At the beginning of a new year and with Lent just around the corner we are faced today with the urgency of the command: be holy. It is a command spoken three times in the scripture today. Not a request, not an option, but a command. And not just for some, not just for a few but for all of us.
Which is all very well … but to obey that commandment we need to know what it means and that’s not easy.
What is it to be holy? What do the readings say? First of all we hear this: do not hate; do not seek revenge; love your neighbour as yourself. These all seem pretty reasonable conditions for holiness. But Paul’s letter is more mysterious: we are each a temple of the Holy Spirit and we must not destroy this temple; we had better be fools rather than wise, because to this world God is a fool. Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus preaches this powerful list of instructions in holiness: offer no resistance to injury; let yourself be struck rather than fighting back; give up your goods if someone wants them; love those who hate you. These are hard sayings. It is hard to hear these things and think they are for us. They might be ideal ways to live but they don’t seem practical—not if you’ve a job to do, mouths to feed, children to raise. In fact they sound down right dangerous. You would have to be a fool to really live that way. And it doesn’t even sound that ideal. Does God really want us never to think about ourselves, does God wants us to be walked all over, all the time, with no self-respect, no dignity? How can we be temples of the Holy Spirit and let that temple be ruined by other people with no defense. Is this what holiness is all about? And what about the others, the ones doing the striking and the taking, does God want the vicious and the violent to get away with their crimes? . Is this what holiness is all about?
I don’t think so. I think the list of do’s and don’ts is not the point at all. The real point is repeated in each of our three readings: we are to be holy because God is holy. More, we are to be holy because the holy God is present with us, now and always.
The holiness of God takes us back to a sense of the word holy that we can forget when we think mainly about ourselves. The holiness of the Old Testament God was awesome. Dangerous. The presence of God was something to be adored and to be worshipped and even to be feared. Something powerful: like high-voltage electricity or nuclear radiation. Something wonderful, but also pent-up, contained, which if unleashed would blind, and burn, and scour. No one could see the face of God and live, they said. And the reason the Israelite’s gave for this was that God is holy but they were not. This is the reason for the cult and the worship and the sacrifices and all the laws—not to bargain with God or keep God quiet or to get from God what they wanted—but to channel this power, this energy. To let it flow through the nation without tearing it apart. God dwelt with his people. A powerful God, and dangerous, and beautiful, and holy. And the only way to live with such a God was to be holy in turn.
All the rituals and laws and demands for holiness were not about individual piety or personal goodness but about a community were God could dwell and God’s awful power be made known. The command to be holy was as much as anything about safety, about handling that incredible power.
Holiness is dangerous. The demands we hear in the Gospel today, that at first sound so ideal or so stupid should be understood against the background of this danger.
The people who heard Jesus preach were poor and ordinary working people trying to live however they could surrounded by the soldiers of an occupying army. Israel was under Roman military rule. If you belonged to one of the ruling families you could survive because you had money and influence to smooth things over. If you didn’t mind your own people hating you, you could make a living by collecting taxes for the Romans. If you had a suitable temperament you could be a terrorist and fight the Romans that way. But the people listening to Jesus probably had none of those choices. They simply had to work hard to make a living and feed the family, and pay their taxes and just get by. And all the while they bore the brunt of angry soldiers and uncaring officials and their neighbours troubles. It is to these people that Jesus speaks a dangerous message about how to live under a foreign army. If they strike you on the right cheek, offer them the other. If they take your shirt, give them your coat. If they force you into labour do twice as much as they ask. And after all they have done, and will do, love them, greet them, pray for their well-being.
Why? Why do this? Because God does the same. God whose sun rises on the good and the bad alike. Whose rains fall upon both the just and the unjust.
There is life in this vision. Life and power and energy. It is not an ideal to be grudgingly followed day by day. It is not a burden to grind down the passion of life and leave people dry and petty and holier-than-thou. Instead it is a way of life that refuses to be beaten by oppression, and hangs on to freedom in the teeth of fear. It is heroic and dangerous. Maybe it is even attractive.
The challenge for us is not the living of that way of life from 2000 years ago but the struggle to know what it would mean here and now. How can one live with freedom and integrity and honour and passion— not under an occupying army but in a foreign land? What do Jesus’ words say to your situation? Vietnamese in America, trying hard to make a living and feed your family, and pay your taxes and just get by. What are your particular challenges? What is the danger of holiness for you? It’s a new year … Lent is coming. What does Jesus say to you?