When Jesus Quotes Leviticus

Do you remember when it was possible to get on a plane and go somewhere?

Maybe because I don’t fly often, I have always thrilled to see the city I live in shrinking as the plane rises, see the great St. Lawrence below me stretching out in both directions.  And sometimes you can actually get a glimpse of geologic history. Flying into Pennsylvania once,  in late afternoon, in a season when there were no leaves on the trees and the sun was at a low angle, I could actually see the long striations—like clawmarks–left on the Allegheny mountains by huge glaciers during the ice age,  aeons ago.

When we read scripture up close, in little packets, we miss both the landscape and the history.  We miss the context almost completely. Now, this doesn’t mean we miss God’s word, because that word is, indeed, “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12). One of the miracles of the Bible is the way it opens itself to us in our own time, correcting and nudging us closer and closer to God. God can work through one phrase in the whole Good Book to awaken us to a new dimension, don’t get me wrong about that.

But if that’s all we do, let me just say, we might miss other dimensions opening in every direction.

I had the opportunity some years ago to take the Education for Ministry (1) course—one night a week in a small study group—whose curriculum includes reading all of the Hebrew Bible in the first year and all of the New Testament in the second.  That’s flying high enough to not get caught up in the details.  To get the overall picture.  Not like a scholar. But like a traveller with some experience, and accumulating more all the time.

Every part of our Holy Scripture has its own place in that picture.

Even Leviticus. The passage we have today from Leviticus is the only portion of that book we hear on Sundays in our whole three year revised cycle.  (We do get it twice—the same part of chapter 19, with a bigger middle section, came earlier this year.) Plus in the Daily Office, we get 11 chunks every other year, towards the end of the Easter.  But that’s it.

So I figured that if anybody talked about Leviticus this week—our only chance to visit it, or at least fly over it, for the next three years in a sermon it would be me.

Leviticus is the third and central book of the Torah (the five books of the Pentateuch) and you have probably noticed, if you looked at it, it’s full of detailed regulations and rules. What is clean and unclean. What rituals to do to get clean again. All this might seem, well, childish or primitive.  Stuff we have outgrown. Or can’t relate to (2).  Animal sacrifices.  Grain offerings.  A seemingly endless variety of variations on the theme of… well, what is the theme anyway?

A few years ago I opened Everett Fox’s translation (3). He emphasizes the texture and language of the original Hebrew. The way he renders the names of the different kinds of sacrifices (there are five of them) brings into focus their function, which is always to restore right relationship between people with God. As a spiritual director, I’ve been intrigued by this whole system.  After all, getting close to God is pretty much the point, isn’t it? And it’s more of an art than a science. (It’s not a question of angling to get a better parking place, so to speak. It generally calls for a shift in plane.)

If you take food and turn it into sweet smoke, well, that might indeed be a way.  (Don’t try this at home.) Fox cites the work of noted anthropologist Mary Douglas (4) who sees in this book a methodic and detailed orientation of the People of Israel toward God’s tabernacle – the focus of the whole community in the time of Deliverance from exile—as a system that envisions the recreation of  Eden before sin defiled its first citizens.

Because Leviticus, like the rest of the Pentateuch, although these come books come first in Biblical order, wasn’t actually written third. These five books seem to have been put together during the exile in Babylon, with the purpose of consolidating some much older lore and stories, yes, and also consolidating the identity of these people of Israel during a time when they were in danger of being assimilated.  Leviticus in particular describes the codification of the law, after the giving of the ten commandments on Sinai and during the 40 years that Israel wandered in the desert of Sinai.  We are told that they were prevented from entering the land of promise until they had been ‘detoxified’ from the experience of living as slaves in Egypt. So at the book’s core is this notion of rediscovering how to live when we have escaped from bondage. Have you noticed that that’s tricky? Getting free doesn’t liberate us from the habits we learned in captivity.

One example that comes to mind is Jesus’ parable (Matthew 18:21-35) of the servant who was forgiven his humongous debt and then starts browbeating the underling who owes him some petty amount. It’s heartbreaking isn’t it? because it’s so human. We have all seen it. I’m afraid, in fact, that it’s difficult to recognize God’s freedom as our natural state.

And in fact, if all freedom gives us is decision fatigue and the chance to squander our choices on trivia (or doomscrolling) it’s not freedom yet.  Structure, habits, even rules can be freeing as well as limiting.

