“Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: Be Holy as God Is Holy”

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

Be Holy as God Is Holy

First Baptist Richmond, October 29, 2023
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-46

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

One thing we know for sure: that little synagogue in Nazareth where Jesus grew up had a Torah scroll. You couldn’t have a synagogue without one, without having the first five books of the Bible copied meticulously—by hand, by a scribe, using quill and ink—onto a long roll of sheepskin parchment. It took as long as a year to produce a scroll like that and, as you might guess, it was enormously expensive. These days a good quality Torah scroll can cost as much as $100,000. It wouldn’t have been like starting a men’s Bible study today, where you simply ask everyone to B.Y.O.B. (bring your own Bible). Starting a synagogue in the time of Jesus would have been a commitment. You would have had to go door to door raising money until you had enough to buy a Torah scroll. No wonder that, to this day, observant Jews love it so much. No wonder that they parade it around the synagogue singing songs of celebration. No wonder that they take it out of its velvet cover and kiss it like a trophy, guard it like a treasure. It is! If you can imagine the boy Jesus sitting in that synagogue in Nazareth watching all that, and feeling all that emotion, then you can imagine what it was like for him to hear someone read from Leviticus 19: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The word, in Hebrew, is kadosh. It is usually translated as “holy,” or “sacred,” or “set apart.” It is an adjective, which means it modifies a noun. And the noun it usually modifies is God, who is not only holy but, as you may have heard, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I don’t know how people heard the command to be holy in that little synagogue in Nazareth, but they may have had some idea of what holiness looks like from hearing Psalm 1, our Call to Worship for this morning: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord (the Torah), and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” “Be like that,” God may have meant. “Delight in the law of the Lord.” And there are some people who try to follow that particular path to holiness. They study the Bible faithfully. They underline their favorite passages. They read devotional materials and listen to Christian music. They do their best to live lives that are pure and pleasing to God. That may be you, and if that’s you, then good for you. May your tribe increase.

Only don’t overdo it.

I think the Pharisees overdid it. As I mentioned last week the scribes were the experts in the Law of Moses. They were the ones who would read through the Torah looking for any commandment they may have missed on the last time through, and over time they were able to identify 613 different commands: 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones: a “Thou shalt not!” for every day of the year. But it was the Pharisees who took those commands and tried to keep all 613 of them. That word, Pharisee, comes from the Hebrew word parash, which means “to separate.” Keep that in mind. The Pharisees wanted to be holy as God was holy. They tried to separate themselves from anything that was unholy. Their mothers must have taught them that cleanliness was next to godliness, because they came to associate holiness with cleanliness—with purity—and unholiness with anything that was unclean or impure.

But that’s not the only way to think of holiness, as the author of Leviticus understands. When he writes, “Be holy as God is holy,” he doesn’t mean “Be as holy as God is.” He means, “Be holy in the same way God is,” and later in that same chapter he gives some examples. Listen to the remaining verses in today’s reading from Leviticus 19, and in each verse listen for the word neighbor.

§  Verse 15: You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.

§  Verse 16: You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

§  Verse 17: You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.

§  Verse 18: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

If you were listening closely you may have noticed that none of these commands is about keeping yourself separated from what is unclean, or keeping yourself pure. Each of them is about the reality of life in the community, where you often rub shoulders with your neighbors and sometimes find those shoulders to be unclean.

Again, when the author of Leviticus tells us to be holy as God is holy, he isn’t saying that we have to be as holy as God is; he is saying that we need to be holy in the way God is: by treating our neighbors with justice; by not treating the rich better than the poor; by not slandering or murdering our neighbors; by refusing to hate them; by helping them get back on track when they go astray; and, yes, even by loving them—not necessarily by liking them, but, as Frederick Buechner says—“by acting in their best interests even if, personally, you can’t stand them.” Even if they play their music too loud. Even if they vote for the wrong candidate. That’s the way God has treated us; that’s the way his holiness has manifested itself.

It doesn’t mean that God isn’t perfect and pure. When you read those Old Testament stories you can often see why the people talked about the “fear” of the Lord. Out there in the wilderness God’s holiness—his kadosh—descended on Mount Sinai like a devouring fire. The author of Exodus says, “The smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.” When Moses spoke to God, God answered him in thunder. And yet God had come to make a covenant with his people, to say to them, like a groom might say to his bride at a wedding, “If you will be my people, then I will be your God.” It’s a tender moment; it’s another way of saying, “I love you. I want you for my own.”

