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Notes on Leviticus

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Morality has a basis of its own. The moral philosopher, if asked, “Why should I act morally?” replies, “Because it is right for you to do so.” If asked further, “Why is it right for me to do so?” he replies, “Because your conscience tells you that it is.” If asked why conscience should be obeyed rather than passion, he replies. “Because it possesses greater authority, even if it has less power;” and in proof of this he points to the approval or disapproval which it stamps upon acts according to their character. Morality can be proved to be reasonable, apart from religion.

But it cannot be enforced. If a man denies that his conscience commands him to perform a moral action, the verdict of the general conscience of mankind may be quoted against him as contrary to that of his own, but he can repudiate the authority of that verdict so far as he is himself concerned. He can reasonably maintain that the general conscience may be misled by prejudice or superstition, and that his own conscience is more enlightened than that of the mass. In this manner the philosopher, or any one who regards himself as a philosopher, finds a way of evasion ready at hand.

With the masses, moral teaching, unaccompanied by religious sanction, is still less effectual. The general good of mankind, or the duty of obeying the highest principle of our nature, has never restrained, and never will restrain, the mass of mankind from yielding to the force of strong passion or desire.

In the present chapter we find the moral duties—those of the second table as much as the first—rested upon a religious basis. They are God’s commands, whether that command be given by written precept or by an instinct engraven on man’s heart. And because they are God’s commands in both these ways, they are to be obeyed. Thus there is an appeal from man’s mind to something higher than himself, to which man will submit. The effort to preserve morality in a nation without religious sanction and religious motive is like the attempt to keep alive the flame of a fire, when the fuel from which the flame is derived has been withdrawn. One generation may continue moral; the next will certainly be licentious. “I am the Lord” is a basis of morality which never fails.

Trouble in the text

We have the testimony of our Lord (Matt. 22:9) and of the Apostle St. Paul (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14) that to obey the injunction, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ” is to fulfil all the commandments of the second table of the Law; and for that reason St. James calls it a royal law (Jas. 2:8). Here, therefore, the Levitical Law culminates in its highest point, so far as our duties towards men are concerned. Lest the Jew should confine the idea of thy neighbour to his own kindred and race, an equal love is specifically commanded for the stranger that dwelleth with you. Not only, Thou shalt love thy Jewish neighbour as thyself, but also Thou shalt love the stranger that dwelleth among you as thyself. The force of the comparison, as thyself, may be studied in Bishop Butler’s sermon ‘Upon the Love of our Neighbour.’

But though the Law culminates in the two kindred commands, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God;” “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself;” Christianity does not. Christianity goes beyond the highest point to which the Law soars. Not only does it name the neighbour and the stranger as those whom we are to love, but also the enemy. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43–45). The motive in the gospel is also higher than the Law. In the Law the motive in the case of the stranger is human sympathy arising from common suffering, “for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the gospel it is the desire to be like God in his dealings with men, “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), “for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:35, 36).

Loveits root and its fruit. Two things lend a special interest to this passage. 1. It was twice quoted by our Lord (Matt. 19:19 and 22:39). 2. It shows us the Law as closer to the gospel than we are apt to think; it proves that, under the old dispensation, God was not satisfied with a mere mechanical propriety of behaviour, that he demanded rightness of feeling as well as correctness of conduct. We have—

I. The broad principle of God’s requirement. Man is to “love his neighbour as himself” (ver. 18). No man, indeed, can (1) give as much time and thought to each of his neighbours as he does to himself, and no man (2) is so responsible for the state of others’ hearts and the rectitude of their lives as he is for his own. But every man can and should, by power of imagination and sympathy, put himself in his brother’s place; be as anxious to avoid doing injury to another as he would be unwilling to receive injury from another; and be as desirous of doing good to his neighbour who is in need as he would be eager to receive help from him if he himself were in distress. This is the essence of the “golden rule” (Matt. 7:12).

II. The root from which this feeling will spring. How can we do this? It will be asked. How can we be interested in the uninteresting; love the unamiable; go out in warm affection toward those who have in them so much that is repulsive? The answer is here, “I am the Lord.” We must look at all men in their relation to God. 1. God is interested, Christ is interested in the worst of men, is seeking to save and raise them; do we not care for those for whom he cares so much? 2. They are all God’s children; it may be his prodigal children, living in the far country, but still his sons and daughters, over whom he yearns. 3. The most unlovely of men are those for whom our Saviour bled, agonized, died. Can we be indifferent to them? 4. They were once not far from the kingdom, and may yet be holy citizens of the kingdom of God. When we look at our fellow-men in the light of their relation to God, to Jesus Christ, we can see that in them which shines through all that is repelling, and which attracts us to their side that we may win and bless them.

III. The fruits which holy love will bear. There are two suggested in the text. 1. Forbearance; “not hating our brother in our heart,” “not avenging or bearing any grudge against” him. Without the restraints and impulses of piety we are under irresistible temptation to do this. Unreasonable dislike on our brother’s part, injustice, ingratitude, unkindness, inconsiderateness, features of character which are antipathetic to our own,—these things and such things as these are provocative of ill will, dislike, enmity, resentment, even revenge on our part. But if we remember and realize our brother’s relation to the common Father and Saviour, we shall rise to the noble height of forbearance; we shall have the love which “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). 2. Restoration by remonstrance; “Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” Instead of nursing and nourishing our indignation, allowing our brother to go on in the wrong, and permitting ourselves to become resentful as well as indignant, we shall offer the remonstrance of affection; we shall “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering” (2 Tim. 4:2). We shall try to win our brother back to that path of truth or righteousness which he has forsaken; so shall we “gain our brother” (Matt. 18:15), instead of “suffering sin upon him.” This is the conquest of love, the crown of charity.

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