Writings: All Writings

The Enduring Value of a Homogeneous Textile Reminder

Leviticus 19:19

Presented in chapel at Great Lakes Christian College

Author: John C. Nugent

01/01/02+ Share

A sermon about why Leviticus 19:19, which contains the law against wearing garments made of the same cloth, is one of the most relevant Bible passages to Christian faith today. Key Words: Leviticus 19:19, Old Testament Law, Church and world, Christian ethics, holiness, Old Testament and New Testament relations, mixed cloth

Page 1

[The introduction is here excluded due to its situation-specific nature. Basically, I began by listing various foolish things a new instructor should avoid doing his first year but that I painfully had done. This list culminated in my decision to deliver my first chapel sermon on an obscure passage from the book of Leviticus.]

Frankly, I'm not sure why Leviticus gets such a bad rap. It doesn't have a genealogy, it doesn't give numbered lists, and it doesn't even use cryptic language that requires codes to break. Granted, there are a few stomach turning verses about infections skin disease, mildew removal, and purification after childbirth but, all in all, Leviticus is a great book.

Sadly Leviticus neglect is common in both academic and ecclesial settings. I am suggesting today, however, that Leviticus teaches what may be the most important lesson that churches in America must learn if we hope to avoid degenerating into irrelevant social clubs or impotent props for someone else's social or political agenda. It is a lesson often overlooked because Christians typically assume that whatever value Leviticus may have had for its original audience, it surely has none today. After all, doesn't Hebrews teach us that Jesus did away with all that? Now is not the time for me to refute such ill-informed claims. Instead, I hope to demonstrate that the passage in Leviticus that many Christians write off as the least relevant actually conveys an ecclesial truth of utmost importance--a truth that churches today overlook only to our peril. Hear the word of God from Leviticus 19:19:

You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.

This morning I want to focus your attention on that last prohibition: "nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials." In other words, no rayon chenille, no acrylic cotton blend, and certainly no polyester. Now I am sure that they are out there somewhere, but I have never met Christians who refuse to wear mixed cloth. Surely this passage must be irrelevant. God cannot expect to dictate our wardrobe, can he? Somewhere, we surmise, Jesus must have negated this teaching. But he hasn't. Nor has his death on the cross somehow trumped this practice as it has certain sacrificial rituals. Then perhaps it was a scribal mistake, a later addition, or some other convenient textual anomaly. But there it appears again in Deuteronomy 22:11. No, this passage will not go away easily and so we must try to understand it.

An instructive way to begin is to understand this law's place among Torah as a whole. Listen to how God prepared Israel to receive his laws. Exodus 19:5-6 reads,

If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

What did he mean by priestly kingdom? We understand well enough what a priest is, but a kingdom of priests? Does it mean that everyone in Israel will serve in the tabernacle? No. Rather, the nation as a whole was intended to function in a way analogous to priests. Israel was chosen to serve as mediator between God and the nations. But how? For starters, they must be a holy or set apart nation. Like the priests whom God appointed within Israel, there must be a discernable difference between God's people and others. There must some critical distance that allows the nations to see what Israel has to offer.

Page 2

We all have experiences when we were too close to a situation to think clearly about it, when it was so immediate in our minds that we could not grasp the fullness of what was happening. We needed to step back, create some space and, through the distance, we could see things as they truly were. And so it was with Israel and the nations. God wanted to show off the Israelites to their neighbors. He wanted to whip them into prime torahformed condition and to use their witness to woo the nations to himself. But the Israelites were not convinced of this strategy. They preferred to be just like the nations in many ways. They chose to worship the way the nations did, crown a king like the nations did, and control their own destiny like the nations appeared to control theirs. Regrettably, this failure to be different rendered the Israelite's witness dull. They became saltless salt and lightless light. They were too much like the nations to be seen as a viable alternative.

This divine call for the Israelites to be distinct frames the pericope of Leviticus wherein lies the prohibition against mixed cloth. Listen to excerpts from the beginning and end of chapters 18-20 of Leviticus:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep...I am the LORD your God.

And then in chapter 20:

You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you...I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations...You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

So why must Israel avoid wearing mixed cloth? Because God was reminding his people daily that his strategy for using them as a vehicle of blessing to the nations requires concrete discernable points of difference from them. But this is not difference for difference's sake. They were to live the life of Torah. They were called to follow the divinely ordained rules that had power to give them abundant life, and this not for their sake alone, but precisely for the nations. Moses says of Israel's laws in Deuteronomy 4:6-7,

You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!" For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

This sounds strikingly familiar to what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount: "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:16).

The Israelites were not permitted to wear two kinds of cloth for the same reason they were not permitted to breed two kinds of animals or to sow two kinds of seed in the same field. Simply put, things that do not belong together should not be mixed together. So if the Israelites desired to be positioned by God as a blessing to the nations, then they needed to maintain a critical distance lest they lose the prophetic/priestly edge that their life was created to be.

