The entire Bible is a love letter from God. But nested where you wouldn’t think to look is a special love letter. In Leviticus. It’s no coincidence that I read this on Valentine’s Day.
Leviticus 19 love letter
Amid Leviticus’s lengthy dos and don’ts is Chapter 19. At first glance, its injunctions may seem disparate. (But they do hang together, I promise.)
- Be holy, for I [God] am holy. (Lev 19:2)
- Honor your father and your mother. (Lev 19:3)
- Don’t reap the corners of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Lev 19:9-10)
- Don’t curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev 19:14)
- Love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev 19:18)
- Honor the elderly. (Lev 19:32)
- Don’t mistreat a stranger living in your land. “Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Lev 19:33-34)
There you have it: all-inclusive coverage on how to treat God, parents, neighbors, yourself, elders, the disadvantaged, and strangers.
Notably, “love your neighbor as yourself” appears twice.
I think that’s the heartbeat of this love letter.
And it couldn’t be more relevant today.
Leviticus 19 then and now
Egypt was a place of safety for the Israelites long before it became an oppressive regime. God’s commandment forbidding mistreatment of strangers bookends the list, loops back to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and reminds the Israelites of when they were strangers. They were graciously given the choicest section of the Nile Delta to live in during a life-threatening famine. Similarly, we are strangers on earth, and God has graciously provided heaven as our eternal home.
In a broader sense, God’s command to love Hebrews and non-Hebrews alike is a line in the sand He has never redrawn, regardless of persecution or governmental overreach.
People like to redraw lines. They misappropriate Scripture to create their own world view then expend great effort to justify it. Despite what detractors say, we absolutely can love people without accepting or condoning their personal choices. God clearly demarcates the difference in Leviticus.
Leviticus 19 on reboot in the New Testament
About 1500 years after God spoke the words in Leviticus 19, Jesus was debating with the Sadducees. A Hebrew scribe, impressed by Jesus’ answers, asked Him which commandment was the most important. Jesus’ answer was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27).
Here’s the rub. Scribes not only copied the Hebrew holy texts but also memorized them. The scribe already knew the answer to his question; it was spelled out in Leviticus.
Luke’s account adds that the person was an “expert” in the law. But apparently he wasn’t an expert in the human condition—because Jesus immediately segues into the parable of the Good Samaritan to drive home who our neighbor is (Luke 10:29-37).
You see, somewhere along the 1500-year road from Egypt to Jerusalem, Leviticus 19:18 had become misquoted as “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
That must be why Jesus spent more time talking about “love your enemy” than any other topic in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48).
A modern-day Leviticus lesson about strangers and neighbors
I’d almost finished a major early-morning grocery run at my food co-op when I noticed a man leave his backpack inside the front door and disappear. My mind immediately leaped into threat assessing. (I hate to admit it, but I’d recently binge-watched Jack Ryan.) I counted the people milling about the coffee bar inches away from the backpack. I scanned the aisles for the man. After an eternity (maybe five minutes), he reappeared with three containers of deli food and a drink in his hands … and got in line behind me.
I suggested he go ahead of me and motioned him through. Whether that was culturally inappropriate or we hit a language barrier, I don’t know. He declined. Twice. It took the store manager (subbing for a checkout clerk that morning) to convince the man it was OK to take my place in the checkout line. Clearly uncomfortable, the man mumbled in stilted English, “I should do something nice for you. I need to buy you a candy bar.”
My food co-op is just down the street from Mayo Clinic. That man could have been a patient, headed into an arduous day of treatments. Yet my first impression of him was through the lens of a Jack Ryan episode. Geesh.
Above my food co-op’s main entrance is a huge sign printed in a dozen languages: “Everyone is welcome.” An ongoing reminder for me to love any stranger or neighbor as myself.
Like the Israelites, I need extra reminders sometimes. Thank God for His love letter in Leviticus!
Heavenly Father, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in my little world. Show me how You see the world, for You see only people in need. Guide me in how to spread Your light in the darkness. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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