Friday, February 17, 2017
February 19, Proper 2, Righteousness #7: You Shall Be Holy
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Righteousness is doing what is right. I want to do what’s right, I want to get it right, I want to be right. But if I’m right, then you’re wrong. If I want to be right, and you and I differ, then I want you to be wrong. And if I am righteous, then you’re unrighteous. My righteousness is what makes you unrighteous, at least to me. So the first problem with righteousness is that it sets up wrongness.
A second problem comes from our modern mindset. Righteousness is not just my doing right by me, it’s also doing right by you. I want to do what’s right for you. What’s right for you is what we call your “rights”. You have a right to your rights, and I have a right to mine. We take it for granted and we structure society around it. But it’s a recent development in history. Most people who lived on this planet did not think in terms of rights, but obligations. You do right when you fulfill your obligations. This was accepted as normal, and good, and the best for safety and survival.
We moderns minimize our obligations. We value liberty, freedom, and self-determination. And with everybody self-determining, we have to stand on our rights. If we assume so much freedom, we each of us have to defend our rights, and the rights of our groups, however we choose to define our identities, we feel obliged to right the wrongs against us and our grievances, on all sides. The right to bear arms. The right to life. The right to reproductive choice. The right to work. All of these are being contested with righteous indignation. Human self-determination turns righteousness around. It was an angry combination of rights and wrongs and grievances that generated totalitarianism in Europe not too long ago and this combination is also dangerous in America today.
Here’s my point: righteousness is a problem unless it’s anchored in the holiness of God and directed toward you loving your neighbor as yourself.
Righteousness is destructive when it’s driven by human self-determination but it’s constructive when it’s anchored in the holiness of God. But not just any holiness of God. It is the holiness that God has revealed upon the cross that makes righteousness healing and life-giving, a holiness which is a self-giving holiness, holiness that is purity as the purity of love, holiness that is perfection as the perfection of love, self-giving love, a holiness directing righteousness to take the form of loving your enemy as yourself.
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” So says Leviticus. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So says the Gospel of Matthew. Such holiness and such perfection entail a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. It exceeds in love, “loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” children resembling their father, ordinary people perfect in the way that God is perfect, neighbors holy in the way that God is holy, and this holy God loves God’s enemies.
This is not our typical version of holiness. Typical holiness is also in the Bible, especially in the Book of Leviticus. It is purity and perfection of protection and preservation, it is rituals to get things clean and keep them uncontaminated, and thus untouchable and unapproachable. Put up screens and curtains, put up walls, keep people out, keep the people out who are not pure, or who have fallen, or are not chosen. Gentiles, and tax collectors who handle Roman money. Roman soldiers.
But if a Roman soldier demands you to carry his pack the statutory mile, Jesus says to carry it a second mile. Your love for him is not conditioned by his deserving it. Or if you’re so deep in debt to Roman taxes that the only thing the tax collector can get off you is your coat, Jesus says to give him your shirt as well, and your nakedness will shame him in your generosity. Of course the people listening to Jesus when he says this will be laughing, and I think he might be laughing too.
Or if somebody strikes you on your cheek, because you’re just a Jew who has no rights, living under occupation, don’t give in, don’t yield, but offer up your other cheek! Dare him to hit you again. Don’t him back—you love him because he is your enemy, but you do take the initiative, you stand up, and the second time he hits you he may crush you, he may kill you.
“O Jesus, I don’t have the courage to offer my other cheek.” I don’t think the Lord Jesus expects you to be suicidal in your self-giving love. He doesn’t say to love your enemy instead of yourself. You have to love yourself as well.
To love someone as yourself is to treat that person with the same understanding and sympathy and indulgence with which you treat yourself. So you are free to reason that it might be suicide to offer up your cheek. This perfection is not mathematical, and this holiness is not fanatical. You get the point: non-violence whenever the choice is yours to make. That is enough.
Do you consider even this unrealistic? If we did what Jesus said and carried burdens the second mile and offered up our shirts and gave to everyone who begs from us, eventually we’ll have two classes of people: the saintly paupers owning nothing, half-naked, doing all the labor, and the wealthy and well-dressed idlers and thieves.
Which was the Roman Empire anyway, with the idlers and thieves making the laws and enforcing them! It is realistic anyway. Countless examples: American Slavery, Jim Crow, Communism, National Socialism, even Free-market Capitalism, at least how it is going, if we are to believe the disenfranchised middle class who voted for this 45th President.
If we think it’s unrealistic, then as St. Paul says, we should become fools so that we may become wise. Take the case of the laws in Leviticus, about “not reaping to the very edges of your field, nor gathering the gleanings of your harvest.” This is not just charity for the poor, though it is that. It’s knowing our limits in what we take from the world, and it’s the reality of sustainable agriculture.
I knew a farmer who cut down all the trees along his fields so that he could easier turn his bigger machines around and get more rows of yield, which resulted in there being no more birds and the bugs increased and he had to use insecticides which burned the soil, which now the wind picked up and blew away, because there were no trees; today that farm sits barren. So I’m inviting you to believe that self-giving love is the true reality of existence, and that the cosmos expresses God’s perfection and creation tells us of God’s holiness. And as you are in the image of God, to do otherwise than this is to be sub-human.
The Lord is not just talking about non-retaliation, but positive engagement. He’s not just talking about charity and generosity, which are voluntary, for this is obligatory. It’s the law: the Lord Jesus quotes this from Leviticus three times in Matthew, that you love your neighbor as yourself, and this first time your neighbor include your enemy. It’s the law: it’s not love as feeling or affection but love as actions and practices, even when they cost you and reduce your profits. Even your enemy.
You will have enemies, if you live by love. People think that Christians should have no enemies. But following Jesus will make you enemies. The world resists the holiness of God. But come on, isn’t this to much for us, how much does God expect of us? We are ordinary people, we don’t do miracles. We have only so much power, and we’re often our own worst enemies. We have a hard time rightly loving ourselves. We admire this high calling of Our Lord, but we feel that we fall short.
Well, first, what he calls you to depends on Christian community, on your having neighbors like yourself who love you back and who look out for you, who join in your cause, and support you in your obedience. This ethic is not an ethic for heroic individuals, but an ethic for a community of love. This is the reason for this community of Jesus in which we try to love each other every week.
Second, as I said last week, we are forced to the mystical root of our ethics. We would give up if not for the mystical belief that the Lord Jesus is doing it in us and through us beyond our own capacity. So just do it without worrying about your performance or consistency.
The task is on you but the burden is off you. You have the responsibility but God takes the guilt. You can say with the Psalm, “In your righteousness, preserve my life.” The righteousness of God has become the main theme of this sermon series, that God loves to work God’s righteousness in the world through us, and God’s righteousness in us saves us, preserves us, perfects us, and makes us holy, just because God loves us.
Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.