Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Friday, March 18, 2011

holiness and perfection (2.20.11)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak 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.
9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.
13You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Matthew 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holiness and perfection; those are two pretty intimidating words, but they are our calling in scripture today. Moses declares God’s calling to the people to, “Be holy, as I, the LORD your God, am holy.” Jesus teaches the crowd, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s dig into these passages and see what God’s calling to holiness and perfection means for us today.

Holiness is a word we don’t use very much anymore, except when we talk about holidays, which are really holy days. Sometimes we think about holiness in negative terms, like when we say someone has a “holier than thou” attitude.

So what does this passage from Leviticus have to say about holiness? It doesn’t talk much about specifically “religious” issues. You might have noticed that we skip a few verses in the middle of this passage. The verses we skip do touch on more traditionally religious law. To be holy we observe the Sabbath as God commanded. We also honor our parents and make our offerings in the right way.

But the focus of this passage is how we live our everyday lives. Holiness is about how we live everyday, not just on Sundays. That’s easy to say, but what does it actually mean? In Leviticus it means making some strange choices like not gathering all the grapes in our vineyard and not harvesting the grain all the way to the edge of the field.

That’s a strange idea because it means giving up some of what we’ve paid and worked to plant. But that unharvested crop provided security for the most vulnerable members of society. The story of Ruth shows a practical example of how gathering the left-behind grain at harvest allowed two women who were alone in the world to survive.

What does it mean to leave the edges unharvested today? Maybe it means rejoicing instead of being resentful of the part of our taxes that go to support those in need. In some ways that is the edge of our field because it is part of our work for which we don’t reap the benefit.

Leaving the edges unharvested might also mean buying fairly traded products even when it costs more. Maybe it means investing in companies that build up peace and justice rather than those that “profit by our neighbor’s blood.” Maybe it means shopping for others too when we go to the store. Maybe it means donating to charity and justice. What do you think it means for you today?

Being holy means not only avoiding fraud and lying, which we might expect, but paying workers what we owe quickly. This is a word for employers, so it doesn’t directly touch most of us, though we are all connected. Again, the point is protecting the vulnerable. Most of us are painfully familiar with living paycheck to paycheck. Many workers in the ancient world, and unfortunately still today, were in an even more precarious situation with employment and income uncertain even from day to day.

In that situation employers have tremendous leverage over workers because withholding wages can literally mean life or death for the worker and their family. Imagine how that power is increased when workers live under constant threat of deportation. Instead of giving power to employers, God’s law requires that the workers be paid at the end of each workday. That ensured the worker could feed his or her family and freed them from any coercion by the employer.

Many of our vegetables are picked by extremely vulnerable workers. For instance, the average farm worker today makes less than $12,000 a year. To earn minimum wage a Florida tomato picker has to pick more than two tons of tomatoes a day, which is twice what they had to pick to earn minimum wage in 1980. Labor rights groups like the Coalition of Immokolee Workers have made great strides for workers rights, but we’re still a long way from the holiness in our labor system to which God calls us.

Being holy also means speaking out when another member of the community is doing the wrong thing. In the words of Leviticus: “you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” In other words, it’s not enough to avoid doing the wrong thing ourselves; we are called to work actively for justice when others do the wrong thing.

While Leviticus encourages God’s people to confront those who do evil, it also reminds us not to bear a grudge or seek revenge, but to love our neighbors. That can seem like a challenging balance. Don’t ignore wrongdoing, but don’t hold wrongdoing against your neighbor either.

In reality, sometimes confronting a friend gently about something they are doing wrong can bring us closer together. At least it puts the relationship on an honest foundation. When someone we know is doing something we don’t feel comfortable with and we keep it to ourselves, we’re likely to think badly of them in a corrosive way. Worse yet, we sometimes share our bad feelings with others, but not with the person involved, which is a sure recipe for hurt feelings and deteriorating relationships.

