding of the “kingdom of God” that he preached.
Who Do You Love, Neighbors or Possessions?
The other parallel reference is in Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 10:25-37. Both passages begin with someone coming to Jesus to ask, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). In the Matthew passage Jesus initially deflects the question and tells him simply to keep the commandments. When the man presses him asking, “Which ones?”, Jesus lists off half of the Ten Commandments and ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”. The man claims that he has kept all these commandments. But when Jesus tells him to “be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, the man refuses and leaves in sorrow “for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:21-22). In light of our reading of the command in Leviticus 19:18, it is clear that the man cannot fulfill the spirit of the commandments because he refuses his social connection and responsibility to those around him. Indeed, his confession that he has kept all these commands is revealed to be false when the practical application and implications of these commands is taken to their logical conclusion. He cannot maintain his “great possessions” and confess to love his neighbor. They are mutually exclusive.
Neighbor is a Verb
The reference in Luke to the neighbor commandment comes in the context of a lawyer trying to test Jesus. Luke’s passage does not end with the lawyer retreating. Instead the lawyer “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the question is changed from “Who is my neighbor?” into “Who is a neighbor?”. The attempt to find loopholes in the law is subverted by transforming the idea that the “neighbor” is an identifiable group of people into the idea that it is our job to be a neighbor to others, to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). So, Jesus adds another dimension to this command about loving our neighbor. It is not possible to fulfill the command while simultaneously trying to exclude any group of people from its implications.
Finally, Jesus also refers to the “love your neighbor” passage in his Sermon on the Mount when he transcends the “eye for an eye” ethic of the Hebrew Bible (which was intended to limit excessive punishment) and reframes it in these terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). So, neighbor is equated here with enemy and the division that makes it possible to draw lines between humanity is obliterated.
Love Is Not Against the Law
Paul refers to the “love your neighbor” command in Romans 13:9 where he says that all the commandments “are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. First we should simply recognize that Paul is picking up on Jesus’ teaching about the Torah and reiterating it here for us. What is more interesting to me is that this occurs directly after the passage which many Christians and theologians use to justify subservience and acquiescence to governmental authority regardless of the nature of its laws, governing or authority. I tend to agree with John Howard Yoder’s interpretation of Paul’s words concerning the Christian’s relationship to authorities and government in this passage which you can read in his book Politics of Jesus. It is as if Paul intends to clarify his previous statement, perhaps to prevent it from being misconstrued, by placing it squarely in the center of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments in the Torah.
Paul concludes his discourse on submitting to authorities by saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them” (Ro 13:7) and immediately turns and says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). This is an incredible piece of rhetoric, perhaps even political satire reminiscent of Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. In the same way Jesus subverts “what is Caesar’s” by saying that the Jews should “give to God what is God’s”, Paul seems to wink at the previous advice to submit to authorities and pay what is owed by them by pointing out that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Ro 13:10). What law is he referring to here, the law of the Torah or the law of the governing authorities? I would suggest that the answer is both and that Paul is juxtaposing the ultimate law of love with the imperfect laws of the Powers. So, the great command which integrates love of God and the social justice inherent in loving our neighbor is also inherently countercultural to the order and tendency of the Powers of the world.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is primarily concerned with the influence of Judaizers who insisted that followers of Jesus had to continue to follow the laws of the Torah, in particular the rite of circumcision. The main theme of the letter is the meaning and purpose of the law, of freedom in Christ and the implications of the latter on the former. Chapter five begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Then Paul sums up his understanding of the relationship of the law to this new freedom in Christ this way, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). Again, reiterating Jesus’ teaching on the centrality of the “love your neighbor” commandment in another context, Paul expands the understanding of freedom in terms of the “law of love”. The freedom we are called to in Christ is not a license to do what we want, but rather a limited freedom governed by the great commandment to love our neighbor which contains the social and political implications we have already outlined.
In the final post I will consider the connection between Leviticus 19, the letter of James and the observations we have already made concerning the original context of the Hebrew Bible and the consequent interpretations and teaching by Jesus and Paul.