Shalom in Practice in Society

Tuesday 10 August

With Rev Doc Chris Wright

After he was ordained pastoral ministry in Kent, Chris taught the Old Testament in India for five years (1983-88) and then at All Nations Christian College in England, where he was also Principal from 1993-2001. In 2001 he took on the leadership of Langham at the invitation of the founder, John Stott. For NH2021, Chris will be leading our morning Bible Teaching exploring the theme of “Shalom” throughout scripture.

We move today from Acts 1 and 2 of the great drama of the Bible into Act 3.   Remember the story so far? 

God’s desire is for Shalom on earth – that is for the well-being of His whole creation and especially for us human beings made in God’s image – has been shattered by our sin and rebellion.  (Acts 1 and 2)

The next act is launched in Genesis 12, when God calls Abraham and makes an amazing promise to him – that through him all nations on earth will be blessed.  So the people of Israel in the Old Testament arrive on the scene.  They are the people who have been redeemed by God in the exodus. God forgave them at Mount. Sinai. They experienced His character as Yahweh, the God of compassion and justice, the God of truth and integrity.  

So the character of Israel’s society must now reflect the character of Israel’s God. And that’s why God gives them His law – His Torah.  It was God’s guidance for how He wanted them to live. This is what a society of shalom could be like – even in a fallen and sinful world. And that’s the core message of the chapter we shall look at today in Leviticus 19. 

God and His people

When you read Leviticus 19, it might seem just a whole list of instructions for Israel.  But the constant emphasis is on God – specifically, The LORD God – Yahweh God.  Fifteen times in this one chapter comes the refrain “I am the LORD”.   

So this is not just a slice of social ethics. This is a picture of what a society could be like if, individually and corporately, people were living in practical down to earth response to the saving work of God, reflecting the holy character of God in His compassion and justice. What then about Israel?

Old Testament Israel was called to be distinctive – (“holy” v 2)

The word “holy” basically means, separate, different, distinctive – set apart by God and for God, to be different from the surrounding nations. This was much more than just a religious difference (e.g. we worship Yahweh and they worship other gods).  It was immensely practical. It was to affect every part of life in Israel – family, social, economic, political, legal – everything.   God says to them:

You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. 
Leviticus 18:3

And we will see in a moment just how different they were called to be in so many areas of life.

Old Testament Israel had a “mission” – to be God’s model for the nations. 

Remember that God created and called this people into existence because of His promise to Abraham to bless all nations.  They were to be, as Isaiah would later say, “a light to the nations”. According to Deuteronomy 4:5-8, if Israel would live according to God’s law, then the nations would see and ask questions.

  • What kind of God do they worship?
  • What kind of society have they created with such good laws?

Observe [these laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to Him?  And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
Deuteronomy 4:5-8

So that is why we can study the laws that God gave to Israel, and seek to discern what God is saying to us today, not just as Christians in the church but for the good of our societies. Here is God’s model, God’s paradigm. This is God’s pattern for shalom in a society, even in the midst of this fallen world of sinners that we are. 

God and His principles

Let’s look at Leviticus 19 (I hope you have it open in front of you). It’s a chapter that shows some of the things that God says will make for shalom in society – things that will build a community of fairness, compassion, justice and peace.  Of course, these laws were given to Old Testament Israel but they express principles that can guide us today. In fact, Leviticus 19 reflects all of the Ten Commandments, in how they can work out in social life.  And indeed, the principles in Leviticus 19 anticipate by about 3,000 years our more modern concerns:

  • social welfare v9-10
  • employment law/workers rights v13b
  • libel laws v16a
  • health and safety v16b
  • sexual abuse v20-22, 29
  • racial equality v33-34
  • trading standards v35-36

These are all there in Leviticus 19.  Maybe we are not as progressive as we thought!  Let’s look briefly at seven areas where the laws of this chapter sought to transform our world – modelled in the life of Israel. Seven ways in which God gave principles that would build shalom even in a fallen world. 

1. Transforming the family   vs. 3, 29, 32

It is interesting that family comes at beginning and end of chapter – emphasising its importance in OT Israel and in God’s purpose for human life in general.

Both aspects of family life are there: 

v3  – duty of children to parents – to honour and respect:  Each of you must respect your mother and father (the fifth commandment)

v29 –  duty of parents to children – not to exploit, abuse or profit from them:  Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute.  As well as that there are multiple other ways in which parents can abuse there children in these days.

v. 32 – Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God because I am the Lord.  It’s noticeable that respect for the elderly is portrayed as part of respect for God. The converse is visible today:  When a society loses respect for God, it very soon loses respect for human life in general, made in the image of God, and for the vulnerable in particular, whether the very young and unborn, or the very old and unproductive.

