Holiness = perfection?

19 February 2017
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

We continue reading in course in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew is re-schooling us in righteousness, showing us what a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees looks like. This passage opens with a statement of what was said of old: an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. We often hear this as vindictive. In its time, it was in fact a moderating statement (Leviticus 24:20). If a slave injured someone, greater injury could be done to the slave: this statement required that vengeance not be in excess of the injury done, regardless of the status of the parties. But Jesus won’t even allow this moderated retaliation. This requires a shift in thinking about the nature of a righteous community.

We tend to think of justice (or righteousness) as a leveling of the playing field — everyone gets the same chance. The examples Jesus uses immediately following his denial of commensurate retaliation all speak of situations of unevenness, even oppression. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other. It would have been a horrible shame for someone to strike his or her equal on the cheek — one might strike a slave or an inferior. Turning the other cheek would have embarrassed the person doing the striking. It would have forced them to see that the retaliation was incommensurate, but forcing them into excessive violence. Certainly, if someone sued you for your coat and you stripped off your cloak as well, your adversary would be embarrassed: you would be standing in the court naked. This would force you adversary to confront (literally) your vulnerable humanity.

Soldiers could compel persons in conquered territories to carry their kit for a mile. To offer to carry that same burden a second mile would put the soldier in your social debt. You would have given a gift that would require a response. A failure to respond would be a shame. In each of these instances, we (the disciples of Jesus, the hearers of the sermon and the practitioners of a new righteousness) are called to add social capital to situations where we are “one down.” This forces the other party to see us as human, and to respect the social network that embraces both parties; or failing that, to dehumanize themselves. It is that mutual indebtedness that holds communities together, not the rule of law or the threat of retaliation. We are called in all circumstances to do the work of adding value to the fund of social capital.

When someone begs, we are to give. The passage in Leviticus proposes some ways of behaving that should prevent the need of anyone begging. If we are living this righteousness, no one will be so destitute as to need to beg. If there are beggars, we have failed at righteousness, so give. There is a story told by Walter Hooper about C. S. Lewis. The two of them were walking through town, and a beggar approached Lewis and asked for money. Lewis proceed to empty his pockets. Hooper objected that the man was likely to spend it all on drink. Lewis replied, “Funny. That’s what I was going to do with it.” Lewis saw the humanity of the person approaching him, and saw his own weaknesses as making him no better than the other.

God makes the rain fall on all of us, and makes the sun shine on all of us, good and evil alike. This calls on us to see ourselves as no better and no worse than anyone else. Leviticus instructs us to show no partiality for the poor or deference for the great: we’re all in this together. Again and again, in Leviticus, God gives as the reason for our behavior toward one another is “I am the Lord. Be holy as I am holy.” We are the people of God, and this is what holiness looks like. The passage in Matthew ends with Jesus saying, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” The word being translated perfect is “teleios” which means something like mature, or ripe, or befitting its purpose. If perfection were required, we would never begin. But we can make progress toward maturity and ripeness. Completeness, the wholeness of the human community, is the goal of our efforts. That is God’s holiness.

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