Leviticus 16-18, Psalm 36, Mark 9
How are we to treat gays and lesbians?
Leviticus 16 – 18
Up until now, reading Leviticus has been like watching a dull movie. Now, it’s time to strap on your seatbelt. We are about to go for a wild ride through Scripture. This is where the Bible gets really interesting and each of us must make important decisions.
First, we read again about the scapegoat, who will take away the sins of the nation. In Leviticus 16:16 we are no longer talking about the sin of an individual. We now focus on the sin of a community or nation. Chapters 4-6 of Leviticus address what to do if a ruler, priest or lay person sins and how to atone for it. There is some mention of what to do if a congregation errs unintentionally as well. (Lev. 4:13-21)
Our attention now, however, is focused on the community or nation. “Thus [Aaron] shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleanliness of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins…” (Lev. 16:16) One of the great strengths of Judaism is placing the accent on the community and not merely on the individual.
At its worst, Christianity can be reduced to a “Jesus and me” thing, where all that seems to matter is the Lord and me. God wants us to know that there is always a community around us and community matters greatly to God. We cannot seek salvation selfishly as if to say, “All that matters is my own salvation.” We are either saved together, or we perish together. We must be committed to improving our society and community and not merely selfishly seeking a passport to heaven. Heaven is a collective enterprise. Christians have responsibility for major societal issues like global warming and HIV/AIDS.
Hence, Aaron is to “lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for this task.” (Lev. 16:21) Leviticus 16:31 notes that, this “is a statute forever.” Jews have continued this annual ritual for thousands of years. It was to be marked by a day of Sabbath or complete rest. Jews call this Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. It includes a 25-hour period of fasting and intense prayer and often spending much of the day in the synagogue services.
Yom Kippur is “the tenth day of the seventh month” (Lev. 16:29) and is regarded as the Sabbath of Sabbaths for the Jewish people. Along with Rosh Hashanah it forms the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) or High Holy Days for Judaism. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kipper to “seal” the verdict.
During the Days of Awe or High Holy Days, a practicing Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for the wrongs done against God and other people. Think of this as the Jewish Lent. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, one hopes to have been forgiven by God. This is the only time all year that many secular Jews attend the synagogue, causing attendance to spike. Jews are not supposed to eat, drink, wear leather shoes, bathe, have marital relations or use perfumes or lotions on Yom Kippur. The body is subjugated so that the soul may be the life force of our being. The pain of fasting and discomfort of not bathing help Jews to have compassion upon those who live in pain and poverty.
Chapter 17 reminds Jews that they are to eat kosher and to avoid meats containing blood. Blood is a life force. Meat is dead. Jews believe that you cannot combine a life force with death. For the same reason, milk and meat cannot be eaten together for milk, too, is a sign of life.
In chapter 18, the Israelites are told, “My ordinances you shall observe and my statues you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my statues and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 18:4-5) It is a powerful line. God gives us statutes for our own good.
A long list of those with whom we may not have sexual relations follows. This makes good sense (Lev. 18:6-18), even if some of it was not practiced by those like Isaac, who married sisters in order to get the wife of his desire. This violates Leviticus 18:18. These laws were probably established after that episode in history. Jews were also told not to sacrifice children to Molech, an awful pagan practice. (Lev. 18:21)
Then we come to one of the most controversial passages in the Bible, where we read, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Lev. 18:22) What do we make of this? First, there are good people on both sides of the arguments concerning homosexuality. We are wrong to demonize people for their beliefs and wrong to demonize them for their sexuality. We must tread carefully here.
The purpose of The Bible Challenge is to help individuals develop a lifelong daily discipline of Bible reading in order to help transform their life for Christ. Having said that, I believe that it is up to each individual to wrestle with what this passage means for them. For more conservative readers, this passage reveals a profound biblical truth. Homosexuality is forbidden. For others, this is one of the most misguided verses in the Bible. You must decide for yourself, but consider this:
First, we must be very careful about picking and choosing what we will and will not believe in the Bible, but we must nevertheless do so. Every Christian I have ever met has selected certain portions of the Bible to follow and categorized other parts as customs and traditions that belong to another time, which do not need to be followed today. I know no one who does not do this.
Who among us ascribes to the Levitical imperative never to wear blended fibers? How many Americans are seeking to ban football because Leviticus forbids us to touch a pig’s skin? How many of us believe that Leviticus is right in noting that a menstruating woman should never enter a church? Furthermore, Leviticus notes that a menstruating woman entering a sanctuary is an abomination, and an abomination is punishable with death by stoning. Are we prepared to carry out this punishment? Hence, I have yet to meet a Christian who does not selectively choose what portions of the Bible to follow and to disregard. Those who claim not to do so are lying or fooling themselves.
Second, while the language is clear forbidding a male to lie with another male, we are told that it is an abomination. I have yet to meet a Christian who wants to and is willing to stone gays and lesbians to death. It somehow seems unchristian! This is not to say there are not such people. Sadly, there are.
