Week of June 10: Old Testament principles in light of our modern-day world
By Herchel Sheets
Lesson for week of June 10
Scripture: Leviticus 19:9-18, 33-37
Recently I was asked this question by a small study group in our church: “How do we know what rules and decrees in the Old Testament still apply today?” That's a good question. The Bible was written many centuries ago under circumstances radically different from those of our day. It is natural to wonder about what in those writings still applies today.
We have guidance in this matter in our Methodist Articles of Religion that came to us through John Wesley from the Church of England, of which he was a minister. They have been a part of our official doctrinal statements since the Christmas Conference of 1784 when the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was formed.
Article VI of this official doctrinal statement says: “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”
What words would you use to define “moral?” What about such words as these: ethical, good, right, honest, honorable, just, and principled? Look at our scripture for this Sunday. Don't you feel that that word “moral” applies to what you read here?
It might be argued that the instructions given in verses 9 and 10 are outdated, or at least irrelevant for most of us since we are not farmers. But we cannot deny the reality of poverty in our society. One way the farmers of Biblical times were to respond to the needs of the poor was to leave a little of the harvest of their crops and vineyards for the poor to gather for themselves. Remember what it meant to Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi when Ruth was able to glean in fields owned by Boaz, who obeyed this instruction (see the Book of Ruth).
Our grandson Will McCranie, who has just graduated from the University of Georgia, is delaying entrance into the job market until he walks the entire Appalachian Trail. He is seeking to raise $10,000 to contribute to the Meals for Millions Initiative of United Methodist Men and the Society of St. Andrew. Since the early 1980s, the Society of St. Andrew has been engaged in gathering otherwise wasted food products and distributing them to millions of people who are without adequate food. Their ministry that Will is seeking to support is an exciting, innovative, modern application of Leviticus 19:9-10.
Surely we would not question the moral implications of verses 11-14: Stealing, dealing falsely with persons, lying to one another, swearing falsely in the name of God, defrauding persons. Have you ever known a time when persons were finding more new and different ways of stealing, dealing falsely, and defrauding than they are finding today? That's wrong! We know it's wrong.
Maybe the command to give workers their pay at the end of each day rather than waiting until the next morning doesn't have to be followed literally in our time, but it surely has implications for just wages for laborers.
And who has to be told that it's wrong to take advantage of someone who is blind or deaf? Some of us would say that it is a double sin to debase, demean, or humiliate a person with a disability of some kind or to take advantage of such a person for one's own benefit.
Verses 15 and 16 call for impartiality on the part of persons making judicial decisions. They are not to be influenced either by pity for the poor or awe of the rich, and gain for one's self must never be the goal of one whose job it is to dispense justice.
Verses 17 and 18 strike a note that resounds throughout the Bible. It calls for love of others, not just of family members, but everyone, including those who hurt us in any way. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is indeed a high standard, a demanding ethic. But the apostle Paul said that the whole law is summed up in this commandment (Galatians 5:14), and Jesus, too, said that it ranks second only to the commandment to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28).
Verses 33 and 34 surely seem pertinent for our time, for the subject of “aliens” is one of our hottest topics today. But we may not like what this passage in Leviticus says: (1) You shall not oppress the alien; (2) the alien shall be as a citizen along with you; (3) you shall love the alien as yourself. This, of course, does not ruIe out laws regulating relationships and activities of persons from other countries who live here among us, but it does say a lot about attitude and spirit. These people, too, are our neighbors, and we are not to be exempt from the duty of dealing with them as love demands. Our attitude toward them, our laws regarding them, our treatment of them are all to be directed by love.
Have you noticed the repetition of the words “I am the Lord” or “I am the Lord your God” in this chapter on moral holiness? Then, in the concluding verses of the chapter, we find these additional words: “who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The implication is that these people's indebtedness to God ought to be enough to make sure they are doing what the Lord expects them to do. Is not our indebtedness also great enough that we, too, should be diligent in doing what the Lord expects us to do?