You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
“Speak to all the congregation of the people and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Okay: You shall be holy, for the Lord your God is holy. Isn’t that just what you wanted to hear today? I’m not sure Moses made a lot of friends with that line. No more than Jesus got a lot of applause in the Sermon on the Mount when he said Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Leviticus is one of those books of the bible we all love to hate—too many words like “abomination.” Too many rules. But this verse, in particular, probably makes lots of us itch. To the extent that our culture engages religion at all, it is a cultural norm to think of holy as that which is set apart, that which is more sacred than we are (holier than thou). Deep down, I think many of us feel that we are not supposed to be holy, only God is holy. Or maybe, only God and people like the Dalai Lama and a bunch of anonymous monks and nuns.
And yet, here is Godself telling Moses to tell everyone: you shall be holy. Not just you who serve the church full-time or who have taken monastic vows. You, and you, and you.
The wonderful thing about this reading, though, which is also true about all of our readings for today is that they give us concrete images of what it means to be holy.
The portion of Leviticus that we read this morning is part of a larger section of the book called the Holiness Code. It is all about the practical, ethical behavior with which we live out the commandment to love our neighbor. Holiness is inextricably linked to love, and our readings remind us that love is a verb. How we feel is irrelevant in our striving to be faithful, whether we are being faithful to a loved one or to God.
We can equate this being faithful, being loving, to being holy. Here’s what holy means in today’s reading:
- Always leave some of your harvest for the poor and the foreigner
- Do not steal
- Pay people on time
- Don’t talk about your neighbor behind his or her back
- Don’t bear a grudge
- Don’t take advantage of people with disabilities
This holiness code is about what I call everyday holiness. That kind of clarity works for disciples like me. You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
Psalm 119 does not give us the same concrete images for everyday holiness, but it’s pretty clear, too. When was the last time you read Psalm 119 from start to finish?
It’s got 176 verses. We rarely read it on Sundays; the Daily Office lectionary feeds it to us about 18-20 verses at a time on Wednesdays. It’s form is what’s called an alphabetic acrostic; it’s verses are divided in to 22 8-verse sections, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet and, in Hebrew at least, each of the eight verses of that section begins with that letter of the alphabet.
The most important thing about Psalm 119 is that practically every verse contains a synonym for the Law. Statutes, commandments, decrees, your ways, your promise, ordinances, precepts….Psalm 119 but points us straight back to Leviticus. What is God’s law? God’s law is to be holy as God is holy by practicing everyday holiness.
- If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also
- If anyone wants your coat, give your cloak as well
- If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile
- Give to everyone who begs from you
- Don’t refuse when someone wants to borrow from you
- Love your enemies
- Pray for those who persecute you
So much for the warm fuzzy Jesus taking the place of that mean Old Testament God! Jesus is not overturning the Law, but extending it.
When I first started looking at this Gospel, I had an image of the Kingdom of God filled with people joyfully walking an extra mile with no coats on, handing out food and money and blessings along the way.
But there’s more to the Kingdom than that. The expression “go the extra mile” is inspired by the words of this Gospel, but it’s important to remember the whole teaching: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. We’re not talking about a friend who asks for help moving a couch, and you offer to move the piano also. We’re talking about people living in an oppressive regime, where the mile might be part of forced labor. Going a second mile is a way of saying to the oppressor effectively “you’re not the boss of me now.” Same thing with turning the other cheek. It is not giving up power, becoming passive, but rather a way of saying to the one who strikes you “you have no power over me.”
Turning the other cheek, responding to oppressive demands by doing even more than what is ordered of us turns oppression on its head. Suddenly, those who were squashed down are in charge. Jesus invites us into a new reality, a new way of engaging with the world around us.
This includes the everyday holiness of loving our enemies and those who hurt us, loving them as much as God loves them. This really is what Jesus asks of us: be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. The Good News is that perfection is less about getting things right and more about loving as God loves. Being perfect in this way is not a goal that is hopelessly out of reach; it is the invitation to be holy, every day.