FEBRUARY 23, 2014: SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Today's Leviticus passage contains one of the most important lines in all of Scripture: "Be holy, for I, Yahweh, your God, am holy!" It's so significant that Matthew's Jesus paraphrases it in a key point of his Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect!"
The Hebrew word for holy - "kadosh" - simply means "other." Biblical writers were convinced that anything or anyone kadosh is different from other things or persons; they stand apart. So when our Leviticus author labels Yahweh kadosh, he's stating his belief that there's no one quite like Yahweh.
But even more significant than just calling Yahweh holy is the scriptural presupposition that those who follow Yahweh should also be holy. If that's true, then we logically have to ask how God expects us to demonstrate our "otherness."
Through the centuries many cultures have classified individuals suffering from severe mental illness as holy, simply because such people often say or do things that are quite other from the way the majority of people in those cultures say or do those things.
Though our sacred authors aren't encouraging us to become mentally ill, they do expect us to frequently live our lives at right angles to the way many people around us live their lives.
The Leviticus author, for instance, expects us to relate to our families, our neighbors and our countrymen in unique ways; especially when it comes to hatred, anger or revenge.
Matthew's Jesus agrees. But he carries our holy behavior one or two steps further, far beyond our families, neighbors and countrymen. After quoting our Leviticus command to love our neighbor, he also insists we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, just as in the prior verses he demands we offer no resistance to one who is evil, turn the other cheek, give to those who want to borrow, and even go an extra mile when we're forced to go only one mile.
Though I have no doubt if we actually did any of those things many people would presume we're mentally ill, Jesus' reason for commanding us to do so is airtight: that's how a holy, perfect God acts in our lives. We can't be holy unless we imitate God's holiness.
Paul's theology on our holy behavior certainly dovetails with Matthew's idea on the subject. The Apostle is convinced the "wise" among us will accuse us of being fools when they observe how we imitate Jesus' dying and rising. But he's also convinced that those who imitate Christ's behavior actually morph into other Christs. Like Jesus, we become God's temple, with God's Spirit dwelling in us. We don't just imitate God's holiness, we actually become as holy as the risen Jesus is holy. We no longer channel our faith through those who first brought us that faith; our holy behavior has caused us to relate to God directly.
I personally don't like being different. Though, for instance, I'm proud of being a priest, I rarely wear clerical garb. (When a friend once saw me in a Roman collar he immediately asked, "Is that a rental?") Like many of you, I prefer blending in with the crowd.
Yet at the same time I realize that if I'm to imitate Jesus I have to be holy. By refusing to stand out from others I might also be refusing to carry on Jesus' ministry. If we've freely committed to being other Christs, we'd better get used to being different, different in ways that'll change the world in which we live. If we continue to relate to people and do things in the same old, accepted ways, no one will even notice what our sacred authors mean by God's holiness.