“The devil is in the details” we are told. And so often it proves to be true. Or as my dad told me about ads and contracts – what they promise to you in the big print they take away in the small print.
Our OT reading this week is from the book of Leviticus. This is the only reading from Leviticus in the 3 year lectionary. Leviticus is not heard from because it is often book of instruction about temple worship – sacrifices – religious rules – And of course the holiness code.
At the beginning of this reading is the admonition “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy!” It makes you want to throw in the towel right away. Being holy is not what most of us are good at. Holiness, when we think about it, is other worldly, it is ethereal, it is foreign territory and we don’t have a map.
Our discomfort with holiness shows up in that saying (usually said in disdain) that someone has a “holier than Thou” attitude. Holiness seems reserved, in this mindset for a few very special people like Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama or such sort of religious dignitary.
What many do not know is that this sense of the unattainability of being holy developed over centuries of Xianity, The Hebrew sense of holiness is quite different – it to act is specific ways. What follows in the reading are specific ways in which the Hebrew people were supposed to act in order to be holy as God is holy. Holiness is something an individual CAN do – and in relatively simple ways.
The details in the reading can roughly be divided into 3 groups.
1. Holiness of generosity:
By not reaping to edge of the field and not stripping vines bare or picking up fallen grapes one would leave food that could be gathered and consumed by the poor, outcast, and the aliens to the lands. Generosity was not limited to the people of Israel but also was to be accorded to the outsider, the alien, living in the land without legal rights or status. Holiness involved intentional generosity to the poor and dispossessed. Holiness is a willingness to share what we have with others and to do it in organized and regular ways – rather than impulsively and occasionally.
2. Holiness of honesty: By acting honestly with neighbors – in integrity and truth – not stealing; not dealing falsely with others; not lying, not swearing falsely; And not withholding a laborers wages; we act as God acts and are trustworthy, fair and upright in our dealing with other people.
3. Holiness in dealing justice: These behaviors you shall not do – from the obvious not reviling the deaf or causing the blind to trip, not slandering nor profiting from a neighbor’s misfortune; not hating in your heart but talking out the issues (the meaning of reproof)… Not taking vengeance or bearing a grudge.
One achieved holiness by loving our neighbor as ourselves. For love is not a feeling according to Leviticus – it is a way in which we choose to act. Love is a verb.
Looking at the Gospel for today we see that Jesus begins with the teaching of appropriate response – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – which was actually judicial reform in the tribal clan world – making response appropriate to the offense. The actions that Jesus commends “Do not resist an evildoer.” That advice goes against our American history of the frontier. It goes against our instinct to protect and defend ourselves – and it definitely goes against the advice of the NRA.
Note that Jesus does not tell us that we are not to resist evil – but that we are not to resist evildoers.
A slap to the face, a court case in which we lose our shirt, and being forced to carry the Roman legion’s baggage are all humiliating. Famed preacher Herbert O’Driscoll points out that Middle East culture is one where pride, and honor sometimes referred to as face – were important. Humiliation only has power if it leaves the person on whom it directed as the victim. If the victim not only accedes to the action but chooses to do more then the power itself has required then that power is in a strange way itself humiliated.
We sometimes see this in the way in which protestors or prisoners of war have endured horrific beatings or torture. We hear of their response to brutality and understand that their response has greater power than the fear the brutality creates.
Jesus suggests taking back the power from being a victim by make choices that do not resist the evildoer but resists the evil itself. If for example I choose to carry the Roman Legionnaires baggage a second mile – I am not humiliated. I have made and carried out my own choice of response, with dignity, and have removed the original stigma by making that my choice.
The Gospel continues with Jesus commending love not only of neighbor, but also of our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.
If we remember that for Jesus love is not an emotion as much as it is how we act – we are to act with love and integrity for ALL not just those we like, or are related to or live near.
Let us remember that the purpose of prayer is NOT to get God to do something. The purpose of prayer is to release within us the spiritual power to do something. When we pray for the hungry it should remind us that we need to do what we are able to relieve hunger and to address the systemic root causes of hunger. So too in praying for those who persecute us we release the spiritual power that eventually allows us to not be bound by the anger and hatred the persecution creates within us – it frees us from our persecutor.
The last statement of the Gospel is that we should be perfect as God is perfect. But this is a flawed translation of the Greek word which carries very different baggage in English. The sense of perfect in the original Greek is not a total absence of flaws – but more closely means to be fully realizing the purpose for which something was created. We were created in the image of God to carry that image and live it out in the world in very real ways day by day. When we do that we are being perfect.
In our readings today we are invited to wholeness, completeness, maturity, holiness. And these are attainable things we can do and can become.