Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Leviticus 19) transports me to the Take Ten arcade in the Asheville Mall, circa 1975, where my best bud at the time, Jeff “Poodle” Plemmons (nicknamed for his long curly hair) and I would waste all our odd job money on the pinball machines. We were addicted, so when the movie Tommy came out, we just had to go and see Elton John and the pinball wizard in action. My mom dropped us off at the theater behind the mall. I had worked hard to convince her that it couldn’t be that bad of a movie; after all it had Eric Clapton cast in the role of a preacher. I think she was more convinced to see Ann-Margret listed among the cast; those variety shows with Bob Hope gave her credibility. Nothing could have prepared Poodle and me for what we experienced, though, as Clapton’s faith-healing church was actually devoted to the worship of Marilyn Monroe, and Ann-Margret had hallucinations with a river of baked beans and chocolate flowing out of her television set. Then there was Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, and I won’t even talk about what Uncle Ernie did with the deaf, dumb and blind boy. Suffice it to say it’s a wonder we’re not spending a fortune on therapy to this day trying to get over it. I don’t know how Ken Russell got by with a PG rating. I still love the final scene, though, as Roger Daltrey, vision regained, dives into the lake, swims under the waterfall, and climbs up the mountain, singing the finale – Listening to you I get the music, gazing at you I get the heat, following you I climb the mountain, I get excitement at your feet! Right behind you I see the millions, on you I see the glory. From you I get opinions, from you I get the story. Twenty-five years after the initial viewing, I started showing that scene to college students as a prompt for discussing their sources of authority – to get them to think about who shapes their opinions, how they decide who to follow and who they listen to for “the story.”
When I read through the book of Leviticus, it helps me to imagine it as a rock opera, with Tina Turner and Elton John and Keith Moon and Jack Nicholson and others all playing parts. I’m sure you can find admonitions against Uncle Ernie’s kind of babysitting and bowing down to the idol of Marilyn. But seriously, here in chapter 19 we have a classic example of the importance of the question I was asking those students. In what way is scripture a source of authority for daily life and practice? It’s easy to make claims that we get excitement and glory from the Word. And then we read this chapter and see that next to mandates for being honest, paying a fair wage, respecting the elderly, and avoiding fraud we have instructions for what kind of hair style to sport and how to cook your steaks and plant your gardens. It becomes clear that some of these admonitions are timeless and applicable to any context – honesty, care for the disabled, sharing with the poor. And some are culturally bound, such as what to do with a man who sleeps with a female slave promised to someone else. When the lawyers asked Jesus about the authority of scripture, he culled out a verse from this chapter – love your neighbor as yourself, but he never seemed to worry about tattoos or about planting two kind of seed in the same field. Those things weren’t worth climbing a mountain over.
It’s interesting in our current context to hear people try and claim scriptural authority from Leviticus in regards to some cultural behaviors, while ignoring others. I can understand where they’re coming from; I read this chapter and can sing right along with Roger D that some of the mandates really do seem glorious – treating the foreigners in our midst as members of the family, sharing with the poor, regulating business to prevent fraudulent practices. But I don’t know of anyone outside of orthodox Judaism who sincerely claims to follow biblical barbering practices or consults Leviticus 19:26 when the Outback waitress asks, how would like that cooked? I suspect that our choice of which verses to take as authoritative and which to disregard comes from who we look to for authority, whose voices we listen to, who we follow. My primary earthly authority was a man who regularly planted more than one kind of seed in his garden, who liked his steaks medium rare, and did a fair share of barbering, cutting the hair of his brothers and sons and nephews close at the temples whenever he could get them in the chair. But though he disregarded those decrees, he followed others closely. He didn’t slander, he paid a fair wage, and loved his neighbors. Listening to that, I get the music.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.