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Spirituality is one of those terms widely used today by Christians and yet frequently misunderstood. Much of our understanding of the term comes from popular religious usage, which often is plagued by a dualism that draws a sharp contrast between body and soul, material and spiritual realities. In this view, the "spiritual" is generally valued as good, and all material, earthly things are considered evil. This belief reflects very well the beliefs and perspectives of some Oriental religions which are very influential in Western culture, but it has nothing to do with a biblical perspective of a life consecrated and pleasing to God. How then can we understand what a biblical spirituality is?
Our Lord Jesus quoted two key texts of the Old Testament to summarize God's will for his people. These texts give us a biblical perspective on true spirituality: "Love the Lord your God with all your being" (the shema, Deuteronomy 6:5), and "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18b). Both love of God and of our neighbor must be kept in balance in order to develop a healthy spirituality. When they are divorced, we end up with an inhuman pharisaic religiosity, or with a meaningless philanthropy.
How is a healthy spirituality expressed? Leviticus summarizes our love of God and our love of our neighbor with one word: Holiness. The first part of Leviticus 19 shows us that holiness is about both of these areas of human life. We may call this a spirituality of holiness.
Analysis of Leviticus 19:1-18
Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (v.2)
The chapter opens with a general imperative to the entire assembly of Israel, an imperative which is explained in the rest of the chapter, mainly within the framework of the Ten Commandments. Israel was called to live as a people consecrated to serve and please God in everything they did. The following verses make explicit the diverse areas of life and ways in which the people of God are called to live a life worthy of their calling.
Each of you must respect his mother and father... (v. 3a).
The first indication of what it means to be holy is respect for parents, the fifth commandment. But notice a significant change. While in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 the verb used is "to honor," here the verb is "fear" which frequently is used in the Old Testament to describe our relation to God. Thus, our text teaches us that the "fear" or "respect" that we give to our parents must be similar to that which we give to God. This is true spirituality.
And you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your God. Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the LORD your God. (vv.3b-4).
The fourth, first, and second commandments demand an exclusive worship and commitment to the LORD. True spirituality expresses itself in worship to the only true God.
When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf...(vv. 5-8).
The fellowship or peace offering was one of the few offerings in which the giver might eat a part, and the priest another. It was a voluntary act of worship in which thanksgiving and communal celebration were expressed.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. (vv. 9-10).
These verses have a strong social sense. A part of the fruit of our labor belongs to the poor and to aliens. Obedience to this instruction is a requirement that we may receive God's blessing on our labors (see Deuteronomy 24:19 and the book of Ruth). We express our spirituality not only in the worship of God but in acts of solidarity with the disenfranchised of the earth.
Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. (v. 11)
Respect for the property of others, coupled with truthful, honest, and open relationships with those to whom we relate on daily basis, are expressions of a healthy spirituality.
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. (v. 12)
Swearing oaths falsely in legal situations would damage a person. Thus, it appears here in the context of commandments to protect the integrity and well-being of our neighbors. To sin against others is to profane the name of God.
Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight. (v. 13). The eighth commandment applies to fraudulent labor practices: exploitation, robbery, and salary retention (see Deuteronomy 24:14; Jeremiah 22:13; Malachi 3:5). These are still common practices today. Just labor relations are another sign of a deep spirituality.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD. (v. 14)
Another way of showing our "fear of God," or true piety as Calvin called it, is to love, respect, and show solidarity with those who are limited in their capabilities. Rather than take advantage of other people's limitations and have fun at their expense, we are called to abandon such cruelty and put in its place a compassion that recognizes and honors the dignity and value of all human beings, regardless of the handicaps they suffer.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (v. 15).
This demand of an impartial judgment is directed especially to those who have the high responsibility of the administration of justice. Neither the poverty of a person, nor influence and power, should affect the practice of justice.
Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life. I am the LORD. (v. 16)
Utter respect for the good name of others and an active promotion of a meaningful and rich life of those who are close to us are fruits of a well-cultivated spirituality. The destructive nature of the tongue is described by James (3:1-12). For James, taming the tongue is a sign of genuine religion or true spirituality (1:26).
Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (vv. 17-18).
The internal and spiritual character of the Law is shown in these verses. God sees and values not only our actions but our thoughts, desires, and feelings. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, we need to obey God's will from the most intimate part of our being. An external conformity to the law will not do; God desires a higher justice.
Hatred and grudges against our sisters and brothers should be resolved by an open confrontation and a loving restoration of the relationship. This is the kind of communal spirituality that Jesus demands from us (Matthew 18).
The central commandment, and summary of the Law, "love your neighbor as yourself," is repeated in v. 33b, with a meaningful nuance: the object of our love is the alien, the foreigner, the pagan. Thus, the scope of the word is expanded to include everybody in the definition of neighbor. In his exposition of this commandment, Jesus included even our enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). What a challenge for our spirituality after September 11th!
In the remainder of Leviticus 19, other areas of life are included as places in which God's people are to exhibit holiness. In all these areas we are called to love God and our neighbor. In them we can offer concrete expressions of our holiness and of the spirituality that the Lord demands of his people. And if we want a concrete example of such spirituality we need to continue to read the Gospels and see how Jesus loved God and his neighbor.