20th Week after Pentecost
‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’ So says the Lord to Moses. What are we to make of this divine invitation for us to share in God’s own way of life, to be holy like God? The Pharisees seemed to think that holiness meant an anxious purity, choosy about the company it keeps, spiritually superior and dismissive of the common person.
This defensive, self-assertive version of holiness is at work when a group of religious leaders test Jesus on the holiness meter, to see if he’s ‘biblically sound’. And of course Jesus has lost patience with all of this. He shows them that he understands the bible far better than they do. They see Jesus as just too commonplace for the pure and holy—he mixes with sinners and claims to act in God’s name, as if God actually loved everyone!
"Now when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees they gathered together and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him." And when Matthew says here that one of them asked Jesus a question to "test" him he uses a word that means something more like "tempt," or "trap," or "trip up." It is a verb whose only other subject in this gospel is the devil.
The name Pharisee comes from a Hebrew word that means "to separate." The Pharisees were "the separated ones," and although we can’t be sure what they separated themselves from, our best guess is that it was anything unclean or impure. Their motto seems to have been taken from our Old Testament reading today, "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy," because from sunup to sundown they tried to be just that. The fact that they believed in the resurrection unlike the Sadducees is not incidental because if they believed they would rise from the dead they also believed that one day they would stand before God and have to give account of their lives. In a moment like that you wouldn’t want to say that you had frittered your life away on anything trivial. You would want to say that you had spent your life on the most important thing in the world. And for the Pharisees that thing was holiness.
This is where our story begins to intersect with theirs, because even though we may not be committed to holiness in the same way the Pharisees were, we do try to spend our lives on what we judge to be important.
The Pharisees version of holiness was following as strictly as they could a whole set of rules and laws. If Ten Commandments were good, twenty commandments were even better. Their rabbis searched the Scriptures for every word that could be taken as law and came up with 613—248 positive commands and 365 negative commands: a "Thou shalt not" for every day of the year.
For a while it must have been exhilarating—to keep those rules and feel yourself growing steadily holier would have given anyone a sense of self-righteousness, unless you found yourself not able to keep up. Don’t you think that for the Pharisees all that rigid discipline could quickly become exhausting? This Pharisee in an attempt to entrap Jesus asks, "Teacher, if you couldn’t keep all 613 commandments day after day, what is the one commandment you wouldn’t want to leave out? What is the most important thing in the world?"
And here’s the surprise: while the Pharisees have been knocking themselves out to be holy as the Lord their God is holy, Jesus puts the emphasis elsewhere. "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second one is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." In one answer, and with these two commandments, Jesus shifts the emphasis from following a bunch of rules - to love. He says, in effect, that it doesn’t matter so much how many rules you keep, but how you live and how you live should be characterized by love. That is the most important thing in the world. And that is the needed corrective to how we often live our lives.
C. S. Lewis suggested that when we are born we only love ourselves. We want food, we want sleep, and we want someone to change our diapers. As we grow up a bit, our love grows up with us, so that we are able to love others who are like us. This is the stage in life when you might have one best friend who shares all your interests and sometimes swaps baseball cards with you. As we grow up a little more, we find ourselves able to love others who are not just like us. When love is fully grown, Lewis suggests, we find ourselves capable of loving one who is radically different than we are. And this is the problem: we have been too often content to pursue what is good and not what is best.
"Love God," Jesus says, "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," and of course he is not talking about love as a feeling. Feelings cannot be commanded. "Grow up," Jesus might as well say, "into the kind of people whose actions will demonstrate their wholehearted love for God, whose commitments will reflect the full attention of soul and mind. Leap high toward the love of God, reach wide toward the love of others. Exercise the limbs of love until at last we may be holy as God is holy, because we have loved like God loves.
The holiness of God, as it emerges from our readings today, is a robust, self-assured, no-chip-on-the-shoulder sort of holiness. It is revealed in an attitude of inclusion which doesn’t see others primarily as a threat. In other words, holiness means living with nothing to protect.
Our God is holy because our God is generous, life-giving, secure in Godself—‘I am who I am’ is the confident identity this God gives to Moses. Ours is not some nervy, puny tribal god whose chief characteristic is his opposition to somebody else’s tribal god. Our God is the real, universal God, and sure enough of Godself not to be as insecure as many of God’s followers turn out to be. Our God is holy, not because our God is turned away from us in self-preserving withdrawal. Rather, our God is holy because our God is turned towards us, loving and accepting us, not afraid of us and our world and our complicated lives, but open to us, loving us - and that is who God is calling us to be as well. That is what it means to be holy as God is holy.