February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 17-18; Mathew 5: 38-48
To understand today’s readings we have to understand what it means to be holy. When we think of holiness, we usually equate it with doing “religious stuff.” So a person who says the rosary, comes to church on Sunday, follows the Ten Commandments, and tries to do God’s will, is a person we would say is holy. But when we look at today’s first reading from Leviticus, it becomes clear that this understanding of holiness is insufficient. God says to Moses, “Tell Israel they are to be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Now, how is God holy? God does not do religious stuff. God does not say the rosary, follow the Ten Commandments, or come to church on Sunday. In what sense, then, is God holy, and how are we to imitate God’s holiness? He answer to this question is found in the Hebrew word for holiness. It means to be other, to be different, to be transcendent. God is clearly other, different from anything we have sensed or imagined. God is transcendent beyond our comprehension. So God is holy because God is different, transcendent, other. And we are to be holy by being different, by being other in the way we live.
This why the passage from Leviticus immediately goes on to tell us how to act. We are not to hate our brother or sister. We are not to seek revenge. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is not the way the world acts. People seek revenge. They hate one another, and they regularly put themselves before their neighbor. But Leviticus tells the people of Israel that they must act differently, other than the way people normally act. Then they will be holy as God is holy.
We usually see the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves as a teaching of Jesus, and indeed it is. But, Jesus is only echoing the Book of Leviticus. Jesus takes the teaching of Leviticus that we are to be different and intensifies it. He says not only are you not to seek revenge, you are not even to resist evil. You are to turn the other cheek. Not only are you to love your enemies, you are to pray for them. Now, who lives this way? Who in our world is turning the other cheek? Who in our world is praying for their enemies? Very few. Most of the people in the world, ourselves included, would prefer strict justice. We want an eye for an eye. We want to retaliate when people hurt us. We want justice. We want a recompense for what we have suffered.
But, that is the point. Both the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Leviticus challenge us to be different. They insist on this contrary way of living in order to demonstrate that those who follow the God of Israel, and those who follow Jesus are distinctive from the rest of the world. Now, such a high standard is very difficult to follow. I know I do not always follow it. There are times when I want to get even. There are times when I want justice rather than going the extra mile. This means that for most of us we will only be able to follow this teaching of Jesus some of the time. Many times we will fail to be holy. Yet, it is worth striving after God’s holiness, because acting in accord with it reveals a truth, and it is a truth that is both arresting and attractive.
A Hindu holy man was traveling a mountain road when he was beset by a robber who put a knife to his throat and said, “Give, me all of your valuables.” Immediately the holy man handed over his purse which had a few copper coins in it. The robber grabbed the purse, drew back the knife, and began to run away. “Wait,” said the holy man, “You don’t have everything, I still have a ruby hidden in my sandal. Here, take it belongs to you.” The next day the monk was on the same road and was stopped by the same robber who put a knife to his throat again. “What are you doing?” said the holy man. “You already have all that is mine. I have nothing else to give you.” “Yes you have.” said the robber. “I want what you have that made your free enough to give me the ruby yesterday.”
When we act in a way that is beyond people’s expectations, when we act in a way that is different, we open the possibility for new things to happen. We open the possibility to live in a new way, in a way that is beyond all the dead end options that our world continues to choose, in a way that is beyond the circle of violence that is gradually destroying us. So, whenever you have the opportunity, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, pray for your enemies because those actions might be different enough, other enough, to reveal a new way of living. In that way your holiness will be a sign of the holiness of God.