“How to Be Holy,” I titled the sermon, in case that might draw a larger crowd. I mean, I know you are all yearning to be holier. No, I guess it is not really very high on the list of things we desire. And if you looked at the Scriptures for the day, I bet you were not just clamoring for a sermon on Leviticus either. It is not a biblical book to which we are drawn. Yet holiness is really what religion is all about. It is the mark of the divine Being we worship every Sunday. And it is the desire of that divine Being for us to also be holy. We may not realize it, but maybe we are here week after week because we want to be holy.
Over and over again, the Book of Leviticus quotes God as saying some variation of “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The gist of Leviticus might be summed up in the first words of Chapter 18:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them. I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus was written in order to teach God’s people how to live differently than the people around them. God said Israel was to be a blessing to other nations. They had no idea of how to do that. They were new at it, and they were surrounded by others living differently. So they needed a guidebook.
We mostly disregard Leviticus these days, because it contains obsolete instructions on things like how to choose between clean and unclean food, how to purify the people and houses where diseases have occurred, how to prepare sacrifices. These things were helpful then but do not apply to our church life anymore. Yet the essence and intent of Leviticus can still be applied to us. “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Be different because you are the people of God. Be holy, be like God.
If you look it up, you will find that to be holy means to be worthy of devotion, to have a divine quality, to be consecrated, or blessed. The original word is unclear. The root word may have come from a Canaanite word meaning “crown of the head,” as well as from a word meaning “to be new.” It has also been translated as “to be bright,” “to shine.” Holy, then, implies something that is different, set apart from the common, above the ordinary. Being divine takes work, one would think. It might take place naturally in some ways, like the Holy Spirit coming down as a dove upon Jesus. But it would also take work to be different, to be set apart, to continue to live in holiness.
The verses we read in Leviticus are part of a section known as the Holiness Code. They are instructions for daily living. These verses remind farmers to take care of the poor by leaving some food for them to glean, and to not take advantage of the handicapped. They address the wrongs of stealing, of lying, of defrauding someone in order to make money off of them. Holy people, these verses say, do not steal or lie or take advantage of others. Verse 18 reminds us of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the greatest commandment – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” With words such as these, God tells the people how to be holy, just as God is holy.
The lectionary pairs this passage from Leviticus with more verses from the Sermon on the Mount. It might be said that this sermon is Jesus’ Holiness Code. For here, Jesus tells us how to be holy, how to live as Christians in a non-Christian world. Christianity did not even have its name when Jesus uttered these words, so they too were new at this way of living. They were surrounded by others living differently than God intended for them to live. So Jesus gave them instructions. Scholar Tom Long goes so far as to say that these words are more than Jesus’ instructions for us, these words are Jesus’ own blueprint for living. Jesus lived the way he taught us to live. Jesus even died to show us how to live in love.
Remember that earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us we are the salt of the earth, we are a light to the nations. Just as Leviticus called the people to be a blessing to the other nations, we are expected to show a better way of living to the world around us. We are to show the world God’s way.
In the verses we read today, Jesus addressed the topics of retaliation and love. The world, then and now, might be more likely to say, “Do unto others before they do unto you.” We (and they) live in a time of survival of the fittest, of me-first attitudes, of climb to the top of the ladder, even if it means stepping on others, mentality. In an effort to keep everyone from killing one another over any little offense, the Old Testament law said, basically, if someone punches out your eye, you may not kill him, but you may punch out his eye; or if he knocks out your tooth, you may knock out his tooth. In an unlawful society, these laws aimed at restraint and an equalizing justice.
But Jesus said not to resist those who do something wrong, or evil, to us. Some people see this as being soft, as a non-response, or a weak response. Yet it really is not. Jesus actually gave us strategy for resisting oppression and violence. He did so with a couple of examples. “If someone strikes you on the cheek,” he said, “turn the other cheek.” Don’t follow your natural inclination to strike back. That will only cause more violence. And especially if the one hitting is in a position of higher power than you, it may even land you in jail, and that would accomplish nothing. But to offer the other cheek just might surprise the attacker. It is a stance of strength, and one without violence. If someone sues you for your coat, said Jesus, do not give it begrudgingly, give him your cloak as well. Such generosity just might surprise the one suing. And if a soldier makes you carry his pack for a mile, as the law in Jesus’ time allowed, surprise him by going an extra mile. He might just be moved by such generosity, even in the face of oppression.
Jesus then took this instruction a big leap forward. The old law said to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. It is easy to love our neighbors, those we see often and know well. It is harder to love those we do not know, or who are so different from us that they threaten our way of living. Yet Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These instructions are radical, they are counter to what we would naturally think or do. They show us a new way, God’s way. Jesus told us how to respond to violence and oppression in God’s way, in this holy way. It is a way that lays down weapons, that does not sue others, that is kind and generous in the face of evil. These words give us a game plan for living now and always as God’s people.
Then Jesus ended this section with words that puzzle many – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” These words puzzle us because we have a different definition for “perfect” than intended here. For us, perfect means straight A’s, the best job, the highest position, the most money, the biggest house. To be perfect in the eyes of the world is probably impossible, yet many try most of their lives to achieve it.
But the word translated as “perfect” here is more akin to “shalom.” Shalom means wholeness and peace, completion in a sense that involves the whole mind, body, and soul. Shalom refers not to just our individual wholeness, though, but to the wholeness of all others, of the whole Body, of all creation. Leviticus said to be holy as God is holy. Matthew said to be perfect as God is perfect. It is the same thing. Here in these two passages, we are given guidelines for how to be holy, for how to live as God’s people in the world. We are reminded that we are different, we are called apart. We are holy, and we need instructions on how to live as holy people. God provides those instructions. But we have to follow.
If you came to church on Wednesday evening, you got to hear from Rev. Alfredo Miranda, the pastor of La Nueva Jerusalén, the Hispanic church that meets on our campus. We learned a lot about our Hispanic, or Latino neighbors that evening. We learned more on Thursday, a day when immigrants around the country went on strike to show us how our daily lives might be affected without them. Whether we know anyone who is Hispanic or not, whether we like them, or fear them, or see them as enemies, Jesus says to love them as we love ourselves. Building a wall or deporting immigrants is not an answer to our country’s problems, nor is it the holy thing to do. Our country is in an uproar. Many people are protesting injustices these days, for good reason. Though some here may disagree, which is alright as long as it is done in love, the biblical mandate, the Holiness Code, tells us that we are to love one another, no matter what, that we are not to be a vengeful or a fearful people, that we are all neighbors one of another, regardless of our differences. We are the people of God, and we called to live in love. We are holy as God is holy, we are perfect as God is perfect – in shalom – in peace, and with love and justice.
So Jesus gives us a game plan. Do not do evil back to those who do evil. And do not join in that evil either. A verse in I Peter that I remember from childhood says, “Do not repay evil for evil, or abuse for abuse, but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” Repay with a blessing. Maybe if we follow Jesus, we will be well on our way to being holy.
Thanks be to God, Amen.