You Shall Be Holy
A Guest Homily by
Several times in the course of my life, I have made pacts with myself to read the Bible straight through in a year. I’ve forgotten the exact formula. I think maybe it was three chapters in the morning and two at night and you could complete the entire Bible in 365 days.
Well, Genesis was great—with wonderful stories and larger than life characters. And Exodus was good—with Moses and Pharaoh and burning bushes and the parting of the Red Sea. Real Cecil B. DeMille stuff!!
AND THEN I’D GET TO LEVITICUS !!
Some pundits would say Leviticus might be the least useful book in the Bible. Indeed, in the Revised Common Lectionary, Leviticus appears only once as an assigned reading on the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, and today as one of the Old Testament options. It appears nowhere in Years B and C.
Much of it is filled with instructions about ancient Israel’s sacrifice system.
If you want to know what parts of a sacrificial animal are to be burned and what part of it entrails are to be washed or what’s to be done with its blood, then Leviticus is for you.
If you want to live a nomadic life in the desert, then some of its laws might fit your situation.
And if you are interested in following kosher dietary restrictions, Leviticus might prove helpful.
But unless these things describe your circumstances, you are likely to find much of this book less than uplifting reading. In fact Leslie Weatherhead in “The Busy Man’s Old Testament” said that for devotional purposes, the book could be omitted altogether.
But perhaps we should not be quite so quick to dismiss it because, in the New Testament , Leviticus is quoted several times—in today’s gospel by Jesus himself. When he was asked about which commandment was the greatest, he answered by citing two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. That second one—Love your neighbor as yourself—is a quote directly from Lev. 19. And Jesus said that upon these two commandments hang all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures.
The apostle Paul quotes that same verse in his letter to the Romans (13:9) when he says that the commandments are summed up in this word—“Love your neighbor as yourself”. And again in Galatians he writes: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.
So maybe we should take another look at this book, particularly at chapter 19. The reading begins with God telling Moses: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them—you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy”.
Holiness—- the unique and distinguishing characteristic of Israel’s God.
And even though this was addressed to an ancient nation, if we are to apply the Bible to ourselves, we have to read it as if it is addressed to us as well. “Be holy,” says God, “because I the Lord your God am holy”.
Okay, but how? Holy is kind of a theological word. It’s a description of God. We hardly ever use it other than in a religious context. At least, when we call God “Father”, we have some sense of what that means—and even that varies with each individual. But holy doesn’t really have a daily life example.
It’s much like the word “ perfect” in the Sermon on the Mount. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect. That’s a theological use of the word perfect to describe God ,but our understanding of what it means from everyday life doesn’t help very much.
Lev. 19 opens with God telling Moses to call the people to be holy because God is holy. But much of the material that follows includes specific instructions about LIVING TOGETHER IN A COMMUNITY.
There’s in instruction about harvest, where the landowner is told not to glean the fields and vineyard bare, but to leave the gleanings for the poor.
Another warns against taking advantage of people who are deaf or blind.
Justice is to be impartial.
People should not slander one another nor seek vengeance against one another.
Then God sums up all those instructions with the command “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. I AM THE LORD.”
This command is not given just because loving one’s neighbor is a good idea or it makes the community run smoother. But the command should be observed because loving ones neighbor is the essence of holiness. God says to be holy because he is holy.
Jesus makes the same point in the Sermon on the Mount when he instructs his hearers to be “ perfect”. He is not talking about perfection in the sense of never making a mistake or even slipping into sin. But he’s using the word in the sense of “completeness”. Something can be said to be perfect when it is all there–complete.
But then Jesus EXTENDS the principle of loving one’s neighbor. He says, “Love your ENEMIES and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your father in heaven. “BE YE PERFECT THEREFORE AS YOU HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT”. He could have used the word “complete” or even “holy”.
The trouble with being holy is that it cannot be rolled up into a single pious activity or be reduced to a way of dressing, or lugging a Bible with you everywhere you go or even reading the Bible through in a year. It is expressed in our daily acts of thoughtfulness, kindness, justice, mercy, generosity, and so on—things we seldom even think of as being expressions of holiness.
Behind the sacrificial instructions, the rituals and the dietary rules is the conviction that God is something OTHER than we are. Holy is a word that describes his OTHERNESS and He has given us the “how to” in this commandment.
And although many of the laws in Leviticus were geared to a desert people with no formal central government, the principles behind them are right on. And I can’t help but ask myself how we and our “Christian” nation stack up with these principles—-impartiality in justice, fairness in the treatment of the poor, provisions for the unemployed, honesty in all business dealings.
These are minimum standards for a people who are called to be holy as their Lord is holy and so they apply to us today.
Jesus was asked for one commandment, but responded with two. The second was not an afterthought. The Greek word translated as “like” did not mean similar, but that the second was of equal importance and inseparable from the first. We cannot first love God and then as a second task love our neighbor. To love God is to love one’s neighbor and vice versa.
Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington, on October 26, 2008.
Proper 25, Year A
The Sunday readings:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Here’s Lois with her husband, the Reverend Gene Holly, who has also preached at St. Paul’s.
My home parish is paradise for church-goers who like great preaching. Most Sundays, our rector Dianne Andrews delivers a good strong gospel sermon. When she takes a break, preacher duties rotate among a fine stable of lay preachers and retired clergy who have made St. Paul’s their home parish. I love the variety of voices and feel blessed and honored to be part of the team.