2.  Transforming poverty    vs. 9-10, 14

We can see two sides of this here.  On the one hand, Israel’s welfare system, and on the other, specific concern for those living with disabilities, the blind and the deaf – who (then as now) would be among the poorest in society.  

 Israel’s welfare system

vs 9-10 is the law of gleaning – the basic OT law that applied every year

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 foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Notice this was for the poor and foreigner; those who were landless and homeless.  This was what Boaz did for Ruth with even greater generosity.  But then, on top of this annual provision, there were two more instructions:

Every third year – Triennial tithe Deuteronomy 14:28-29 in which 10% of the GDP was set aside as a fund to provide for the destitute

Every seventh year – Sabbatical release of debt  (Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25) – a year in which people would be freed from the crippling burden of unpaid debt, if careful scheduling of repayment over six years had not already removed it.  This law called for responsible and repayable lending – something we have completely lost sight of in modern western economies. 

God calls Israel to frame a systemic response to poverty – to avoid irreversible destitution, un-repayable debts and extremes of wealth and poverty.

What principles and standards does this hold up to our governments, and to the power of corporate companies and obscenely wealthy individuals? Governments that can find billions of pounds to bail out banks but cannot find what’s needed to lift the burden of debt for their own poor and the destitution from the worlds’ poorest, and even chooses to cut the aid that they do give?   Or individuals who can spend a few billion dollars on a private trip into space for a few minutes, when a fraction of their personal wealth could vaccinate everybody on the planet?   So that’s Israel’s systemic approach to poverty but there is also this concern:

Israel’s humanitarian concern for persons with disabilities

Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling-block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.

Deuteronomy 27:18 actually declares a curse on such behaviour.  Our societies have come a long way in care for the disabled compared with a couple of hundred years ago but nevertheless this Covid pandemic has exposed a huge amount of inequality and disproportionate suffering on the part of those with various disabilities – mental and physical.  The relative poverty of the disabled is a well-researched fact.  Notice again how God identifies Himself with such people.  How you treat them is a measure of whether or not you really fear God. 

3. Transforming the workplace and the marketplace. (vs. 13b, 35-36)

This is the world of business and employment. Can you see it there in verse 13?

Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

God insists that workers have the right to prompt and fair payment for their work. 

Deuteronomy 24:14-15 makes the point even more strongly.

Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.  Pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

These laws in the Old Testament were for the benefit of day labourers, who were and still are extremely vulnerable– the ancient equivalent of the gig economy and zero-hour contracts.  These were people who hoped for some work every day, and needed the pay to feed their families that night. When my wife and I lived in India, we used to see such people on the streets of Pune. They were hoping someone would give them a day’s work and a day’s wage so they could feed their families.  And they were very easily exploited.

Concern for proper payment for work is a biblical theme. Job claims that he has not exploited his farm workers, so that their tears watered his furrows (Job 31:38-39).  Jeremiah condemned king Jehoiakim for building his palace without paying the workers (Jeremiah 22;13).  And in the NT James condemns the rich who do the same 

 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 
James 5:4-5

Which is exactly true in the midst of the “day of slaughter” in this pandemic. There are those who have phenomenally increased their wealth because of it – without passing on the benefit to those who work for them. This is a pervasive Biblical issue.  This is not socialism, or unionism. According to Leviticus 19, this is holiness. For Israel, this is what it would mean to be distinctive from the rest of the nations – in the way they ran their economy. 

When we think of Evangelicals in the 18th and 19th centuries, like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, and other great entrepreneurial business families, it was something they took very seriously, in their political and social advocacy for the multitudes of workers being exploited in the onslaught of the industrial revolution.  They sought to improve both working conditions and wages.  Where are Christians today who are speaking up on behalf of the lowest paid, the migrant labourers, the sweatshop conditions in majority world countries and even here in the UK?  This Covid pandemic showed us brutally that the so-called “key-workers” who keep the country moving are routinely in the lowest paid and most insecure employment. God calls for justice in the workplace.  If you are a Christian businessman or woman, employing a workforce – are you personally heeding God’s call and treating your workers as God Himself wants?

God is concerned not just for the workplace but also the marketplace  – the world of trade, of buying and selling. God insists on honesty and integrity there too. 

 ‘“Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt (vs. 35-36)

Deuteronomy spells it out even more emphatically. 

Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small.  You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16 

God detests dishonesty in the world of business!  According to Proverbs, it is one of the things He regards as an “abomination” – i.e. it stinks. 

Differing weights and differing measures – the Lord detests them both.

