Today’s chapters in Leviticus open with the Lord’s command to his people: “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Holiness can be defined as “separate, set apart”, but the perfect uniqueness of God goes far beyond this definition. As creator, God naturally exists outside of his creation, and he manifests the ideal in everything created. God is perfect goodness and purity, grace and mercy, justice and truth, knowledge and understanding, on and on; every quality of God is absolute in its perfection.
Holiness is the essential nature of God, and he commands his people to be holy! He has given us hearts, minds, and wills, and he made us to yearn for union with him – “our hearts are restless till they find rest in you” (Saint Augustine). To show us the way, God gave us his law, the expression of his perfect will for his created human beings. The law describes how God relates to his creation with justice, goodness, and mercy, and how we must relate to him and to one another in order that we might delight in God and know that he delights in us, and to live in perfect trust.
Look at the commandments that come after God’s call on us to holiness: the forbidding of idols; then a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, that is, a way to approach him; and then follow nineteen rules for being good to one another – leave some harvest for the poor, pay servants on time, give justice fairly – in sum, “love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”(Lev.19:18).
The rest of the commandments serve to keep God’s people from harm and from falling away from him. They express God’s standard of perfect goodness for his people, goodness that God himself has poured upon them in the gift of the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. God protected them and refined them throughout the exodus, and now he is giving them commandments that will keep them safe from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
It is sad how most of the commandments are injunctions NOT to do something. The very language shows that this gift of the template for God’s will and doorway to holiness will always be resisted by human beings. We WILL steal; we WILL slander; we WILL be led astray by false gods. These commandments are calling out what we already do. We yearn for God but we inherently turn back to our own foolish ways to quench that yearning, and everything named here has its counterpart in today’s world.
It is heartbreaking to see so clearly how we can come to God, and then be unable to resist the latest temptation. Saint Paul speaks for us all, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”(Rom. 7:18-19). And Paul asks, “who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Thanks be to God that there is Somebody! Jesus, the son of God, lived a fully human life and yet never failed in any aspect of the law, neither its outward rules nor the inner love that the rules represent. When he gave his life on the cross he gave his perfect holiness to us; we belong to him, and in loving him we find our longed for rest and union with God.