This was attested to most recently for us by Brother Josep from Holy Cross, who talked for the last two weeks about how structuring our time and our day opens space for intimacy with God and with ourselves (and we will hear from him again this morning right after this service).  For that matter, in our so called secular society, journalists never seem to tire of interviewing successful people about their morning rituals.  (Did you make your bed?).

Beyond the structure of Leviticus, or the structure of your morning, is this not entirely unconnected business of Holiness.  “Be Holy as I your God am holy. “ Consider the Gods of the other nations at the time this was written:  They were bloodthirsty murderers.  TO create the universe they killed their fathers or mothers.  They squabbled and feuded. There was no peace in heaven. They needed to be bought off with human sacrifice.

This idea of sacrifice as appeasing or exculpatory is, I would say, fluid. It contaminates our Holy Week with our own repugnance and certainly our unwillingness to attribute to our own creator God this “need for appeasement or restitution.”  The whole scapegoat business. Yet in the New Testament (I think it was Michael Pitts who told me this) we find language describing Jesus’ life and death in words that point to every one of the different sacrifices named in Leviticus.

This particular chapter in Leviticus—the one that is so important they couldn’t leave it out of the lectionary—contains the passage that Jesus uses in today’s Gospel passage to respond to his interrogators.

We will go there in a quick moment.

First, mind the gap. We are missing 12 verses.  Why? Well, not because they are boring or repetitive or even irrelevant.  Verses 3 to 14 carry references to the ten commandments, so the verses we do have can be seen as commentary on the basic tenets of the law. This commentary ends the with words that are a recurring refrain in this portion of Leviticus: “I am the Lord.”

Now in Exodus, if I remember rightly, these words START the Decalogue. I think this is important when we come to Matthew, because it might account for what seems to be a discontinuity between the two parts of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees.

When Jesus replies, quoting Leviticus 19, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he doesn’t say the phrase that follows directly on those words: “I am the Lord.”  Don’t you think they would have known that he was skating a delicate topic?  And that’s when he asks them: “What do you think of the Messiah, whose son is he?”

For the last few weeks we have been reading Jesus’ encounters in the Jerusalem temple with different groups of Jewish leaders. They are questioning him and challenging him—just as he is challenging them.  This is the final episode in that series, and they test him by asking which is the greatest commandment.

Jesus is being cagey too.  He had just, less than a week ago, entered Jerusalem while the crowds shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”(Matthew 21:9)   But at this moment in time, in Jerusalem, it’s the emperor who carries the title “son of god.”  And the people around Jesus know that he has always been called “son of Mary” not “son of Joseph”—hinting at the fuzzy paternity question that had dogged his heels all the way from before his birth and his life in Galilee all the way up to the present time.

They are so close to the truth, but again nobody speaks it. His question about David silences them. And after that, no more questions.

In her book on Leviticus, Mary Douglas identifies two focal points.  One is this chapter, the summation of the Law and the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. “ The other, Chapter 26, sets out the great commandment of the Jubilee—the release of slaves, eradication of debts, the coming home of the people to their rightful place.

This is what The Kingdom of God is to be. This is the Good News … the Evangelion (proclamation)/ the Gospel itself.  The Reign of God or Community of God as this phrase is sometimes translated is where love does indeed live and breathe…. Love incarnate.  Revealing itself, not as proceeding from God TO us but as God abiding with us and as us-in-Christ with our neighbours.  Come the day.  Amen


This sermon was preached at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday morning, October 25, 2020. The scriptures for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost are: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 and Psalm 1 , 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, and Matthew 22:34-46


  1. http://www.efmcanada.ca/
  2. This does not mean that Leviticus has been entirely ignored by moderns. For curiosity you might look at A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically. https://ajjacobs.com/books/the-year-of-living-biblically/
  3. Everett Fox (trans.) The Five Books of Mose New York: Shocken Books, 1967.
  4. Mary Douglas. Leviticus As Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  5. Tevfik Karatop subsequently pointed me to Mary Douglas’ earlier book, Purity and Danger, a classic in the field of anthropology. “In one chapter, ‘The Abomination of Leviticus,’ she analyses the dietary laws of Leviticus II through a structuralist and symbolist point of view, and states that the dietary laws were not based on medical materialism, but rather social boundaries, deeming what is pure and impure is a way for a society to structure human experiences. At heart, what matters is using themes such as purity, separation and defilement to bring about order and structure to unorganized experiences.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Douglas





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