Those of you who, like me, are more interested in the bits filleted out of our readings by the lectionary creators than in the bits they have left in will be filled with joy this week. Leviticus is in many ways a fascinating book, but it does create some interesting difficulties, so those responsible for the RCL have decided to play it safe. The first two verses tell us what the rest of the chapter (indeed most of the rest of the book) is all about, and then as an example they pick a few motherhood-and-apple-pie examples. We’re to be holy, because that’s what God is like and we’re called to reflect his character. So what does that mean? Basically be nice to people: that’s the thrust of v 15-18, and who could argue about any of that?
But what about the bits in between? I think we can go much more deeply into what it means to reflect God’s holiness if we take the trouble to tackle the more awkward bits of the chapter, indeed of the book. Here we find material about respect for parents, idolatry, sacrifices, horticulture, swearing, mixed economies in clothing, horticulture, who you mustn’t sleep with, kosher food, occultism, hairstyling, dishonesty and selling your daughter into prostitution. Read on a bit further and you get the really good bits about sleeping with another man as one would a woman, bestiality and child sacrifice. Put that together with all the stuff we’ve already had about not eating prawns or herons and you get a pretty bewildering array of definitions of holiness, which would leave most of us somewhere near the third division in the holiness league tables.
I wonder whether we might cut through the problem by stating a key principle: holiness very often means that we live differently from the prevailing culture, choosing to reflect God’s will and resisting the pressure to conform with those among whom we live. I can only assume that the things they were not supposed to do to be holy like God were things which at least some people around were doing. God’s call is a reminder that we dance to a different drum if we’re God’s people. Once we get that, we can begin to make sense of this bewildering variety of laws and prohibitions.
Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for us: we now know that many of the dietary laws do make some kind of sense in a more primitive society where pigs carried tapeworm, seafood carried goodness knows what, and people didn’t have the medicines to protect them.
Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for others. Selling your daughter into prostitution would be a good example, as would the prohibitions against fraud and dishonesty and the commands to respect others.
Some things are forbidden because they’re not good for society. The more 21st century life in Britain goes down the pan, the more evidence there is to suggest that stable marriage and family life are the solid foundations of a healthy society. Anthropologists know that no civilisation in history has survived very long once family life has broken down, yet we seem hell-bent on self-destruction in the West.
And some things are forbidden not because they’re harmful in themselves, but because they provide symbolic reminders and visual aids about our call to be different. Polycotton shirts might not be the world’s greatest sin, but for the Israelites to keep their clothing made of only one kind of material was a visual aid they literally carried with them all the time, as were the distinctive hairstyles.
The other side of the cross we know we’re free from the petty regulations of the Jewish law, but the principles behind it remain. How are we to live in ways which are healthy for us, which bless others, which strengthen society, and which constantly remind us of our call to holiness? That is something we have to work out for ourselves on a daily basis.