How can a person consider him or herself biblically consistent by ascribing to the first portion of Leviticus 18:22, where we read, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” and not with the conclusion that “it is an abomination”? In every case where I have spoken with people who strongly maintain the first statement, when apprised that an abomination is punishable with death by stoning, they quickly say, “well that portion was just part of an ancient tradition and culture.” This is biblical inconsistency.
Some Bible commentators will also point out that in the ancient world, most homosexual relationships were between an older man initiating a younger male, often a teenager, into a homosexual act. It was not a relationship between two grown men. I am not sure how vital that argument is. What is more compelling is that ancient pagans living in Canaan had a cult practice that involved a man sleeping with a male cult prostitute in order to increase his fertility and father many children and raise many crops. Could this be what the author of Leviticus is addressing? There is a strong likelihood.
Even more telling, Jesus never saw fit to address this topic. If it is vital for Christians to believe that being gay and lesbian is sinful and wrong, why did Jesus never address it? That needs to be answered by people who stand by Leviticus 18:22. Many evangelicals and conservatives distinguish between homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the choice to engage in same-sex sexual activity. They will say that they take no issue with homosexuality as an orientation, but believe God forbids the sexual behavior associated with it. I beg to differ. Why would God have created a significant portion of the world’s population for whom this is the only sexual orientation that they have known only to insure that they could never act upon it? This argument by conservatives appears disingenuous.
Finally, Leviticus 18:28 informed the Israelites that “the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” They are being warned not to engage in the same pagan practices that the previous inhabitants of the land of Canaan had practiced. Unfortunately, this text has been used by misguided Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell to claim that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is God’s punishment against gays and lesbians. I firmly oppose suggesting that God inflicts disease and death as punishment upon anyone. If anything, we bring adversity upon ourselves by unsafe practices.
While there are clearly biblical texts, especially in the Old Testament, that would support views such as Falwell’s that God punishes people with illness and death, most New Testament texts portray a God who is incapable of such wrath. Hence, we must ask Christians who maintain a vindictive view of God why they search the Bible for certain texts that would portray God as angry, wrathful and destructive, when the vast majority of New Testament texts portray God as loving, forgiving and merciful?
Where do I stand on this? I have known, worked with and studied at college and at seminary with gays and lesbians. They are terrific people and like all of us they have flaws and need a loving and redeeming God to guide, forgive and care for them. Almost all of the gays and lesbians that I have known have told me that same sex attraction was the only orientation that they ever knew. Some of them tried to hide it or deny it, but none of them said that they came to this only after much sexual experimentation.
In speaking with parents of gay and lesbian children, I have learned profound things. Some were caught by surprise when they learned that their child was gay. Others have said that they realized very early in life that this was their child’s orientation. In all cases, I have found that these parents have come to cherish their sons and daughters and to celebrate their lives and be very proud of them. This parental response seems to me to mirror what God the Father feels about each of us.
Having said that, I believe that sexuality exists along a broad spectrum and is more complicated than most of us would like to admit. Many of us would prefer a simpler world, where everyone was more like us, but this is not the world which God has created. It is more challenging and interesting to live in a world full of diversity and splendor, even if it is more confusing at times.
Sexuality, however, is not like chew gum. It has its repercussions. Hence, I do not condone sexual experimentation. Sexuality was intended by God to be part of a committed human relationship. If the Church speaks out, it should focus on this. This means random coupling and experimenting that goes on among college, high school and even some junior high school students and certainly among post college adults, must be addressed. Conservatives rarely do this, focusing instead on condemning gays and lesbians. In the end, we must each hope that we have come down on the right side of history regarding how to interpret texts like Leviticus 18:22 in light of the entire biblical message of love, grace and mercy.
It is amazing how as we read Scripture passages together, they speak back and forth and create a wonderful dialogue. The beauty of the Daily Lectionary, which Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and others follow, is that the Scriptures speak to one another. As a person reads from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle and a Gospel, there are echoes back and forth about God’s nature, sacrifices, duty, rituals, rules, conduct, forgiveness, prayer and much more.
In today’s psalm, someone might quickly seize upon verse 1, where we read,
Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God before their eyes. (Ps. 36:1)
I have always found it more fruitful to read the Bible and apply it to myself than to try to apply its message to my brother, brother-in-law, colleague, wife or daughters. It is wrong to read the Bible seeking ammunition to support our anger or dislike of others. I find it more fruitful to read the Bible as it were a love letter written from God directly to me. In doing so, I have to hold a mirror before myself and say, “This is God speaking to me.” It is not God speaking to me about someone else.
Hence, the “transgression” being addressed here is not about someone else. It is about me. I must ask myself, “How do I transgress against the Lord?” and “How am I acting as though there is no God?” The psalm then moves in a very positive direction stating,
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. (Ps. 36:7-9)
Anglicans have taken great umbrage with one another around the world over issues such as gays and lesbians. We have spoken harsh words and even cut ourselves off from one another because of deeply held beliefs about sexuality. Time will slowly resolve these differences and bring great clarity to them. Issues such as slavery, the equality of women, laws protecting children and others from being exploited and racial injustices have taken decades and sometimes centuries to resolve. What I love about Psalm 36:7-9 is that it paints a beautiful picture about what true religion really offers.