The people responded like a bride might respond to her groom, by vowing that they would always be his. They promised to love him and honor him forever. They enshrined that promise in the words of the Shema, which every observant Jew is obliged to recite daily: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). It was, in the opinion of many, the first and greatest commandment. So I doubt that the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson were all that surprised when Jesus answered their question with those words. “Which commandment is the greatest?” they asked. “Love the Lord your God,” Jesus replied. And they must have been pleased. Because that’s what they were doing: loving God by trying to be just like him, by trying to be just as perfect and pure as he was, even if it meant separating themselves from everyone and everything else, from anything that might be imperfect or impure.

If you will notice, Jesus, who was the only begotten Son of a pure and perfect God, did not do that. At his baptism he waded into water that was muddy with human sin. In the wilderness he wrestled with diabolical temptation. In his ministry he reached out to lepers and prostitutes. At the table he ate with sinners and tax collectors. Maybe that’s why he stopped the Pharisees from walking away, nodding their heads, congratulating themselves for obeying the first and greatest commandment. Maybe that’s why he said, “Before you go, there is another commandment so closely related to the first that you cannot separate them (Did you hear that? Separate? From the Hebrew word parash?), and the other commandment is this,” Jesus said: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That is, you can’t separate yourself from the world. You can’t cut yourself off from others. You have to live in community. You have to rub shoulders with people who are neither perfect nor pure. You have to love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s how God has loved you.

Thanks to my friend Marcus Weinstein I was able to attend a lecture at the University of Richmond a few weeks ago where Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, was talking about his new book, The Upswing.[i] I was fascinated by the subtitle: “How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again,” because I’d love for us to do it again. Quoting from the back cover, The Upswing looks at the problems of “deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism—Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times. But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1880’s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented, just as it is today. However as the twentieth century opened, America became—slowly, unevenly, but steadily—more egalitarian, more cooperative, more generous; a society on the upswing, more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Sometime during the 1960’s, however, these trends reversed, leaving us in today’s disarrary.”

Robert Putnam is in his eighties these days. He is a professor of public policy at Harvard University and a former dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. I watched him pace back and forth on that stage, pointing to the graphs behind him, and marveled at the way he made sense of our current situation. “The temptation,” he said, “is to look at the decline that began in the late sixties and wonder what went wrong. What we need to do instead is look at the upswing that began in the late eighties—the late 1880’s, that is—and ask what went right? Because that’s when we started coming together as a nation.” He talked about a number of factors that may have contributed to the change, but then he summed it up by saying, “You know, you can do a word search to find out how often a particular word has been used during a particular period of time. The data is available.” He said, “I decided to compare the use of the words and we during the century under consideration and found that it was the same bell curve as the one we’ve been looking at. That is, when we were using ‘I’ more than ‘we,’ we were down here, at the bottom, but when we were using ‘we’ more than ‘I’ we were up here at the top.”

Does that surprise you? Does it surprise you to realize that Jesus figured it out 2,000 years before Robert Putnam did? And would it surprise you if Jesus said the author of Leviticus figured it out centuries before that? Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and in Leviticus 19 he learned that you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That is the key to prosperity! If you want a happy, healthy, functional society you have to stop caring only about yourself; you have to look around to see how your neighbor is doing, and if your neighbor is not doing well, you have to help! And I have to say, this [holding up my phone], the so-called “smartphone,” is not helping us.

There’s a mural just down the street from here, a two-story-tall painting on the side of a building of a teenage girl looking at her phone.[ii] Maybe you’ve seen it. I have this funny idea that the artist, Nils Westergard, was trying to paint a portrait of that girl but couldn’t get her to look up from her phone, so eventually he just painted that. But it is an iconic image. And it is ubiquitous. Because if you ever take a break and look up from your phone you will see that everyone else is looking down at theirs. And it’s not only teenagers; it’s us old people, too.

How are you going to love your neighbor if you never look up from your phone? And how are you going to love God? “Oh,” you say, “that’s how I love God! I’ve got my Bible app on there, and my daily devotions, and my Christian music, and right now, even as you preach, I’m watching you on the live webcast from Richmond’s First Baptist Church—on my phone!” Okay. Okay. But when the sermon is over look up, and look around, and see if anyone else is with you. Is it possible that, even without meaning to, you have cut yourself off from others, isolated yourself, separated yourself? Is it possible that, even without meaning to, you have become a Pharisee?

There’s a remedy for that, and the remedy is community, where you have to rub shoulders with other people, people who are imperfect and impure. And I’m just going to say it: church may be the perfect place to find people like that, because we know we’re sinners. We know we need God. And we know we need each other. We come here sometimes simply because we are trying, in the best way we know how, to love God with all our heart, and soul, and might,

And our neighbors as ourselves.

—Jim Somerville © 2023