Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19th, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 32-37, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our first reading from Leviticus, God tells us to be holy, as God is holy, and in our second reading Paul tells us that we are God’s holy temple, and in our Gospel reading Jesus tells us to be perfect, as God is perfect. So, then, I think we need to take some time to ask the question: what does it mean to be holy and perfect? And immediately, we run into a problem. When we hear the Scriptures tell us to be holy and perfect, what do we all start thinking about? Our own moral status. Am I, personally, holy, or am I sinful? Am I perfect, or am I flawed? Have I, personally, done everything I should have done and refrained from doing what I should not? It’s a very individual way of looking at things. And it’s no wonder, because the larger religious culture tells us that what we should most be worried about is our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The problem is: the phrase “personal relationship” is not found anywhere in Scripture. Most of the Bible doesn’t care about our individual relationships with God; it is much more focused on our communal relationship with God. And today’s readings are a perfect example. Each one of them is not aimed at individuals, but at the community. In Leviticus, God does not say “you should be holy on a personal level,” God says “you should all be holy together.” In Corinthians, Paul does not say “you personally are God’s temple,” he says “all of you are God’s temple.” And Jesus doesn’t say “you individually should be perfect,” but rather “all of you collectively should be perfect.”
We know this because most languages, including Greek and Hebrew, have two words for “you,” while English only has one. In most languages, if you are talking to a group, the pronoun to address the group as a whole is different from the pronoun to address a single person. It’s like in English, if you go to the south, there’s a difference between “you” and “all y’all.” In the rest of the country you might say “you guys” instead of “you” if you were talking to a group. But in English translations of the Bible, they just use the word “you” for both one person and groups of people. So it’s easy to miss that God or Paul or Jesus or whoever isn’t just talking to individuals but to a whole group of people. And while a lot of times it doesn’t matter, sometimes it does. Holiness and perfection are not primarily about our individual moral state. They are about what kind of community we create together by the grace of God and in God’s image.
So, then, what does a holy community look like? What does a perfect community look like? I should point out that the word “perfect” is sort of misleading; the Greek word is something like complete or whole, and it comes from a word that means “the end.” Perfection is about becoming what you will ultimately be like, and what will the community of believers ultimately be like? Where will we end? In heaven, in God’s kingdom, in the place that has no end. So the point Jesus is making is that we should be creating communities that are striving to become like the community we will be when all our wounds and brokenness have been healed and all our tears have been dried and there is nothing but light and joy and love and peace.
Leviticus is one of the books of the Law designed to guide God’s people into being this kind of holy community. We Christians do not follow these laws because of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts. Many of these laws either don’t really apply to the modern world or are specific to Jewish religious rituals or are these odd things that appear in one or two verses and don’t really seem to connect with much of anything else. But there are some overarching themes, certain types of things that get emphasized over and over and over, and these tell us a lot about what God desires of the community of believers. Our first lesson today was drawn from some passages that deal with these overarching themes.
Note that when Jesus told his followers to love their neighbor, he wasn’t saying something new. He was quoting from the ancient laws given by God. You shall love your neighbor. And, in the same chapter, you shall treat everyone—even foreigners—as your neighbor. You shall specifically love your foreign neighbors as yourself. How does this love show itself? In a lot of ways. Respect the elderly. Point it out when people in the community do bad things. Act with justice, so that the rich important people don’t get special treatment and the poor don’t get ignored. In business, make sure that all your dealings are honest so that everyone gets treated fairly and your employees get paid a good wage, but if that isn’t enough and there are some people going hungry, make sure they are fed.
Now, human nature, when faced with these passages, is to find some way to squirrel out of it. Surely God didn’t mean we need to make sure everyone gets fed? What if we don’t have enough money? What if they’re addicts or lazy or bad people who don’t deserve it? But the command to make sure everyone has enough to eat is repeated many places in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is never limited to the deserving. I guarantee you that there were alcoholics in the ancient world, and lazy people, and bad people. But none of these are excuses. The whole community has a responsibility to make sure that everyone gets food. Everyone with a field must leave some crops in the field for any hungry person to take. Now, today when farmers are a tiny percentage of the population and most people live in cities, the type of gleaning Leviticus describes wouldn’t work. But we still have the obligation as God’s holy people to make sure that nobody is going hungry.
And then there’s the thing about foreigners. This is something we talk a lot about, today. Why should we let foreigners in? Especially ones who are different than we are? What if they’re criminals? What if they’re terrorists? Surely God would not want us to take such a risk. And yet, we should remember that the ancient Israelites were far more vulnerable than we are. We have a rich, powerful nation with extensive security apparatus and a strong army to protect us. Israel and Judah were small, relatively poor countries trapped between larger and richer countries. They got invaded regularly, and conquered several times throughout the Bible. But this is not an excuse God allows. You shall not oppress the foreigner, and you shall love them as yourself.
We modern American Christians, when we think of holiness and perfection, tend to focus on believing the right things. And, certainly, what we believe is very important. But what we’re supposed to believe isn’t included in the holiness code of Leviticus and it isn’t included in the Sermon on the Mount. See, “faith” is a verb. Faith isn’t something we are, it’s something we do, a way of life. Faith is not passive. If our faith in God is true and good, it will lead us to act in the world. It will lead us to act with justice and love. Not just on an individual level, either. Not just in our own immediate circle of friends and family. But in our whole society, for everybody.
I look at this holy code, this way of life that God calls us to live together, and it is very easy to get discouraged. Because the world doesn’t look like that holy community. The Christian community doesn’t look like that holy community that God wants us to be. Instead of loving our neighbors, we get suspicious; instead of loving the foreigners among us as ourselves, we hate them and send government agents to harass and deport them. And in our nation, thirteen percent of households are food insecure, so that while they aren’t starving they don’t always have enough for everyone to eat. Thirteen million American children live in those households where there is not enough food.
And I’m a historian. I know that humanity has never lived up to the holy society God calls us to be. Never. The ancient countries of Israel and Judah didn’t live up to it; that’s why the prophets kept having to call them to account. And no Christian society has ever managed it either. Even in the best times and places, there has always been injustice, hunger, hate, and evil lurking in the background, no matter how nice and pretty it looked on the surface. And so it is easy to despair.
Sin warps our best efforts, and yet God loves us still. We fall short of the holy lives and holy community that is God’s desire and will for us, and yet God loves us still. We let the worst parts of ourselves dictate too much of what we do as individuals and as a society, and yet God loves us still and sent his only son Jesus Christ to save us. We fall short; we cannot achieve that holy life God calls us to. And yet, there is still hope. Not in ourselves, but in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.