Focal text: Leviticus 19
A close friend of mine once lived in a town that was rapidly becoming a mecca for the affluent in his part of the country, ignoring it’s heritage as a community that put significant effort into ministering to those in need.
One afternoon, my friend was crossing the street in a marked crosswalk at a stoplight, when a well-dressed man in his brand new white Cadillac SUV zoomed through the red light as he made a right hand turn. As this driver did so, he hit my friend with his vehicle, knocking him to the ground and leaving him dazed. At that point, the driver stopped, rolled down his window, cussed my friend out for getting in the way, then roared off. (Unfortunately, the driver got away with it; as at that moment my friend was in no condition to read, let alone remember, a license plate number.)
We could say a lot about the injustice of this, highlighting how those with power and position are often arrogant and self-serving, thinking their position and wealth grants them special privileges and consideration; and then contrasting that with the situation of my friend, a man of great talent and a good heart, but who lives on the margins of our economy.
But let’s not go there today; there’s enough of that floating around. Instead, we’ll focus on how this situation is illuminated by the text from Leviticus 19 that is part of the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday.
The reading from the book of Leviticus for this, the Seventh Sunday of Epiphany is a list of commandments very similar to the “10 Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In fact, it includes 6 of those Commandments, though in a different order; and even the four not in the list (#1, “You shall have no other Gods before me;” #6, “You shall not Murder,” #7, “You shall not commit Adultery;” and #10, “You shall not Covet”) are arguably simply special cases of the other six.
This passage is one that Jesus frequently quoted from, and is the source for Jesus’ “Second Great Commandment” (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39). Other authors in the New Testament and ancient Christian writings also frequently refer to this passage.
I’ve meditated previously on aspects of the Ten Commandments before, especially the Third Commandment (“You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain”). But now we’ll step back and look at things more broadly, as illuminated in this restating of the Commandments from a perspective that is clearly spelled out in the opening line of this passage: “You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.”
Being “Holy” is at the heart of the commands in this passage. But, what is “Holiness”? We often assume it is a state of spiritual perfection, and that to live a Holy Life, to be truly “Holy,” is something that few will ever actually attain. We think that only those we see as super-heroes of faith (as perhaps Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama might be) can achieve true holiness.
But, the reading begins with “Speak to all the congregation.…” In other words, Holiness is not meant to be achieved by just a select few, but by everyone – not just a few of us, and it is not optional, for we are told you shall be Holy.…
So, being “Holy” cannot be some hugely difficult and rigorous undertaking – everyone can do it, and shall. The list of commands in this passage tell us how. In reading them, they are not goals, nor prohibitions, but a list of things we are to do on a regular basis. Holiness is a practice, a state of mind, a way of looking at the world, and a way of living one’s life. Holiness builds a foundation for deciding what we shall choose to do on a constant basis, throughout our lives. Holiness is continuing action, not a static goal.
Sadly, our Cadillac driver exhibited no compassion, no concern for a person in need, no willingness to make room for another’s pain or position. My friend was an inconvenience, someone who got in the way, an obstacle. He was treated as deserving only contempt, judgment, and dismissal. I suspect that the driver immediately forgot about the incident, and hasn’t thought about it since – unless he later found a dent on his bumper. He did not see my friend as a human being.
Now, let’s consider some of the commands in this list…
“…you shall not reap to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.” In ancient Israel, allowing the poor and widows to glean the fields after they’d been harvested was a means of providing food for those who would otherwise have none. The command was simple: yes, we have the right to harvest all we have planted, but also the responsibility to allow those who are struggling a chance to profit from our bounty as well.
“…you shall not deal falsely, and you shall not lie to one another.” Dealing falsely is the easiest of sins, and we justify it with many well-known and oft-quoted maxims, such as “What they don’t know won’t hurt them” or “the ends justify the means” or “it is better to tell a white lie.” Yes, there are times when a “white lie” is OK, particularly when we are seeking to spare someone needless pain. But, when we are justifying our own behavior (either to ourselves, or to others) at the expense of another, or when we use the weakness or position of another as an excuse for our actions; then we are dealing falsely.
“…you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great …” This is the one I find most interesting of all the commands in this passage: We are not called to decide who is more worthy of our attention. All equally deserving, regardless of our perceptions of their state. We are not to prefer one person over another merely because we have found a reason to think someone is “better” than another. Deciding that one person someone is better than another (and therefore more deserving of merit or preferential treatment) – for any reason – denies that they stand with us before the Lord as an equally loved and cherished child of God. It denies that we are connected to each other by our humanity.
So, in hearing my friend’s story. Yes, I am appalled at how he was treated, and angry that the culprit escaped responsibility for his actions. But I am also saddened for the person who did this, because they have not learned to see every human being around them as a child of God, just as loved, just as Holy, as themselves.
His actions speak of the larger obstacle that he and his changing community, and all of us, face – that of limiting ourselves by placing barriers between ourselves and our fellow human beings, a self erected wall against the fullness of love and compassion that God has for each and every one of us.
Holiness is the discipline of practicing our humanity: fully identifying and walking with our fellow human beings, every minute of every day. Holiness provides a path for God to infuse us with Love. It is a process rooted in Jesus’ example of fully identifying and walking with us as a fellow human being – sensitive-to and exposed-to all of the challenges and experiences, victories and losses that all human beings experience each and every day.
Being Holy is not a goal, but a process.
Be Holy, for I am Holy, says the Lord.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site).