“Be holy, not do holy”
I want to take a survey. Have you EVER read the Book of Leviticus all the way through? In the last ten years? More than once?
The Book of Leviticus, from which our first lesson comes today, is a book of regulations governing how God’s people should relate to God and to each other. In other words, Leviticus is a book that tells us how to DO HOLY.
What do I mean by “DO HOLY?” Among other regulations, Leviticus contains the ancient “purity codes” of the Hebrew people, the sexual, dietary, and economic practices the people should and should not DO to be God’s people. So Leviticus is pretty dry reading, except for seeing how very strange the culture of the ancient Israelites was some 2,600 years ago.
The Revised Common Lectionary, which our church and all liturgical churches use, include exactly ONE reading from Leviticus every three years: the reading we have today. Of course, today is the “Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany,” which doesn’t occur in any three-year cycle unless Easter is sufficiently late to give at least eight Sundays after January 6 before Ash Wednesday. The last time we heard this lesson from Leviticus was in 2011.
“Leviticus,” one wag observed, “is the most quoted book of the Bible that people have not read.” How many of you have QUOTED from Leviticus lately? Oh, thank God!
I’m certainly familiar with the “most quoted” verses in Leviticus, at least in our lifetimes: 18:22 and 20:13. These verses say that men who have sex with men are “abomination” and should be put to death. I haven’t heard these verses quoted in the last two or three years, but I fear we’re in for a whole new round of quoting Leviticus soon.
The thing is, Leviticus contains a total of 76 instructions of what TO DO or NOT TO DO to be holy, of which 36 are punishable by death for violating them. Here’s a few of the things for which you could get stoned to death in ancient Israel:
- Cursing your parents
- Working on the Sabbath
- Premarital sex (females only)
- Disobedience to authority (males only)
- Adultery (everyone involved)
In days of old, very old, the regulations found in Leviticus helped the Jews define who they were as a people, as God’s people. But, to put things mildly, the Leviticus laws are only selectively followed today, even among Jews. And we Christians have always wondered how, if at all, Leviticus should apply to US.
Martin Luther, for example, argued that we Christians either need to follow ALL the laws in Leviticus, or none of them apply. Others says that Leviticus is more of historic significance to Christians, useful for understanding the world into which Christianity was born. A third suggestion is that we Christians need only follow the laws that Jesus raised up. And yet, Christ himself said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. So you choose. Are you going to follow Leviticus, in whole or in part, to DO HOLY?
Here’s the thing, though: Christ Jesus himself quoted from Leviticus. Our gospel lesson today is a great example, where Jesus based his instruction to “BE perfect, even as the Father is perfect,” on our first lesson, which says, “You shall BE holy, for the Lord your God is holy.”
Did you notice that both say we are to BE HOLY? We are not to DO holy, we are to BE holy. In his instruction to us, Jesus goes on to explain how to get to the heart of the law, how to turn the law inside out by not just doing what the law requires, but by going far beyond.
I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble just following the rules, which is akin to being holy at the Kindergarten level. Getting to the heart of the rules, understanding how and why the rules exist, and then going beyond what is required in the name of radical love is graduate level holiness.
But even Kindergarten level holiness (that is, the holiness required by Leviticus 19) is rather difficult. Did you notice our first lesson skipped over a few verses? I won’t bother to tell you what outdated things our first lesson omitted. However, our lectionary DOES provide a “cherry picked” list of how to DO HOLY today. Those instructions that made the cut, presumably, still are relevant for us today, at least as of 1981 when the Revised Common Lectionary was last updated. Here’s what’s considered still relevant and on our TO-DO “DO HOLY” list. We are to:
- Eliminate our bias against the poor and alien and share our wealth with them
- Stop stealing, lying, and cursing
- Be fair and treat our neighbors and kin justly
- Not even think about holding a grudge or seeking revenge against anyone
That’s it. DO these things, or not, as instructed and you, too, will be holy. Right?
Except, as I mentioned, our gospel lesson suggests that HOLY isn’t so much about what we DO or DON’T DO, but how we approach and carry out our priorities of loving God and loving absolutely everyone. In other words, holiness isn’t about DOING HOLY, but BEING HOLY. Jesus teaches that when we see through to the very heart of the law, we can and should incorporate the spirit of the law into our very being.
So both our first lesson and our gospel lesson tell us to be perfect. I know you are going to say that, being human, we cannot achieve perfection. But God makes allowances in his law for our ability to live up to what he commands. That’s what confession and absolution are all about. That’s what forgiveness an unlimited amount of times is all about. That’s what unconditional love means. That, and our willingness to keep starting again when we get things wrong.
What would happen if, loving God and loving each other, we let Christ Jesus’ Spirit lead us into a world where the kind of rules we see in Leviticus simply aren’t needed? What would happen if we allow ourselves to embody the Law, as Jesus suggests, if we stop trying to DO HOLY, and BE HOLY instead?
As we turn the corner from the season of Epiphany into Lent, I challenge you to make and write down your own personal holiness code. What “God rules” do you, will you, live by, to BE HOLY?