Be holy as I AM holy

23 February 2014
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 7A (RCL)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

It’s been a busy week, so this will be a short post.

When we think of holiness (at least when I do) we tend to think of a religious and personal quality. Someone who prays all the time is holy. The passage from Leviticus challenges that conception of holiness. We are challenged to be holy as YHWH is holy, but then given instructions about not gleaning our field to the edge, but leaving gleanings for the poor, and not picking all our grapes, and leaving the windfall to the poor. We are instructed not to keep the wages of a laborer overnight, because otherwise, he might be able to feed his family this evening. We are not to be partial to the poor or the great. Holiness is not so much a quality of piety, but of our way of living in the world. And it is apparently a quality of the community: it is as much about justice and keeping the marginal from falling off the edge as anything.

Matthew seems to be familiar with Leviticus as he organizes his sermon on the mount. He is shifting the emphasis on righteousness away from a keeping of the rules toward a way of living in community. The principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a real advance at the time because it counted the eye of a slave equal to the eye of his master, is still not sufficient. Rather, “do not resist an evildoer.” Turning the other cheek and walking a second mile are unexpected ways to turning the shame back on the shamer. To strike someone on the cheek covered them with shame. To turn the other cheek, as Gandhi so dramatically proved calls attention to the one doing the striking. Soldiers could force the common folk to carry their packs for a mile. To carry the pack a second mile was to give a gift to the soldier and force him to accept one as an equal, capable of giving a gift.

This is the kind of behavior expected in a community that honors the poor, the hungry, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted and the peacemaker. By bringing the low up to the level of the high, it makes possible reconciliation, by making all equals. We cannot begin our own healing until we have forgiven those who have done the damage, and we cannot expect them to take us seriously, if we are not willing to see them as equals as well.

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