Monday of Week 1 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Leviticus 19:1-2,11-18

The general theme of the Book of Leviticus is in today’s opening sentence:

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Today’s reading comes from a section dealing with moral and religious regulations related to daily life, with obvious links to the Ten Commandments. Some of them sound somewhat strange today such as, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (as presumably some of Israel’s ‘pagan’ neighbours were doing).

In today’s reading the call is clear: the measure of our holiness is that of God himself. Obviously that is not something to be even remotely achieved in our lifetime; rather, it is an ideal to be constantly aimed at as we continually try to raise our sights. But, are there are any measures by which we can measure our progress in something so abstract as holiness?

Very simply, today’s reading says that it consists in the way we treat (or do not treat) those around us. It is perhaps worth observing that everything here is expressed in the negative, the things we ought not to do towards our brothers and sisters.

  • No stealing or fraud.
  • No irreverent use of God’s name.
  • No abuse of others through exploitation or robbery or by failing to pay just wages at the proper time.
  • No abuse or neglect of the disabled: the blind and the deaf are mentioned.
  • Avoiding all forms of prejudice and bias either towards the weak or the powerful.
  • No passing of judgement on others beyond the bounds of justice and fairness.
  • Never criticising out of hatred, but only out of a desire to help.
  • No vengeance, no grudges.

It is quite obvious that it is not enough just not to do these things, but rather positively to do the opposite in each case. And they are all finally summed up in one positive injunction:

…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…

In the context within Leviticus, it is clear that ‘neighbour’ means a fellow Jew, but Jesus – as well as Paul and James in their letters – would extend its meaning to embrace every single person.

Some of the stricter Pharisees interpreted ‘loving the neighbour’ as implying that one should ‘hate the enemy’. But others came closer to Jesus’ injunction that love for neighbour should even extend to those who would want to harm us. For instance, the medieval Spanish Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (also know as Nahmanides) said:

One should place no limitations upon the love for the neighbour, but instead a person should love to do an abundance of good for his fellow being as he does for himself.

It is clear from this and the later teaching of Jesus that the ‘neighbour’ included every single person and not just those close to us by place, nationality, race, religion, class or gender…even those who would want to harm us. And, as today’s Gospel makes clear, the neighbour is particularly to be identified with any person who is in need of any kind.

Later, Jesus would push the command even further when he told us to love each other, not just as much as we love ourselves, but to the degree that he loved us – by ‘emptying’ himself and giving his life for every single one of us.

As I reflect on this passage during Lent, I may ask: Where do I stand in my relationships with my friends, my ‘enemies’ or the needy in my community?

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