Leviticus commands holiness and spells that out in several laws, but the big picture can be harder to see. I see two sides of holiness in this passage. On the one side holiness means being like God in some way, “Be holy as I am holy,” God commands. This passage shows several ways to be like God. Being like God means being fair to others, especially the vulnerable. It means raising concerns about how our neighbors are acting honestly, kindly and without bitterness or resentment. It means looking out for those in need, even when it’s not convenient. That’s how God cares for each of us.

The other side of holiness is being set apart from the ordinary for God. Our culture teaches us to go after every penny we’re owed, but Leviticus tells us to leave the edges of our fields unharvested to make sure others have enough to eat. Our culture tells us to value those who can help us, to use our leverage and to ignore those without power. Leviticus commands us to look to justice first, to be especially careful about paying those who need it most and to make sure we never profit from endangering our neighbors. Following God’s law does set us apart from the world around us; it makes us different for God’s purposes.

As if holiness and being different from the culture around us wasn’t scary enough, Jesus tells his listeners to be perfect as their heavenly father is perfect. In this chunk of the sermon on the mount we’re called not only to avoid taking advantage of others, but even to allow others to take advantage of us. Jesus doesn’t offer us much to defend ourselves from the trouble and pain of the world. He doesn’t leave us a leg to stand on to protect ourselves from the needs of others. Jesus leaves moderation far behind in these teachings.

“If someone wants your coat, give them your cloak as well. Give to everyone who begs from you; loan to anyone who wants to borrow from you. Love your enemies.” Certainly following these teachings would set us apart in a culture whose number one rule is to take care of yourself first. What would it look like to really live this way?

I’m not going to lie: it sounds absolutely terrifying. It means totally rearranging the way we live. We typically put ourselves at the center of our universe with our family in close orbit. We are often selfless when we give to our family and do for our family, but we usually draw a hard line around our household. We give to charity, but not so much that it presses on what our family needs. We give to church, but not so much that it makes us uncomfortable. We care for those in need, but not the way we care for our spouse or children.

We draw lines to keep our family safe from the world around us. We draw lines to make sure our kids have what they need to be comfortable and happy. We draw lines to keep us from fretting too much about the need that surrounds us. We draw lines to protect our congregation from overextending itself.

Jesus challenges us to erase those lines. He says everyone can take care of their family and the people who love them, but he calls us to something more. He calls us to perfection, to love like God loves. God doesn’t count the cost and keeps loving in spite of everything. No matter how many times Israel or the church turn away from God, God keeps right on loving us. God cares for everyone, sending rain on righteous and wicked alike, and Jesus calls us to do the same.

The thing about Jesus is that even when he says crazy stuff like “Love those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you,” you can’t just write him off because he lived it. Jesus isn’t calling us to do anything he didn’t do himself. He reached out to others regardless of what the religious authorities would think. He refused to be bound by Sabbath or culture. He refused to give special access to his mother and brothers, but welcomed everyone who came to him equally. He went to his death without protest, even praying for the soldiers who nailed him to the cross.

That same crazy self-destructive behavior shows up in the early church too. The early Christians pooled their resources so everyone would have enough. We read about early Christians telling their executioners how they loved them. The church was set apart from the culture around it by its radical love for others regardless of race or status or faith. They set themselves apart for God by erasing the distinction between themselves and others.

It doesn’t make any sense, but slowly that love won much of the world to Christ. The gospel spread partly because it is true, but largely because people could see that it made a difference in the lives of those who believed. Christians were noticeably different from their neighbors. They were more compassionate, more loving, more welcoming. The more people encountered Christians, the more they noticed a common theme of radical love for others.

The reverse is true too. If people can’t tell a difference between committed Christians and the rest of society, why would they bother learning about the church? Worse still, if people see prejudice, injustice and intolerance as the most obvious feature of the church, they are right to stay away. No one will listen to the message we proclaim if we don’t live it in a way people can see.

God calls us to holiness and perfection today. The courageous love Christ calls us to will change the world. We are called to holiness by seeking justice all the time. We are called to perfection by loving radically and without limit. Christ calls us, Christ leads us, and Christ strengthens us through the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God.

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