It’s an odd week that I have such an ambivalent relationship to the book of Leviticus. Normally thought of as the home of the purity code, and source for all sorts of injunctions against everything from same-gender relationships to mixed fibers in clothing, Leviticus leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths.
So it is with the apostle Peter in the readings for this Sunday, where we join in his vision of the sheet descending from heaven, filled with “unclean” (by Levitical standards) animals. Peter hears the voice of God telling him to get up and eat – to break the levitical law. Peter objects that this food has been declared unclean by the religious standards of the day, but God replies, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And with that it seems like we get a New Testament rebuke to the book of Leviticus.
But then I consider recent legislation passed by the state of Arizona, and I recall a different passage from the book of Leviticus: “when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
This all serves to remind me not only that human standards for holiness and purity are constantly changing and evolving, but that true holiness and purity come to us as a gift from God – not as an achievement of our own. Any of us who examine our own lives closely enough will realize that we have all fallen short of the mark. We are all unclean beasts. We have all been aliens and oppressors.
It is the holiness of God that matters most. Holiness that tells us to get up and eat (and drink, and live with, and build community alongside) those who live beyond the borders of what we’ve been taught to call “clean.” That is where we will discover God.