But hasn't Christ changed this? Didn't the cross bridge the gaps that divide believers from nonbelievers? Not according to the New Testament. In John 17:14-19, Christ says that his followers are not of the world but are sent into it as ones who are sanctified. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, Paul cautions believers not to be yoked with unbelievers, but to come out and be separate from them. According to James 1:27 pure religion entails not only caring for widows and orphans, but also keeping unstained by the world. James later warns his readers that "friendship with the world is enmity with God" and that whoever wishes to befriend the world becomes God's enemy (Jas 4:4). First Peter ties these themes together with Israel's Old Testament witness by identifying Christians as exiles, aliens, and strangers in the world, and by calling them a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, called to be holy as God is holy. So whereas the cross of Christ has removed all barriers that the world would erect between believers, our new cruciformed life in Christ sets us apart from those who do not believe.

Page 3

What makes this set-apartness such a critical issue for today's church? For starters, the church in America exists in a critical state of transition. We now realize that the idea of a Christian-American merger is not going to happen. Society refuses to support our causes and promote our values. The gears of commerce no longer screech to a halt each Sunday. School teachers no longer avoid scientific or sexual discussions that disturb our children. The Ten Commandments are stripped from judicial walls and prayer likewise from the classroom. A graphic example of this prevailing trend is a Saturday Night Live skit that mocks the Veggie Tales. Now realize, I am no big fan of Veggie Tales whose suave marketing practices have profited from the gospel in ways second only to the Left Behind series. Nor do I endorse Saturday Night Live, a show I formerly watched but now abstain because its crudeness is no longer funny to me. However, a friend raised my awareness to this particular spoof because of its sick portrayal of Christian faith. I will not go into all the details, but imagine Bob, Larry, and company-now called the Religetables-reading pornographic material, killing infidels during the crusades, hanging innocent witches in Salem, damning people to hell, molesting young children, and brutalizing the masses during Armageddon, all the while singing pious religious songs with their cute veggie voices.

Now this warped depiction of faith might be a little humorous if it wasn't precisely the image that many have of Christian faith. It is exactly how an unbelieving friend narrated the Christian legacy to me a year ago. Indeed, Christianity is waning in popularity and, frankly, most Christians have no clue how to respond. Many are tempted to do so by catering to the wants and wishes of unbelievers. We strategize to create churches that meet people's felt needs, rather than boldly proclaim that our feelings betray us and that what we truly need is something quite different. With our finger to the wind and our ear to the polls, we fish for clues as to what the lost want church to be. We are tempted like the ancient Israelites to secure our identity and to improve our standing before the world on the world's own terms. We thus need to be told, like the Israelites, that this is simply not an option if we are to participate in God's strategy of using a set apart people to be a blessing to all nations.

Let me suggest today at least three specific ways that our generation is tempted to mix cloth, that is, to blur the distinction between church and world.

The first way is through patriotism or nationalism. By this I do not mean being people who seek the good of the lands in which we live; we are called to do that. What we must avoid, however, is being people whose identities are wrapped up in the nation states in which we live. Jeremiah 29 illustrates this point. When many Israelites were exiled to Babylon, Jeremiah encouraged the exiles to make themselves at home--to buy houses, settle down, and seek the welfare of the people of the land. But most Israelites never forgot that they did this from the vantage point of exiles. They considered themselves aliens in the land because the Babylonian prince was not their king-the God of Israel was. The agenda of the prince would not endure, the Almighty's agenda would. They understood that the best way for them to seek the good of the land was to remain faithful Jews who lived as an out-of-place people in Babylon. And so it is with us. The most significant way Christians can seek the good of the lands in which we now live is to remember that we are resident aliens--living in the land, but not as one's bound to the same fate of fellow residents.

Page 4

Furthermore, the Gospel of Jesus Christ entails our being incorporated into his trans-territorial body. We were baptized into a brotherhood and sisterhood that includes people in every nation across the globe. We are more tightly bound to believing Bedouin boys in Pakistan than we are to nonChristians who live next door. So we dare not cling to national ties. According to St. Peter, we dare not fear what they fear (1 Pet 3:14). This must mean among other things that, for Christians, September 11 did not change the course of world history the way that many Americans think it did. Our Lord Jesus Christ changed the course of world history when he died on the cross praying "father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). According to the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, we dare not wage war as they do. But refusal to wage war is not very patriotic; yet their battle is not ours to fight. Indeed, God has granted the sword a place in the state--not in the church. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Israelites never positioned selves as witnesses to the nations was because the Israelites were too busy killing foreigners in order to defend their national borders. But thanks be to God that, through Jesus Christ, we no longer need to defend national borders. We have become aliens who can reside and survive among any nation. Our citizenship is directed from heaven and our king reigns over all the earth, over every continent, over all who seek first his kingdom.

