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Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost — October 29, 2023

Teri McDowell Ott reflects on Leviticus 19 through the lens of Netflix's true-crime series, "Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal." Two women in the docuseries remind her of the cost of honesty.

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.


Listen to Teri read her reflection.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 / Matthew 22:34-46 / Psalm 1
Year A

Netflix’s popular true-crime series, “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” tells the story of a prominent South Carolina family and the trial of Alex Murdaugh for the murder of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul. The trial revealed Murdaugh’s web of lies, his financial crimes and drug addiction that prosecutors claimed (and a jury affirmed) led him to murder his wife and son. Alex maintains his innocence.

Throughout this harrowing, sin-soaked tale, two witnesses stood out: Blanca, the Murdaugh family’s housekeeper, and Shelley, the caretaker for Murdaugh’s mother. Both women courageously testified during the trial, even under pressure from Murdaugh to protect him. Blanca told how Murdaugh asked her to go to their home the day after the murders to straighten up and that Maggie had confided she didn’t believe her husband was being truthful about a lawsuit against the family. Shelley was Murdaugh’s alibi. According to Murdaugh, he couldn’t have murdered his wife and son because he was visiting his mother that night. Shelley testified that Murdaugh spent 15-20 minutes visiting his mother, even though he wanted her to say 30-40 minutes. Weeping, Shelley added, “They’re a good family. I love working there, and I’m sorry all this happened.”

On the stand, neither Blanca nor Shelley could look at Murdaugh. They were clearly scared. Alex Murdaugh was a powerful man from an influential family. But, as Shelley said, “Momma always said, ‘Tell the truth if it hurts.’”

This Sunday includes the only lectionary text from Leviticus. Leviticus 19 is likely the book’s most well-known passage because Jesus quotes verse 18 in Matthew 22:39, saying “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the greatest commandments.

Leviticus’ primary concern is the holiness of God’s people. The word “holy” in Hebrew means “set apart for a purpose.” The book includes a set of laws (the Holiness Code) given by God to set the Jewish people apart from other tribes and nations.

In his Feasting on the Word commentary on this text, Christopher B. Hays writes that the Holiness Code is distinct from other ancient law codes. Leviticus 19 not only includes forms of service and worship, Hays writes, “but also a kind of positive activity toward one’s neighbor that is found nowhere in other ancient law codes… The text makes a strong claim that worship of God cannot be holy if the people’s interactions with each other and the whole world are not holy.”

God calls us to a different and distinct way of life — a “holiness” that sets us apart from a culture and society that prioritizes individual gain and self-interest over and above the interests of neighbors and strangers…

As we reflect on these passages today, we should remember that God calls us to a different and distinct way of life — a “holiness” that sets us apart from a culture and society that prioritizes individual gain and self-interest over and above the interests of neighbors and strangers; a “holiness” that sets us apart by a law of love, embodied by people who tell the truth … even when telling the truth is hard.

The lectionary’s psalm for this Sunday (Psalm 1), evokes a beautiful image of those who not only follow God’s law but “delight” in it. These followers are “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” As I read this verse today, I can’t help thinking of Blanca and Shelley. Two women, who, like tall trees planted by streams of God’s water, set themselves apart by valuing and telling the truth, despite pressure to do otherwise. They did the right thing, which was the hard thing. Shelley said, “My life changed when I took the stand. It taught me the true meaning of being honest.”

“Happy are those…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord,” says the psalmist. After the Murdaugh murder trial and conviction, we can hope that Blanca and Shelley will be the “happy” ones, the ones whose leaves do not wither because they have chosen the distinctive, holy path. May we follow their lead and do the same.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, ideas, images come to mind as you read the lectionary texts for this Sunday?
  2. What does “holiness” mean to you? What does it mean to be “set apart for a purpose”?
  3. How might we be “set apart” but also engage with God’s law of love?

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