Friday, February 18, 2011

God is Holy so Love Others -- A Lectionary Meditation

Leviticus 19:1-2, 98-18



1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23


Matthew 5:38-48


God is Holy so Love Others


“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.” That is the way the passage from Leviticus 19 begins. In Matthew 5, as this week’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount concludes, we read this admonition: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (vs. 48). Are these two words of admonition all that different? Indeed, if you look closely, both passages cover similar ground. Both passages speak as well to loving one’s neighbor. In fact, in Matthew, Jesus extends this beyond the neighbor to the enemy. Paul’s word to us may not seem in line with these two admonitions, but perhaps his word concerning building a proper foundation comes into play. The wisdom of God is this: God is holy, so you must love that which is by God’s decree, deemed holy. We belong to Christ, and therefore his life and his witness is our guide to living life fully in the presence of God.

Too often we separate love and holiness from each other. God is either holy or God is loving, but not both. Our problem may be that we interpret one attribute as being open and the other restrictive, but since both are lifted up in Scripture as defining God’s nature, perhaps we need to consider how they might be related. And maybe the call to be holy and perfect in imitation of God, something that may run counter to human wisdom, could be closer in spirit than we may think.

We begin with this word from Leviticus 19, a set of teachings designed to equip the people to live holy lives. This is in essence a summary of Torah, and it is rooted in the premise that since God is Holy, God’s people should be holy. So, what does it mean that we should be holy?

The lectionary drops off a section that speaks to honoring parents, keeping the Sabbath, the worship of idols, and dietary guidelines. Then the text turns to other aspects of the call to holy living that speak to the way we interact with each other. The passage begins with a word to the farmers in our midst. When you harvest your grain, leave the grain on the edges of the field alone, and don’t gather the gleanings – but leave them be. And the same goes for the vineyard, don’t strip the vines bare and don’t pick up the grapes that fall to the ground in the harvesting process. Instead, whether it’s grain or grapes – leave them for the poor and the alien (the foreigner). Why? Because “I am the Lord your God”! I need to stop for  a moment to dwell on this admonition concerning the call to provide for the alien at a time when anti-immigrant fever is running high.  God doesn't distinguish between illegal or legal, for if the foreigner/alien is in need then the God who is holy says provide for their needs.

From there the text moves to matters of theft, dealing falsely, lying, and false oaths, stay clear of these for “I am the Lord.” Yes, and don’t defraud your neighbor or keep for yourself the wages of the laborer until morning – pay them promptly. And don’t revile the deaf or put obstacles in the way of the blind (pay attention to the ADA laws!) Why? Because “I am the Lord.” The text moves on to an admonition to treat everyone equitably, whether poor or rich. So, it is with justice that you should deal with your neighbor – don’t hate your kin, take vengeance, or bear a grudge. Instead, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Each admonition in Leviticus, including the final one concerning love of neighbor begins with God’s holiness and the call for us to imitate that holiness. And as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note, for the Rabbi’s the holiness of God that is illustrated in this passage is defined in Exodus 34:6.

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. . .
From this powerful reminder as to the nature of God’s holiness we move to Paul’s meditation on God’s wisdom. As we have seen in earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul is concerned about worldly wisdom. God’s wisdom is rather different, sort of like God’s sense of holiness. He begins, however, with a word about foundations. He has, he suggests, laid a foundation upon which others have built (likely those in whose name members of this congregation were setting up parties). Ultimately, however, the point isn’t the builder but the foundation, and that is Christ. Starting with this foundation, he moves to the superstructure – the Temple of God. The Temple isn’t a building, but us. I’m wondering here if the word is given to us as individuals or to us as community. It’s not that I don’t believe that God inhabits us as individuals, but Paul seems pretty clear throughout 1 Corinthians that he is speaking to the community. Thus, it’s the community of the faithful who carry within itself the Holy Spirit of God. It is the community that is holy as a result! So don’t boast in our human leaders – ancient or modern – for everything belongs to the community itself because the community belongs to Christ, who belongs to God. Let us, then, embrace the wisdom of God, a wisdom that leads to holiness and love of neighbor.

Finally we come to the words of Jesus as found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. There is a certain symmetry between this passage and Leviticus, as it should be. Jesus was not rejecting Torah nor does he suggest we should reject Torah – there is but one Word of God, even if it comes in two parts (and even that might be a debatable point).

The first half of the passage deals with matters of retaliation. While it has been said that taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is appropriate, Jesus says – no instead don’t resist the one who would treat you in this way. Indeed, if someone strikes you on the right check, then offer the left. If someone takes your coat, offer your cloak. And, if someone forces you to go one mile, then go two. Now, the reality is this – such things might occur in the life of a person, especially if they were living under an occupying army that could pretty much do as they please. But, don’t take matters into your own hands, but instead leave it all to the hands of God. Such words of teaching have never found much of a hearing in the Christian community, and it’s no wonder. If you follow Jesus’ teaching your liable to experience being run over. It is a rather radical ethic, but it is rooted in the admonitions in Leviticus – be holy as God is holy. Do what is right and good, not because it is Law but because this is the way of God.

From this set of admonitions Jesus goes to the issue of love. Love of neighbor is a good starting point, Jesus says, but it’s not the end point. Instead, love your enemies and pray for the ones who persecute you (and that doesn’t mean praying that they’ll be taken out – what some call an imprecatory prayer that is possible in certain Christian circles). After all, the hated tax collectors take care of family and friends. Jesus’ ethic pushes further and deeper. In this context he is pushing us to embrace the form of love we know as agape, a form of love that according to Tom Oord involves “intentionally respond[ing] to promote overall well being when it encounters that which produces ill-being” (Oord, Nature of Love, p. 121). But remember, as you consider the admonition to love your enemy as well as your friends that God makes the sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain upon righteous and unrighteous.

Jesus wants people to understand that the ethic that permeates the realm of God moves us beyond normal behavior – what Paul might call worldly wisdom – to something different, something transformative. And that means being holy or perfect as God is holy and perfect. Jesus is our mentor, our guide, and our model, for what life looks like in the Realm of God. So why should we be holy and loving? The answer is simple – “For I am the Lord Your God!”

1 comment:

marthaelam said...

"The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. . ."

What a great piece of scripture.

Thanks for sharing!