March 8, 2011

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Wholly Holy

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

The Book of Leviticus is not the place you turn when you are seeking biblical comfort and familiarity. If the Ten Commandments are God’s law, then Leviticus is the governmental regulations. It is page after page of specific instructions for how the people are to live – what they are to eat and not eat, what they should wear, how they are to plant their fields, what kind of relationships they have with each other, how to deal with disease and disability. Not exactly cheery reading.

All those proscriptions make us nervous and uncomfortable. Many of them are very culturally specific, applicable to a people and a place that are not relevant to us. But the passage the lectionary gives us today is different. Right in the middle of Leviticus there is this amazing section where God speaks to the people about their fundamental identity and gives them what is perhaps the most radical commandment in all of scripture. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This brief statement is the heart of God’s law. All the rest, as they say, is just commentary.

Now I don’t know about you, but I have no trouble thinking of God as holy. To me this notion of holiness means perfection, complete goodness, steadfast love. It also embodies the concept of otherness: that which is holy is somehow set apart, separated from corruption and the taint of the secular.

I have no problem seeing God like that. But it is much harder to think of humanity that way. I suspect that was true of the ancient Israelites as much as it is for us because God gave them very specific examples of God’s own holiness as it might translate into their everyday lives.

Let’s consider those examples for a moment.

Do not reap to the very edges of your field. It was an ancient practice to allow the poor to come behind the harvesters and glean any part of the crop that might have been missed. Of course then as now, it was in the best interest of the farmer to send as much product as possible to market, to do as well as one possibly could for one’s own self. But holiness, God’s holiness, has an element of profound unselfishness. God does not require the people to give away everything but God does require them to be generous with others, to provide for them the accidental leavings of the crop and more. Holiness, then, is an intentional regard for the poor.

Another part of God’s holiness is being truthful and trustworthy – not stealing, lying, practicing crooked dealings, or swearing falsely – that is, being careless about the way one pledges allegiance to God.

Also here: not defrauding another, or withholding what is due; not making fun of those with handicaps; being fair and just to everyone, treating rich and poor alike; not profiting from another’s misfortune; not hating anyone who is kin to you – and you know, we are all brothers and sisters.

And finally, summing it all up, this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. Sounds a lot like what Jesus said, doesn’t it? And that should not be surprising. God’s holiness is embodied, incarnate in Jesus Christ. And like the holiness code of Leviticus, Jesus’ teachings include specific examples of how the people are to live.

But I have to say when I listen to these instructions from Leviticus and from the Sermon on the Mount, it almost seems to me that being holy is the opposite of being human. It may be holy to turn the other cheek, give away your coat, go the second mile, give to everyone who would beg or borrow from you, and love your enemies; but that doesn’t seem like human nature to me.

These actions that Jesus calls us to take have been termed the third way. You see, we tend to look at things as either/or, a kind of “my way or the highway” approach. It is flight or fight: We can engage with injustice and oppression and evil or we can walk away. But Jesus says there is a third way, the way of nonviolent direct action. The biblical scholar, Walter Wink (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press, Minneapolis; pp 175 ff.) explains these commands of Jesus like this: To those who have been humiliated and attacked, slapped around, turning the other cheek robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate, he says. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieved its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.”

In practical terms, it works like this. If I am going to slap someone I consider my inferior, I will give him the back of my hand – right hand to right cheek. But if that persons then turns the left cheek for me to slap, I can’t do it with my right hand, unless I make a fist or strike with my open palm – both methods which signal a fight between equals. The oppressor is now confronted with an impossible dilemma. He can no longer humiliate. If he would strike again, it must be in a way that signals a fair fight. And in a fair fight, he might lose. He is no longer in control.

It is the same with giving one’s cloak in addition to the coat. In Greek, the word for coat means an outer garment, while the word for cloak implies an undergarment. What Jesus is saying is take it all off. If someone wants to sue that pants off of you, help them. March out of debtor’s court in your birthday suit. This would have been a terrible situation for the creditor, much more than for the bare-bottomed debtor, since looking on the nakedness of another was a violation of the law. It was a much greater humiliation for the one of saw the nakedness, than for the one who was naked.

Similarly, while common practice allowed a Roman soldier to force a citizen to carry his heavy pack for one mile, to go beyond that might create grounds for a rebuke of the soldier from his commanding officer, or even a fine to be paid. So if someone refused to give up the pack after a mile and kept going, it shifted the balance of power. Now the oppressed are in control; now the Roman solider is at the mercy of the one he sought to oppress.

Jesus teaches us how to upset the powers that be by peaceful and creative means. It is not just flight or fight. There is a third way of resistance that restores humanity, equality, dignity. This is what it means to be holy, as God is holy. It is a leveling of humanity – raising up the lowly and taking the powerful down a notch or two. When we are able to do this, then we fulfill Jesus’ commandment to be perfect.

Now if being holy is a daunting task, how do you feel about being perfect? It might help to think about what the word means in the original Greek. It has a sense of being complete. I think about this call for us to be perfect as God’s call to us to live as God intends, to be wholly and completely who God means us to be, in other words, to be holy.

This is not an impossibility. We can do this because we are made in the image of God. In other words, as God is holy, so are we. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And just think about what would happen, if we lived as though we really were the image of God in the world – which, of course we are. There would be no barriers between people; the alien and the outsider would be welcomed as one of us; the poor would have enough to eat; we would seek to understand and embrace our enemies rather than vilifying them; our generosity would ensure that everyone had enough; no one would be humiliated or oppressed.

That is our calling. That is what God in Christ commands of us. It is not easy. Except it might be a littler easier here in an urban church. Your place in the world gives you a perspective on poverty and injustice that all-too-many other Christians don’t see. You have ready-made opportunities to be holy, godly people, living Christ-like lives, opportunities literally right on your doorstep. You are already practicing some of this. You don’t reap to the edge of your field; you don’t keep the wealth of this church all for yourselves. You engage in ministries of social justice. You welcome the stranger. You stand with the poor and oppressed.

The problems of our world are difficult and often seem intractable. But remember, dear friends, that nothing shall be impossible with God. It is not either/or, it is not fight or flight – not in engaging the world, or even in deciding your future as a congregation. There is always a third way, a holy way.

And you are holy people, made in the image of God and called to reflect God in the world. May it be so now and always.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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