Saturday, February 19, 2011

How Many of These Things Are There? (Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18)

I still chuckle at the scene in History of the World Part 1 where Mel Brooks, playing Moses, drops one of the three tablets containing God's Fifteen Commandments to his people, thus leaving us with only 10. I like to think that one of the other five is "Thou shalt not create a position on a baseball team which requires a player only to hit and never to field," but that's a personal preference.

Although he's making a joke, the idea of a sort of Top 10 list of commandments from God does owe more to us and how we read the Bible than it does to anything God did. Jesus is the only one who singles out any commandments as having top priority, and neither of the two he mentions are on our usual list. And then we come to this batch right here. The language has a lot of "you shall not" repetitions, kind of like the list found in Exodus, but there are a lot more than ten here, even if you ignore the repeats. It also closes with one of the two that Jesus talked about.

Some of these commandments echo the better-known list but some are different. Still no stealing, no lying and no false testimony, although skipping the Sabbath, dissing the 'rents and adultery seem to be back on the table. Now, though, we have to be careful to leave some of our harvest untouched so folks without food can gather the leftovers. We also have to be careful how we judge people, showing partiality to neither the poor nor the rich. While we can't hate people, we also can't ignore it if they are on the wrong path. In all of that, though, grudges are out -- and that one makes me want to flip back over to Exodus, thank you very much.

Which list of commandments should we obey? As Christians, we inherit a number of different positions as to our obligations under the old Mosaic law. The early church seemed to think that Sabbath observance and refraining from meat from strangled animals would do. Other dietary laws and circumcision were thought to lay too much of a burden on people who might never have heard of Moses or his code before they met a preacher telling the story of God, the people of Israel and Jesus.

Some folks today say as Christians, we are under a new covenant and need obey only the laws that Jesus set forth as important. Take a gander at the Sermon on the Mount and you'll see that's not exactly a license to slack. Even if you stick with the Top Two Jesus highlights you've got your work cut out for you. And there's a whole range of pick-and-choosers who will highlight whatever set of laws that prohibit things they want to prohibit.

There are a lot of fights I'd rather have than ones over which list of Mosaic laws I need to obey, but we do need to deal with these sets of rules somehow. Is there a guiding principle behind them, something that we can look at and use as a lens to understand them? Maybe if we understood them in their context, we could understand what kinds of things ought to guide our behavior as God-followers today.

Actually, in this case I believe there is just such a principle, and the passage helpfully gives it in the very second verse: "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy." The Hebrew word translated "holy" is qadowsh, and it comes from a word meaning "set apart" or "made sacred."

God tells the people they will be set apart from the other people around them. They will have distinguishing characteristics. Not the way they look or the clothes they wear, but the way they act. Other nations may have judges that sell verdicts to the highest bidder, but not God's people. Other nations may make their poor beg for food in the streets, but God's people will leave enough in their fields that the hungry may gather their own food and keep a measure of dignity.

Other people might believe that the deaf or the blind were somehow cursed and treat them that way, but God's people will not. God's people will help each other stay on the proper path -- they won't ignore wrongs but they won't use wrongs as excuses to hate the wrongdoers.

These commandments -- as well as the ones we may know better and the rest of the Mosaic law -- are all designed to show a people set apart from the world around them. You might say that the upshot is that God tells the Israelites: "You're my people. Act like it, so everyone knows Whose you are."

Now that's a message I think translates just fine into our modern Christian lives. When I talk to my church about this, I always pick on how we act when we go out to eat lunch after service on Sunday. There's a better than 90% chance the people at the restaurant and the wait staff know where we've just come from, so our testimony may be more public during those 90 minutes than at any other time of the week.

So what do we say? Do we testify that Christians are compassionate people, understanding that a Sunday lunch slam can crowd any restaurant and lengthen wait times? Do we testify that Christians are understanding people, who realize that waiters and waitresses mostly do their best but they can't be more than one place at a time, and they've got other tables too? Do we testify that Christians are generous people, who realize that restaurant wait staff don't get paid minimum wage and rely heavily on their tips for their income? Or do we testify that we think Christians can sin just as badly as anyone else can and offer proof of our beliefs?

I make up a test for myself sometimes, when I can remember to do it. Whenever I interact with other folks, like when I'm at a restaurant, I ask myself if I would leave a church business card behind to the people I've been dealing with. Would I leave the card with my tip? Would I hand one to the sales clerk at the store? Would I offer one to the person beside me in traffic? I know I need God's help to answer "Yes" in most if not all of those cases, but being able to do so is my goal.

And if that's my goal, then I am following that part of verse 2 that tells me to be holy, like God is holy. I'm a lot more likely to be following some of the specific commandments as well, both those here and those Jesus will highlight later.

We could do a lot worse than asking ourselves what kind of label we hang on our church, our faith and our Lord with our actions and words. Here's praying for us all, you and me alike, that we do that asking.