The following are some opening thoughts on the first lesson for next Sunday, Sexagesima (by the old Church calendar), the seventh after Epiphany by the RCL. The passage is Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18.
Being a parent of small children is an exciting stage of life. Adriana is becoming a very skilled reader and writer. It’s interesting to come across letter pages – you know the ones, where the example of the letter is given at the top of the page and the rest of the tablet is for the child to practise on. She’s not bad now, but her letters used to be okay near the example on the page, and then get progressively less like it as the page radiated out from that point. You know what that shows, right? Rather than copying the example on the page, she was copying her own copies of the example. It’s a problematic situation. It’s the same phenomenon that we see with that telephone game, which you may have played.
It can be a similar problem for Christians, if we’re watching each other too much, rather than Jesus Himself. We borrow each other’s habits; we try to make our obedience and devotion look like the obedience and devotion of someone else; we miss the mark. In part, this has to do with how we think about obedience.
Obedience to God requires that we act in accordance with God’s will, it’s true – but more than that, it invites us to seek, in our inmost self, to put on His mind. The whole passage is introduced to us in the terms of that divine call to be holy, as God is holy. Holiness is about being set apart: for the Israelites the motivation for obedience to God’s commands was found in a desire to be set apart the way He is set apart, which includes His righteousness, and which desire proceeded for them from personal gratitude for their deliverance from Egypt. This is part of the reason that the instruction is given to not profane God’s Name – profaning means to treat it as common – when you make God common in your imagination, you lose your vision, and set the bar low for what you aspire to. For us, as Christians, the motivation should be very similar: a desire that proceeds from personal gratitude for redemption in Christ, and that leads to Godliness.
And let’s be clear about what grade of set-apartness we’re talking about. It’s true that all of the concrete examples put forward in the passage are only illustrations of what this being-holy-as-God-is-holy means in those specific situations, and they are by no means intended to be comprehensive. But they are indicative of what being God’s people, the people who show what He is like, is about: justice; care for the poor, the widow, the orphan; not exploiting the weaknesses of others. These things weren’t unique to Israel in the ancient world – but that they would extend these benefits to aliens and foreigners among them, well, that’s something that nobody else did. You have to look forward to v. 34 for it, but there it is. And Jesus did it, when He said that your neighbour wasn’t just the other guy who’s just like you.
Loving your neighbour as yourself operates as the corrective to all of the self-centred tendencies of life. It is the fulfilment of morality, and God is certainly moral. It is a part of being set apart as He is, holy as He is, to be moral. It is not the totality of the enterprise, however. Again, the Christian’s motivation proceeds from gratitude: gratitude for redemption in Christ; gratitude that fuels desire and drive to be holy as God is holy. Love of God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength – total transformation of our passions – this is our goal.
So hear concrete examples of the passage, which are not addressed to a few ascetics – those few nuts who are fanatical about their faith – as opposed to those of us who know better, and take all things with moderation except for that maxim itself. Moses was to give these instructions to all of the Israelites, so the things they contain were not just for a select group, but all of God’s people. There are people who are unable to provide for themselves: let them be provided for from your excess; deal honestly in all things private, personal, and professional; take care of those with otherwise exploitable qualities, rather than exploiting them; don’t play favourites, but be just. All of these things proceed from a heart of love. Maybe the idea of duty and obedience doesn’t capture your imagination; then love people, but know that love is what God says it is, not what you’ve learned it to be through the distortions of the world’s passions.
The holiness that God calls us to is not some kind of religious piety that never touches our lives the rest of the week – God is concerned with the whole of our lives, not just religious ritual. Consider the injunction not to speak against the deaf. If we take it as a rule against the unfairness of speaking against someone who cannot defend themselves, since they cannot hear what’s being said, then we are faced with the reality of gossip, and backbiting, and rumour spreading (even when it’s masked as sharing prayer requests, if we haven’t been licensed to pass on the request then it’s rumour), and slandering names. All of these things are usually done when the person referred to isn’t around. When they’re deaf. When they can’t defend themselves.
Consider the injunction not to put a stumbling block before the blind. If we take it as a rule against causing others to fall because of dangerous circumstance that they cannot see, then we are faced with the reality of witness, of example, of liberty in Christ, of responsibility to His Church; even of removing stumbling blocks from peoples’ ways, as so many have been blinded to the dangers of the ways they’ve chosen to walk through familiarity, through distorted morality, through societal and familial dysfunction. How can we, as God’s people, work to draw people out of the lives they’ve made for themselves simply because of blindness.
As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to avoid even the branches in the path that lead to the dark way, not just to avoid murder, but to avoid name-calling and spite; not just to avoid adultery, but to avoid lustful thoughts; not just to avoid breaking oaths, but to avoid making oaths, and to simply be honest in all we say. As we heard Christ’s voice calling us to a deeper kind of holiness than we generally tend to (one common saying when I was in university was that what happens in the privacy of your mind is nobody’s business but your own – clearly not the way God sees things), now we see that God calls us to lives of love, love that plays itself out in all situations of our lives, not just when we’re feeling particularly ‘religious,’ or ‘spiritual,’ or ‘loving.’ May we heed His call, and respond with the gratitude that leads us to heartfelt desire for His holiness in our lives. Amen.