Unfair and dishonest trading are an abomination to God (as much as sexual immorality).  How passionate we are as Christians about sexual sin. How apathetic and acquiescent we are about economic sin; the obscene, immoral unfairness of the world’s trading system. The abuse of corporate power for political aims and advantage.  The sheer corruption of our financial and political world in the west must, as Proverbs says, be an abomination to the Lord – how does He tolerate it? 

Leviticus 19 longs for a society in which shalom includes fair and honest dealing, integrity in the day-to-day affairs of the marketplace – from the village market stall to the global economy. 

So transforming the family, poverty, the workplace and marketplace, and now fourthly, 

4. Transforming the legal system (vs. 15-16)

This is what the ninth commandment was primarily about – “You shall not bear false witness…” And it also relates to verse 12 here: 

‘“Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.  

That is to give false testimony in a court case. 

 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the Lord.

In OT Israel there was a very high view of need for judicial integrity. It was not enough just to have good laws. All those involved in legal process need to be truthful and trustworthy, free from corruption/bribery.

If you look at Exodus 23:1-9, it is even more expanded. 

  • instructions to witness (1-3)
  • to opponents (4-5)
  • to judges (6-9)

There are many Psalms that complain about those who were bringing false accusations, or obstructing justice.  And the prophets condemn the wealthy and powerful, who were corrupting and manipulating the legal system to their own advantage.

It is clear that God cares passionately about the integrity and good working of the justice system in society. Of course, we live in a fallen world and people behave badly, commit crimes, exploit and oppress others. But if there is some system of justice, some way to put things right, then society can have some measure of balance and shalom.  But if the legal system itself becomes corrupt, or – as is happening in Britain right now simply falls apart under enormous pressures, congestion and backlog, because of the underfunding through swingeing long-term cuts driven by ideological austerity, closing of court rooms, shortage of staff, and lack of legal aid – then a country is in great danger. Sin and crime thrive when there is no restraint or inadequate justice. God warned us. 

5. Transforming relationships (vs. 11, 17-18)

Of course, it would be far better not to have to go to court at all.  So the chapter encourages attention to those ordinary relationships in the community that will foster harmony and shalom.  Attitudes and actions that will reduce friction and conflict and promote honest behaviour and truthful speech.

Obviously v 11 would help! Do not steal, do not lie, do not deceive one another.  All those things destroy shalom in any society for individuals, families and indeed the whole country,  when lies and deception become the standard mode of speech of our political leaders.

vs. 17-18 are more subtle. 

 Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so that you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.

When Jesus warned us against hatred in the heart (in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-22) it was not new!  And John adds, “anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).  Our society now recognises “hate crime” as a major disruptor of communal shalom – and we see so much of that hate speech in the culture around us these days. Leviticus got there first!

And the second half of verse 17 calls us to have courage to point out and not share guilt by collusion, while verse 18 challenges us to avoid revenge and holding grudges – again very difficult to do, especially in these days of the internet when nothing goes away.  Yet it is so essential to preserving social shalom. And so to the well-known “second greatest commandment in the law” – as Jesus called it, in Matthew 5:21-22. 

 “Love your neighbour as yourself”(v. 18)

It is a comprehensive, all-inclusive concern for the welfare of others, surrounded by examples of what it means in practice to love your neighbour – or to fail to do so.  And when we ask, “who is my neighbour?” we know exactly how Jesus answered.  The point is not trying to define or limit who qualifies as my neighbour but to face up to what it demands to “be the neighbour” to those in need. 

6. Transforming race relations (Vs. 33-34)

 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Can you see the parallel, or echo, between v. 18 (love your neighbour) and v. 34 (love the foreigner)?   Both of them have the same command in the same words: “and you shall love…”  That precise form of words in Hebrew occurs four times in the Old Testament. 

Once, it is love for God.  Deuteronomy 6:5, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.”

Once, it is love for the neighbour Leviticus19:18  “And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Twice, it is love for the foreigner Deuteronomy 10:19 “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” And here in Lev. 19:34b “…and you shall love him (the foreigner), as yourself. “

This practical love for the outsider is very strong in the Old Testament, the marginal people, those who don’t belong to the majority community, those who lack the natural protections of home and family and kinship and land.

Concern for those people is regularly included in Israel’s social legislation along with widows and orphans.  The landless, family-less, homeless – in our world, this would include those who are vulnerable as refugees, asylum-seekers, trafficked women and children, migrant workers, and so on.   These outside people who we think don’t belong to us.  They are so easy to hate, or neglect, or exploit, or blame just as the Hebrews were in Egypt.  And God says – you should remember what that was like, and do not treat others in your country the way the Egyptians treated you in theirs.  Remember who brought you out of there. 

