The Law of Liberty (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)
One semester in seminary I was taking a New Testament class and a Greek class on the Letter of James. In my New Testament class I volunteered to write a paper about James 1:25-27. I thought I’d have a leg up since I was already doing research by reading the letter in Greek for another class. I discovered a couple of wonderful texts on James that connected it to this chapter of Leviticus. First, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote an article asserting that the entire letter of James can be read as a gloss of Leviticus 19. He lines up the topics covered side by side, verse by verse, and it is astonishing to see the parallels. Robert Wall wrote an excellent commentary on James in which he suggests that the reference to the “law of liberty” in the passage I was assigned, or also “royal law” (2:8), is a reference to the Jubilee in Leviticus 25. These two commentaries have a lot to do with the way I read James, Leviticus 19 and ultimately the biblical narrative. I would like to consider these two insights, first reading James’ letter as a gloss of Leviticus 19 and then the idea that the “law of liberty” and “royal law” is a reference to Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee.
If you just read Leviticus 19 and the James’ letter together the parallels jump out. James 2:1-7 is an extended exposition of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” However, James does not settle for the total impartiality in Leviticus, but seems to suggest in verses 5-7 the “preferential option for the poor” argued for by liberation theology.
Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
Perhaps James, reading Leviticus 19, realized that it is rarely the poor that are shown partiality or favoritism within the unjust systems with which he was familiar. This is then followed by James’ quote of Leviticus 19:18 (to which we will return later). James 4:11 finds its corollary in Leviticus 19:16 concerning slandering and treatment of neighbors. James’ invective against the rich and oppressors in 5:1-6 very closely resembles Leviticus 19: 9-11, 13 and 35-36. These are the most obvious connections, but more commonalities exist concerning the more general tone and emphasis on the outworking of covenantal relationship with God through the just relationships within the community and to the earth. In James’ language we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).
The Law of Liberty
I also wrote a paper in seminary arguing that, in terms of the relationship of faith and works, Paul and James are actually on the same page, but are coming from different perspectives, particularly in terms of their unique missions, and writing to very different audiences. This is very important in terms of the way James and Paul use the term “law”. Paul’s Gentile audience does not have the same relationship to Torah that James’ Jewish audience does. Now, let’s turn to the way that James uses the term “law”.
James uses the term law in seven verses. Out of those seven three use the phrase “law of liberty” or “royal law”. Are these just stylistic flourishes? The repetition of the phrase “law of liberty” in both 1:25 and 2:12 suggests an intentionality and distinction from other uses of the term. In verse 25 it is the “perfect law, the law of liberty”, further elevating the status of the phrase. This comes as James is making the central argument of his letter, the judgment of true or sincere faith by the actions it produces (1:22-25). The next use of the phrase “law of liberty” occurs within the same passage as the term “royal law”; therefore we will consider them together.
Verse 8, which quotes directly the “love your neighbor” command in Leviticus 19:8, comes immediately after the discourse on partiality and favoritism towards the rich and the “preferential option for the poor” which I mentioned above. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well” (Jas 2:8). This love command does away with the partiality and favoritism as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (discussed in the previous post). The designation “royal law” seems to carry the same weight that Jesus gives to Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31where it is paired with the Shema as the commandment on which “depend all the Law and Prophets” (22:40). So, this is nothing new from what we have already seen.
The Jubilee in Leviticus is described in this way “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10). So, if we take Robert Wall’s suggestion that the “law of liberty” is a reference to the Jubilee, then we should read 1:25 and 2:12 in light of this reference. James concludes his diatribe against partiality and the law with verses 12-13, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” In the context of the Jubilee then this can be read as a reference to the forgiveness of debts, freeing of slaves and return of land and with the land the equality of economic opportunity.
The “law of liberty”, then, represents an ideal of social, economic and ecological relationships that may have never actually been practiced according to many scholars. Thus James’ insistence that “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25) may be an indictment of Israel’s inability to fulfill this “perfect law”. It represents a messianic hope for the coming reign of God where all injustice and inequality will be done away with, while simultaneously urging Israel and the church to embody this coming hope in concrete practice that was not considered a distant impossibility.
In the first post on Leviticus 19 in its original context, I argued that the entire chapter concerns the convergence of relationships between God, humanity and the earth. In light of this, what we have said about the New Testament passages and references to Leviticus 19 should also be read in light of the connections that Leviticus 19 itself makes between the command to “love your neighbor” and the Sabbath practices to care for the earth which includes the Jubilee. I think that this integrated, holistic way of thinking is assumed by Jesus, Paul and James in their words and actions.
We have also seen how the law to “love your neighbor” includes the social and political realms. Our relationship to possessions and wealth is directly related by Jesus to our living out the “love your neighbor” law. Jesus moves this law from the realm of feeling, where we have relegated it, into the realm of action by transforming neighbor from a category of people into an action taken by the righteous person. Paul challenges the Powers by elevating this law of love above “what is owed” to the Powers and authorities of this world. He also defines our understanding of the freedom we have in Christ in terms of the limits that the law of love places on freedom because of its social, political and economic implications. This is exactly what James does in his letter concerning the practical application of the law of love, the “royal law”, and its companion, the Jubilee, in which this law of love is expressed most concretely in terms of the social, economic and ecological ordering of our lives.
The command to “love your neighbor” has never seemed both so simple and complex at the same time. This law of love draws to itself so many aspects of our lives and society that are broken and unjust. Yet, Paul simplifies it so eloquently for us in his advice to the Romans living in the heart of the Empire, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). The outworking of this reality will take a lifetime for individuals and longer for the world, but we don’t have to perfect it before we can begin practicing it in our lives and embodying it in our communities and churches.