Every once in a while the lessons we Episcopalians use for Morning Prayer tempt me into a comment or two, and so it was this morning. We are in Leviticus, that most conflicted of books. This morning’s passage from the 19th chapter warned the people not to practice augury, get tattoos, or trim beards, and among other things, to treat resident aliens as if they were citizens. By whose authority? Thus says the LORD your God. You can’t argue with that authority. There is none higher.
As it happens, several of my Facebook friends who are of a more fundamentalist persuasion have been on their soap boxes about the imminent end of time in the firm belief that the signs of the times assure that it is so because God’s word is truth and the bible is God’s word which is to be believed in all things about all things. I know that’s a bit convoluted, but there it is. Which brings me back to this morning’s readings. Other than digging post holes, augury has to do with trying to read signs of things to come out of current conditions and events. It’s exactly what my Facebook friends are doing, and doing poorly because they haven't paid much attention to history, and they are doing it in deliberate disobedience to God’s very precise instructions that are, according to them, to be believed as irrevocable truth.
To top it off, with their occasional tattoos and neatly trimmed hair, they are among those most eager and anxious to deny resident aliens any support or encouragement whatsoever. The Mexicans are bad enough, but to think that we might let in Muslim refugees, each one a likely terrorist, is a frightening prospect, a danger to all things American, and a threat to Christianity.
I thought about these things as I read and reflected on the readings this morning. Part of me was tempted toward a theologically smart aleck comment on their Facebook postings, but it would be rude and unhelpful. I know some of these people on a more personal level, and I know that they desire to be faithful Christians and good citizens. They are, for the most part, unaware of the contradictions they live with in their relationship with scripture. They have been taught a certain set of ‘truths’ from which any deviation would jeopardize their salvation ticket. They have been led to view the world as an evil place in which Christians are surrounded by enemies, both spiritual and material, aliens among them. Yet, they lead more or less contented lives, relatively happy in the company of others who enjoy doing the things that they enjoy. They deal with the cognitive dissonance by ignoring it, dislike it when I point it out, and are suspicious that I don’t play by the rules they are sure define what is right and true. In fact, they are inclined to wonder whether I may have been seduced by the dark side. Being an Episcopalian is half the evidence they need to prove it.
Rather than trying to change them, let’s change the subject. What shall we do with Leviticus, and the other books of the law? Perhaps the first thing is to stop picking and choosing passages to stuff down each other’s craw. That has all the class of a middle school food fight. As for me, I like the book. I cannot imagine a better way to organize a loose collection of tribes that claim a common ancestor, and have a vague idea about what might be an appropriate religion for an invisible God who is unlike all the other gods around them. With the publication of the final version after the Babylonian exile, the ground was set to “get it right this time.” I’m impressed. It got the people of Israel through centuries of existence under the thumbs of, and in competition with, other nations and other gods.
When I read Leviticus I do pick and choose. I look for those parts that I believe are consistent with what Jesus said and did. For me they are the treasures worth preserving as guidelines for current practice. The rest? They are like museum pieces to be honored and studied for what they might teach us, but not incorporated into the Way of following Christ.