But this law in Leviticus 19:33-34 does not just encourage kindness and compassion. It specifically requires equality under the law for foreigners as for Israelites.  That is an incredibly counter-cultural law.  It was quite unprecedented. There is nothing like this in any of the other laws of the ancient near east.  God says there are to be no “second-class citizens” based on ethnicity alone. Not only no oppression or exploitation but also no discrimination in the courts or other social systems. How far we fall short of such standards in our so-called “civilized” country? Not only do we not live up to the racial equality laws we do have, but we fall short of laws given by God 3,000 years ago! 

We have to ask, What do these verses mean, what do they say, as regards seeking shalom being people of peace here in Northern Ireland between the communities here? Don’t they challenge our attitudes and behaviour? But they also challenge our legal, constitutional and economic structures and our political choices and decisions.

And then finally…

7. Transforming worship.  Vs. 4-8, 26-28, 30-31

There are a few “religious” laws in this chapter.  It is very interesting, it begins “you shall be holy” and yet most of the chapter is not about religious things but about practical, down-to-earth everyday life in society. But there are those laws here that aim to preserve not only the purity of Israel’s worship but also its inclusiveness and its meaning.

No idolatry = 2nd commandment v4

Not to worship gods of people around because false gods will always lead to social breakdown and injustice, as the worship of Baal certainly did in Israel later. Think of Jezebel, she was a worshiper of Baal and look what happened to Naboth and his family. They were robbed of their properties and indeed of their lives because of the worship of a false god. 

Share the sacrificial food! vs 5-8                

Fellowship offerings were basically BBQ time! All the meat was to be eaten and not kept or stored up.  That meant you’d need plenty of people – family, friends, neighbours to consume the meat on one day and the next.  So this is probably another example of how Israel’s worship was to be inclusive and generous.

  • “remember widows… and foreigners”    Deuteronomy 16
  • Nehemiah 8:10 –  rejoice and have a party – but remember to give a share to those who have little to bring.

Keep clear of pagan customs vs. 26-28, 31.   

These were probably describing features of Canaanite worship that Israel was to reject.  They are not just prohibiting barbers or tattoos.  It is more to do with the occult (divination, sorcery, spiritualism, etc.) and bodily cuttings (that were part of the worship of Baal). So here is God saying, don’t try to mix the worship of the living God with practices that come from the culture around you.  We have to ask, what might be the practices of our surrounding culture that we allow to pollute the worship of God?

If the biggest idolatry around us today is consumerism, then we need to watch that our worship does not just become yet another marketing opportunity or an exercise in branding and consumer choice (which church do you want to go to this week?). We so easily pollute the worship of God with the idolatry of the world around us. We become as it were ‘holy shoppers’.  

The same kind of idolatry could be true of nationalism and militarism – when we adulterate the worship of the living God with political or national allegiances, with the flags and paraphernalia of war, or the emblems of our tribal identities and so on, when we bring those things into the worship of God.  God says, “Keep them out.”  Worship God alone!   

Observe the Sabbath v30

Not just as compulsory day of rest but for benefit of working people and animals, but remember the tabernacle. Remember that God lives in your midst.   It is in order to preserve a way of life that is consistence with the presence of God.

Well, there is the great sweep of Leviticus 19, a comprehensive pattern for some key aspects of social life in the real world.  A roadmap for shalom in a fallen world. This is God saying:  I don’t expect you to be perfect.  We are not in the new creation yet. But if you want society to be bearable and liveable and peaceful and flourishing – then here are some principles, some objectives to aim at, and some pitfalls to avoid. 

Isn’t it a transforming vision? What would the world be like if there was:

  • respect and responsibility in the family and for the elderly
  • practical and accessible help for the poor and disabled
  • fairness in the workplace and honesty in the marketplace
  • justice and integrity in the legal system
  • love and compassion in the neighbourhood
  • equality in race relations
  • purity in our worship 

Wouldn’t those things transform our society?  Who says the Bible is not relevant today? But this is not some kind of Utopian idealism. This is God’s idea of holiness, of the practical outworking of God-likeness in society.  This is how God wanted Old Testament Israel to be a model society, to build and practise a kind of shalom, even within a fallen and sinful world that would be a model to other nations.

Of course, history has moved on, culture has changed. We don’t live in the world of OT Israel. Yet Paul tells us, “all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, reproof and training in righteousness” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 or as one translation puts it – education for justice.

“These things were written down for our learning.”   So what do we learn from Leviticus 19, and how will we seek to live them out in our own community and neighbourhood? How can we, as individuals and churches, seek such ideals and objectives through our voices and actions in society?

That takes a lot of thought, that is hard work and we will not always agree – that’s inevitable. But at least we should agree that this is God’s word, and these are God’s principles. 

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