“Practical Holiness”

Epiphany 7

February 19, 2017


Text:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48


    “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the whole community of the Israelites:  “You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”’”

Now I don’t know what comes to mind for you when you hear that word holy (H-O-L-Y, not H-O-L-E-Y), but the image that comes to my mind is of something ethereal and otherworldly.  Long ago a man named Rudolf Otto wrote a book called The Idea of the Holy in which he described the human experience of the Holy, of the Spirit of God, with the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, a mystery entirely different from ordinary human experience that causes humans to tremble and at the same time be fascinated.  

    If one comes at being holy from that perspective, it is hard to see what that has to do with how we live.  If that is what it means for me to be holy, I cannot achieve that standard.  I live as an ordinary human in a world full of ordinary humans.  I can experience the holiness of God to some degree, but if I follow Otto’s definition, I cannot be holy, even though that is what God told his people through Moses they were supposed to be.

    Now that I have satisfied the giraffes by talking over people’s heads, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.  When God tells the people they are to be holy as God is holy, the things God talks about are practical things.  The portion of Leviticus chapter 19 we read today focuses on practical things God wants us to do in caring for our neighbors.  Here are things God told the Israelites they were to do so they could be holy as God is holy:

  • Don’t harvest all the way to the edge of your field, and don’t pick up any grain that was dropped.  Don’t pick your grapevine clean, and don’t picked up the dropped fruit.  Leave them for the poor and the immigrant.  Now what is described here speaks about agricultural practices that are foreign to us.  In our time and place, we might say instead, “Don’t keep everything that you earn or produce; share it with those who are in need.”

  • Don’t steal, deceive, or lie to each other.

  • Don’t make promises that you have no intention of keeping.

  • Don’t oppress or rob your neighbors.

  • Don’t withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight.  Back then the norm was for workers to be paid daily.  We live in a society where workers are typically paid once or twice a month.  Today we might say, “Pay your employees when they are supposed to be paid.”

  • Don’t insult deaf people or place obstacles in front of blind people to trip them.  (I find it appalling that there are people who would actually do things like that.)

  • Do not act unjustly in legal cases.

  • Don’t play favorites with people whether they are poor or rich, but judge everyone fairly.

  • Don’t go around slandering people.

  • Don’t stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is being shed.  Today, I believe we could say in a more inclusive sense, “Come to the defense of those to whom violence is being done.”

  • Do not hate others of your people.  As we will soon note, Jesus would go further, telling us to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us.

  • When one of your people goes astray, rebuke them strongly so you don’t become responsible for their sin.  (Note there is no guarantee that your rebuke will be accepted.  In fact, it probably won’t be.  We are being told here that in some way we are responsible for each other, not only for ourselves.  That is certainly different from the common attitude that what any individual does is no one else’s business unless it hurts someone else.  Of course, when a person goes astray, someone else often does get hurt.)

  • Don’t take revenge or hold a grudge against anyone, but love your neighbor as yourself.  (Remember how Jesus defined the word “neighbor.”)

    These are all very practical things that people can do.  And they are ways in which we can be holy, ways in which we can display God’s character to those with whom we interact.  Holiness is something we practice.

    And then we come to our Gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus continues with his series of teachings where he says “You have heard it said...but I say to you…”, drawing out the deeper implications of what has historically been taught.

    Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.  When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”

    Now the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” principle in the Old Testament was actually intended to enforce proportionality in dealing with offenses, encouraging the idea that the punishment ought to fit the crime.  It was to discourage disproportionate responses like killing someone to retaliate for a minor offense.  Jesus takes this matter further by rejecting the notion of retaliation altogether.  

    The examples Jesus cites come straight out of the experiences first century Jews in Palestine dealt with due to being occupied by the Roman Empire and having Roman soldiers in their midst.  Roman soldiers had rules on what they could and could not do.  For instance, they could force someone to carry their pack one mile for them, but no farther.  To carry that pack a second mile could actually get that soldier into trouble.  So when Jesus counsels repaying evil with kindness, the kindness sometimes has unexpected consequences for the one doing the harm.

    Consider this as well:  the responses Jesus recommends in these situations are totally unexpected.  Those who strike one on the cheek expect retaliation, not an offer of the other one.  People who forcibly take people’s property expect anger and hostility, not the offer of more property.  Those who force their will on others expect resistance, not cooperation and the offer of more.  

    We still live in a world based on retaliation.  Our natural tendency when someone wrongs us is to get mad, and then get even.  In spite of all Jesus taught, I find it easy to fall into that same mode, and I would guess many of you do, too.  What would it mean to refuse to play that game?  What would it mean to instead be extravagantly generous under such circumstances?  How would this affect those who choose to treat others abusively?  And more importantly, how would this affect us?

    Jesus also said, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

    Many translations of that last verse read, “You must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That word “perfect” can be a stumbling block for many people.  To most people the word “perfect” means totally faultless and flawless.  When we look honestly at ourselves we recognize we are neither faultless nor flawless.  So when Jesus tells us we must be perfect, it sounds to us like he is holding an impossible ideal out to us.

    However, the Greek word that is being translated “perfect” is a form of the word telos, which has to do with being complete or fulfilling a purpose.  Thus the Common English Bible translation renders the Greek more accurately by saying “just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so must you also be complete.”  That word “complete” has more to do with fulfilling a purpose and accomplishing a goal.  Thus to be holy is to fulfill the purpose God has given us--to love all, even those we regard as enemies; to seek reconciliation rather than retaliation.  Holiness is something we practice.

    I am not going to pretend these things are easy.  They are not.  Indeed, they are some of the most challenging things we are called on to do.  Doing them may not leave us feeling good--indeed, we may experience pain and suffering for doing these things.  But they are what God calls us to do in Jesus Christ.  To be holy people, we are called to follow his way and turn away from the ways of this world that continue to cause harm to others.  

    Holiness is something we practice.  May we be faithful in doing good to all, to loving all, to seeking reconciliation rather than retaliation.  May we do these things whether the other involved be friend or foe.  This is the call of God on our lives through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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