It is interesting to note that even though the Israelites were appointed to live in the land of Canaan, they were never referred to as Canaanites or even Israelite Canaanites. Put differently, all who were circumcised into Israel had clothed themselves with Israel's God. In Him, there was neither Jewacains nor Canajews, Jewanites nor Isranites, Isracanes nor Canraels (hear Colossians 3:10-11). This is no small statement, especially for those who pride themselves on being "American Christians." I wish I could stand here and tell you exactly where the lines between church and state should be drawn, but I cannot. It seems that these lines are constantly in flux depending on the specific situation. The state is not a monolithic entity and there are thus certain aspects that believers may want to affirm and others that we would wish to challenge. But a first step in the right direction is to acknowledge that such lines exist.

A second way we are temped to mix cloth is by adopting what Peter Berger refers to as the 'heretical imperative.' We do this when we buy into the basic cultural framework of pluralism, which makes the conscience of the individual the final bar of approval. You see, the Greek word for 'heretic' originally referred to those who would make a decision as an individual, over-against the group. So when we reject the consensus of the group and leave everything to the individual to decide; we have, in essence, become a culture of heretics. Heresy in this traditional sense has become the way of life that permeates our culture and one that Christians have made little effort to resist.

Now I am certainly not advocating that we follow the consensus of our culture. What I am saying is that when we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into a people who are suspicious of individual opinions. Our Lord has taught us that there are right and wrong ways of living as his people and that these ways are not subject to individual preference. Certainly Christians operate within a considerable degree of freedom such that those churches are right who affirm "in nonessentials liberty"; but Christians today have taken liberty to a whole new level. We routinely tolerate opinions about whether Christians need to even be members of local churches. We tolerate opinions over whether believers ought to actively minister among the poor. We tolerate opinions about the taking of life and the permissiveness of extramarital sexual activity (as if there was such thing).

In short, we are raising generations of Christians who think that church is a place to which one comes to hear teachings that one may take or leave as one sees fit. Such is not the church of Matthew 18 - a church that actively confronts sin in the life of believers and has the audacity to say to one another, "We know what is right, you refuse to do it, you cannot be part of us since you insist on doing only what is right in your own eyes." Of course, we can craftily narrate our different opinions in terms of a beautiful mosaic tapestry, but our disunity is sapping the strength of our witness and degrading into a subtle form of heresy.

A final way we mix cloth is by retaining the world's upside down view of reality. In his teaching, living, and disciple-making, Jesus made it abundantly clear that the world has misconstrued reality. The world thinks that might makes right, that numbers constitute significance, that coercion is the key to consensus, that the first shall be first, that the rich are better off than the poor, that superior retaliation is the way to defeat evil, that those with the most education should make decisions for the masses, that effectiveness is measurable by careful calculation, that efficiency is the key to productivity, that the ungifted should be marginalized from the spotlight, that eloquence is required for public voice, that suffering is a waste of time, that the 99 are more important than the one, that washing feet and polishing shoes are what the lowly among us do. But the world is wrong.

Page 5

Yet for some reason we take our cues from it. We do this by judging the success of ministers and ministries by the number of people attracted to their gatherings. We do this by mocking fellow students whose questions or answers in class are not as sophisticated as ours. We do this by rating the spirituality of others by outward signs of religiosity during worship. We do this by judging freshmen to be inherently immature or intellectually inferior. We do this by leaving trash on the ground outside our dorms waiting for someone else to pick it up.

In step with the world, we thereby identify Jesus as having an upside down worldview. How backward were his teachings, we claim, how reversed his way of doing things. Could it be, however, that it is we who have turned things around. Does not Jesus, through whom creation itself was wired, have a better grip on reality than us? While his way of life may be against the grain of both our culture and preferred ways of living, Jesus is directly in line with the grain of the universe. Furthermore, he intends to order the lives of his people according to the nature of his in-breaking kingdom. The way of life to which he has called the church is the destiny of all creation. It is the way things are becoming and they way they forever will be.

This raises an important point about Christian difference. God has not called us to be simply "not like everyone else." Every generation that wrestles with these issues is tempted toward the opposite extreme - to define our identity in terms opposite to our neighbors. Rather we are called to be in the world "as Jesus was in the world." We are called to walk in his steps and follow his example. The Israelites were called to be different because the Egyptians and Canaanites were so unlike Israel's God. The Israelites were called to be holy and the LORD was their standard. Those who dwell on being not like others only end up becoming their mirror image or filmstrip negative, created nonetheless in their opponents' image.

The Israelites were not forbidden to mix cloth simply because their neighbors wore mixed cloth. The Israelites wore one cloth to remind them daily that they were not their neighbors, so that they may become God's witnesses to their neighbors; and so it is with us. Herein lies the enduring value of a homogeneous textile reminder.

How will you remember?

[What readers miss that the original audience should not have, though a majority did, was that my excessively uniform suit coloration was not simply a matter of poor fashion sense.]