True religion is not a circle being drawn by people who see themselves clearly inside God’s love and drawing clear limitations about who cannot join them inside the circle. Rather, it is about a generous spirited God whose love is “steadfast” and “precious.” “All people,” not just those who are similar to us, “take refuge in the shadow of [God’s] wings.” It is a realm where we do not demonize each other, but rather “feast” together “on the abundance of [God’s} house.” God lets us “drink from the river of [God’s] delights.” With God “is the fountain of life.” It’s a breathtaking vision. It is revealed by being in a right relationship with God, which allows us to be in a right relationship with others. For as the psalmist clearly and wisely notes, “in your light we see light.” (Ps. 36:9)
Mark 9 opens up with perhaps my favorite story in the Bible, which tells of Jesus’s transfiguration. This episode leads to one of the most holy celebrations the Orthodox Christian Church year. Unfortunately, it receives less attention in the Episcopal Church and most other denominations. The Orthodox Church wisely sees in this moment one of the clearest windows that we have into Jesus’s divinity.
Having discussed this when we reviewed Matthew 17:1-8, I will not go into detail here, but rather will point to one small detail that stands out in Mark’s account, which is the earliest account of this story that we have. In Matthew we read, “And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (Matt. 17:2) Luke adds, “And as [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:29) Luke adds the insight that while Jesus was “praying” he was transfigured. That is a great lesson for us to learn. It is through prayer and surrendering our will that God is able to transfigure us. We are the clay in God’s hands, not the other way around. God is not being shaped by us, but rather we by him.
Mark, however, adds this lovely detail “…and [Jesus’s] garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3) This was the stuff of miracles. This was not a hallucination brought on by dehydration on a mountaintop. This was God transfiguring Jesus – the Messiah – so that for a brief moment the veil was lifted and the disciples could realize that they were in the presence of God made man in Jesus. It must have been an awesome moment!
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not make any mention of Peter trying to erect three booths to capture this event and allow Moses, Elijah and Jesus to reside here forever. But Mark notes that “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” (Mark 9:7) So often it is in the dark clouds and obscure moments of life that God speaks clearly to us. It is when our marriage is bottoming out or when our health is being tested or when one someone we love is enduring a grave challenge that God gets our attention and speaks directly to us. If you are living under a cloud, trust that this is when God speaks loudest and clearest.
Later Jesus clearly predicts his own betrayal, death and resurrection. (Mark 9:31) In Mark’s Gospel, there is no mistaking that Jesus knew what was in store for him. The disciples, however, could not comprehend it. Instead, they argue about who will be greatest when Jesus comes into his kingdom. They clearly miss much of what our Lord was trying to communicate. They are just like us.
Then “Jesus sat down.” (Mark 9:35) This is what rabbis did when they were going to offer their most significant teaching. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” If you remember one thing from today’s readings, remember this. It is at the heart of Christianity. Our call is not to self-fulfillment, enlightenment or heavenly bliss. Our call is to serve those in need around us.
There is in Buddhism a concept that closely mirrors this. It is called the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is a person who has come to the brink of enlightenment and turns back instead to help fellow sufferers along the journey of life. The bodhisattva is someone motivated by great compassion and self-sacrifice. Rather than springing forward selfishly into a sea of tranquility and peace, the bodhisattva returns to care compassionately for those who suffer and want. Is this not the essence of true religion?
Jesus concludes by noting that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40) Truly, there are many “anonymous Christians” as the great Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner described them, who are doing God’s work but not bearing the name of Christian. We need not worry for them. They belong to God. We would be wise to emulate their loving actions.
Finally, Jesus commands us to protect children and never to put them at risk. (Mark 9:42) The Church should always create a space where children are welcomed and safe. The Church must be a place of trust, nurture and protection, because “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) This is what Church leaders failed to do when they chose instead to protect pedophiles and the Church’s reputation rather than protect children. Jesus did not mince words. He said, “It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. (Ps. 36:7-9)
All things can be done for the one who believes. (Mark 9:23)
Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24)
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. (Mark 9:37)
If you could place your hands upon a scapegoat and let it carry your sin off into the wilderness to be forgotten and forgiven forever, what would you place on the scapegoat? Can you place that on Jesus to take away forever from you and to forgive you for doing or saying or having failed to do or say? Do you read the Bible as God’s love letter to you? Do you read it sometimes to get ammunition to use against another person? How do you feel and what do you think about gays and lesbians? What does God want for us regarding human sexuality? When have you had a transcendent moment with God? Do you doubt God’s ability to heal and meet your needs? Does service play an important role in your view of religion? How can we protect children better in our churches, schools and other organizations?
Loving Lord, help us to accept your loving acceptance of us so that we may share that gift with others. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania