To the edge of the field

Mark this day on your calendar, for today we had a reading from Leviticus. The book is mostly known among us for being either skipped or quickly skimmed by folks who make a first attempt at reading the Bible cover to cover. Here at Vine Street, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary through three annual cycles of readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. Leviticus comes up only twice in three years, and one of these rare occasions is today, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany.[1] However, in years when Easter is earlier in spring, the whole calendar shifts, and there is no seventh Sunday after Epiphany, making it even less likely that we will hear a reading from Leviticus in worship.

Why make such a fuss about it? I recently had lunch with a friend who had just completed reading the Bible cover-to-cover and was getting ready to read through all the books again in six months, and his comment on Leviticus was, “Man, all those weird sacrifices…” Yep, lots of instructions for sacrifices and other strange stuff, at least to our modern ears, but Leviticus also contains the brief verse that became essential to ethical reflection in Judaism and Christianity, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Both Jesus and Rabbi Hillel, who became very influential in rabbinic Judaism, lifted up this commandment as the most comprehensive and definitive one. When we talk about love of neighbor, we talk about Leviticus 19. And when we wonder about how to unfold love of neighbor in our daily lives at home, at school, and at work, the verses we heard this morning give us a great place to start. The chapter touches on a wide spectrum of daily life, from worship to fairness in commerce, from family relations to truthfulness in legal proceedings and support of the needy –and all the instructions elaborate God’s initial statement to Moses, “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.”

Before you jump too quickly to the assumption that this is for holier than thou people, but probably not for you, let’s take a look at what we say when we speak of God’s holiness. When we say that God is compassionate, merciful, just, kind, and loving, we use familiar words that we use daily in other relationships, and those contexts add layers of meaning to the words. But when we say that God is holy we run out of comparisons before we can begin to compare, because nothing compares to God’s holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that God is other, different, radically different, and that God may not be confused with anyone or anything else. To say that God is holy is to say God is God and I am not, nor are you or we, nor are our idols or various powers that like to dress up in religious garb. God alone is God, God alone is holy. And yet, the Holy One is the Holy One of Israel, the related One. The holiness of God is in and with and for God’s people Israel without ever ceasing to be over against Israel.

And Israel’s purpose is to host the holiness of God. “Because God is holy, God’s people are to be holy by being like God in the world,” writes Walter Kaiser is a commentary. “We can, therefore, do away with all the cartoon pictures of the sanctimonious holy person wearing a halo and a prudish glare. To be holy is not to be narrow-minded and primly pious; it is, rather, to imitate God.”[2] And how do God’s people embrace their call, our call to a holy life? Not by striving to out-compete one another on the holiness scale but by turning toward each other, by seeking to embody God’s holiness in our life together. What an awesome calling, a holy life. Where might it take us, after we drop the halo and the sanctimonious manners?

To the edge of the field. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” The edge of the field is holy ground. We are to stop our harvesting before we reach the farthest boundaries of our fields so as to welcome the poor and stranger, who live at the margins, to take their share. The commandment doesn’t specify how much to leave behind, but the Mishnah, a written record of Jewish discussion on matters of Torah, “recommends taking into consideration several factors, such as the abundance of the yield, the overall resources of the owner of the field, and the current needs of the poor.”[3]

Fewer and fewer of us harvest our own fields anymore, and the poor aren’t looking for food on the edges of the field, but many among us still seek to make a living on the margins. How much of the overall yield of our economy belongs to the poor, especially the ones who can’t earn it? The commandment doesn’t specify how much is theirs, whether by right or by mercy, and it’s up to us to decide how to divide the yield of fields, factories, and investment portfolios and how to make certain our practice reflects rather than insults the holiness of God.

We tend to think of holiness in connection with particular places and moments or certain extraordinary people, but the Holy One calls us to be holy in the most ordinary and everyday. Leviticus 19 connects holiness, the very character of God, to the wellbeing of the needy and vulnerable in our midst, to being impartial in court, to not telling each other lies, and not cheating clients, customers, and business partners. “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”

Why not keep the wages overnight? A reason is given in Deuteronomy 24, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”[4] Again, the commandment doesn’t specify how much laborers should be paid before sunset, but the minimum standard appears to be their livelihood: they must earn enough in six days so they and their family can live for a week.

I can probably find somebody desperate enough to dig my ditch for $5 an hour instead of $15, but when I give him his pay of $40 at the end of the day, I’m actually withholding the balance of $80 he needs in order to feed and clothe himself and his family and pay the bills. The market, of course, will let me get away with paying a lot less, but the market is not holy, God is. And as one whom Christ has claimed as his own, I’ll either dig my own ditch or pay the laborer a wage that won’t insult the holiness of God.

Everyday holiness is not about halos but about building a community that reflects the character of God. I love how all the you-shalls and you-shall-nots in today’s passage from Leviticus are gathered together in the beautiful line at the end, a commandment that captures the essence of holiness like a bowl: You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Jesus quotes this commandment in his sermon on the mount and broadens its scope in ways I find immensely humbling. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ and [you may think this allows you to] hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[5] He commands us to love not only those we readily recognize as neighbors, but also the anti-neighbors who oppose, violently even, the holy way of Christ. He commands us to actively subvert the logic of violence and vengeance by following him.

At the conclusion of the passage he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Why would Jesus say such a cruel thing? Doesn’t he know that none of us can be perfect? Doesn’t he know how many of us are haunted by the memories of mothers who always found something to criticize in us, no matter how hard we tried to please her? Doesn’t he know how many of us are still trying to prove than we can be just like our dads who always did everything right, everything? Doesn’t he know what a weight he places on our weary shoulders with his talk of perfection?

If that is what we hear, it’s not Jesus we’re hearing. Being perfect sounds very different to our ears, from being complete, being at one with one’s purpose, or being fulfilled. But these are all nuances of what Jesus says here. Also, we must not forget that the command to be perfect is not a call to isolated, individual achievement, but again a call to life in a community that reflects the character of God.

It is no coincidence that Jesus’ words sound much like the ancient commandment to be holy because God is holy. Jesus picks up the bowl that holds the ethical essence of holiness – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – and he says, Remember, it is not your view of who is neighbor that defines the reach of love, but rather the reach of God’s love that defines who is neighbor. Follow me on the way and you will recognize love’s embrace of all, even the enemy. Trust that love and the Holy One who is its source, and you will find life made complete and whole.


[1] Epiphany 7 Year A and Proper 25 [30] Year A

[2] Walter Kaiser, Leviticus (NIB), p. 1136

[3] Baruch Levine, Leviticus (JPS Torah Commentary), p. 127

[4] Deuteronomy 24:14-15

[5] Matthew 5:43-44