Thursday, March 10, 2011


Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Mt. 5:38-48[1]

Appearances can be deceiving. That statement applies as much to religion as it does to any other area of life. I find it amazing that sometimes the people who present themselves as most pious, holy, and upright are in reality those who can be the most cruel, the least generous, and certainly not people who are merciful and compassionate. And conversely, sometimes those who best live out God’s generous and unrestricted grace and mercy and love can seem to be the most impious people. I think that’s one of the main reasons why the Christian faith has been so discredited in our culture. So when our lesson from the Hebrew Bible presents us with the command, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2), I’m not sure what to do with it. I resonate with it, because I’m one of those strange people who grew up believing in doing the right thing. But when I look around at our world, I’m not sure that being holy is a motivation that many people share.

And when I think about it, maybe that shouldn’t be our motivation. Trying to be holy can easily harden into self-righteousness. And self-righteousness always expresses itself in a rigid adherence to “rules” that you pick and choose to suit yourself. Our religion can make matters worse because it can reinforce our self-righteousness with piety. We reassure ourselves that we really are right in God’s sight by going through the motions of rituals that are supposed to make us “holy.” But the hypocrisy of it all comes to light when our religion doesn’t translate into life.

So it’s not surprising that holiness is not a word we use much in our day and time. At least not with a positive spin. We may speak of what is “holy” as being detached from reality, something that belongs in an “ivory tower.” Or we may speak of holiness as something beyond or grasp—either literally or figuratively. Or we may only use the word when we point out that someone else is acting “holier than thou.”

But the real point of holiness gets lost in the process. From the biblical point of view, holiness is about being as well as doing. I realize that, to some extent, this may not solve anything. The desire to “be” right may be an even more potent temptation to self-righteousness, if for no other reason than we have a personal interest in being right (or at least in being perceived as right). But from the biblical perspective, holiness is really a matter of integrity. That is a concept that we care about. We look for integrity in our leaders. And we look for integrity in those we rely on. And we look for integrity in those we trust. But in a very real sense, integrity can seem like holiness—something elusive.

Our Scripture readings for today present integrity as a matter of imitating the character of God.[2] The sum of what it means to be right and do right is, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). This may sound like an outrageous demand. When we turn to our Gospel reading, it seems Jesus demands no less of us: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Who can possibly fulfill that? Who can possibly imitate the character of God?

Before we just give up and chuck it all, let’s take a closer look at this. In our lessons from both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, we find that integrity is not a matter of living up to some rigid arbitrary system of rules. It’s not a matter of how well we practice our piety. Truly being right and doing right in the biblical point of view is something demonstrated in the specifics of how we relate to those around us. In our lesson from Leviticus, it’s a matter of leaving gleanings in the field so the poor will have something to eat (Lev. 19:9-10). It’s about dealing honestly and fairly with those around us (Lev. 19:11-13). It’s a matter of practicing the compassion and mercy of God in our relationships with those around us (Lev. 19:14-17). It is a matter of “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). That is so familiar to us that most people know about it. But I doubt that many people know that the command to love your neighbor as yourself was originally formulated in a context of practicing justice and mercy towards others in very practical ways.[3]

The same thing is true for Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. When we take seriously the very specific ways in which Jesus instructs would-be followers to relate to others in this context, we can see how specifically the command to love your neighbor relates to life.[4] Jesus says that you love your neighbor by refraining from retaliating against others for the wrongs they inflict on you. Jesus says you love your neighbor when you respond to injustices against you by “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile.”[5] In this context, Jesus says you love your neighbor by imitating the generous and unrestricted grace and love of God! And that applies not just to those who are less fortunate that we are—it applies to those who have power over us and may occasionally misuse that power![6]

I’m not sure we’ve really solved the problem here. All of this sounds good, but really living this way is another matter altogether! We still haven’t discovered where integrity is to be found. I think one of the most important clues may be in the word integrity itself. Integrity is what happens when our lives are integrated—when who we are and what we do match. Integrity is what happens when what we believe translates into how we live. Integrity is what happens when all of living flows from the very core of our being. That’s how we imitate God’s character. That’s how we live out God’s generous and unrestricted grace and mercy and love in our relationships with those around us. That’s how we translate “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” into a way of life.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/20/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] Walter Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” New Interpreters Bible, I: 1131.

[3] Cf. Kaiser, “Book of Leviticus,” I:1136, where he says, “To be holy is not to be narrow-minded and primly pious; it is, rather, to imitate God. To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. That is why, in this great chapter on moral holiness, the emphasis falls on social justice. Produce should be left in the fields for poor people to glean. Neighbors should be dealt with honestly. Wages should be paid promptly. Disputes should be settled with equity and fairness. In Leviticus, if you want to be holy, don’t pass out a tract; love your neighbor, show hospitality to the stranger, and be a person of justice.” See also Mary Douglas, “Justice as the Cornerstone,” Interpretation 53 (Oct 1999):341-50.

[4] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1175, where he compares what Jesus says here with Psalm 119. He says, “Jesus upheld the torah (see Matt 5:17-20), but he was not bound to specific formulations (see Matt 12:1-8; 15:1-20). Rather, he sought to extend the torah to represent God’s sovereign claim upon all of human life (see Matt 5:21-48). The psalmist was no legalist, and neither was Jesus.”

[5] Cf. Gene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible,VIII:197, where he says, “These commands of Jesus must be taken with the utmost seriousness, but any attempt to take them literally as casuistic laws leads to absurdity.”

[6] Cf. Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” VIII:198. He observes, “When it is a matter of protecting the weak and oppressed and setting aside the structures of injustice, disciples of Christ must, in fact, be ready to resist evil. But it is a different matter when disciples are called to set aside their own rights for the good of others.” Cf. also Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, ? where he sets out his interpretation of Matthew 5:38-48 in terms of a “third way” between violence and non-violence: doing something so completely unexpected that it shames the oppressor.

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