Year A Epiphany 7: How to be perfect

There is good news in the fact that the Lord our God is holy. There is grace in the perfection of our heavenly Father, and we wouldn’t want any lesser kind of god.

But what do we make of these instructions to us: Be holy, says Moses: be perfect, says Jesus?

Just, you know, do it.
Be holy.
Be perfect.

To be fair, we are not left without any guidance. This portion of Leviticus is known as the holiness code, because of the repeated use of the word, “holy.” Leviticus gives all sorts of instructions for that holiness, some of which are, to our modern, Gentile ears, quite arcane: like avoiding crossbreeding livestock or planting two crops in the same field, or wearing garments made of mixed fibres.

Yet other instructions are quite general and universally recognized as eminently sensible: you shall not steal or swindle; you shall not blaspheme; you shall not deal fraudulently with anyone; you shall not torment the vulnerable, just because you can. You shall not pervert the course of justice. You shall not deplete by your own greed the fringes of the fruitfulness of the earth that might sustain your poor neighbour. Actually, in the modern context we could be getting into controversial territory with that one, if we think about our battles over welfare and entitlements and overseas aid.

And that’s the thing. It is worth noting here that the holiness code was a set of standards for living in society. Sure, some of them were expressed at an individual level, but they were for the people as a whole, for the community of the people of God. The people had a choice, as they came into the land that they would eventually settle, to embrace the gods that they found there, or to hold fast to the Lord their God who had brought them out of Egypt, and only to God. They chose God, and the instructions of the Law were intended to be societal norms for a society which defined itself as set apart to do God’s will, as holy.

Certainly, there are areas in which we as a society fall well short of the perfection of holiness.

We agree that we shall not put an obstacle in front of someone who is deaf or blind or otherwise physically challenged – unless, as a church, we are exempt from expensive ADA requirements.

We tie ourselves in knots to resist Jesus’ command, “Do not resist an evildoer,” and replace it with the noble-sounding phrase, “stand your ground.”

We have perverted the commandments not to profit by the blood of a neighbor; not to seek vengeance. We have problems administering the death penalty in Ohio precisely because the people making the drugs that were used to kill did not want to profit by another man’s blood, did not want their product used for vengeance, and withdrew it; so we continue to hunt down alternative sources of death, and ride roughshod over the principles of others who cling more closely to the holiness code than do we, the people, with our legalized revenge.[1]

But how do we deal with “give to everyone who begs from you”?  What does, “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow” have to do with subprime lending? Can we reconcile, “love your enemies” with Al Qaeda?

Yes, there are areas of complexity in living a holy and perfect life. Leviticus says, “You shall not lie to one another;” yet as soon as the people begin their incursion into the Promised Land, the lies of a known prostitute, Rahab of Jericho, are precisely what open the way for them; and she is rewarded with her life, and with the acclamation of the New Testament, as one who achieved God’s purposes by faith (Hebrews11:31); as one who was shown to be righteous before God when she received the spies of Joshua as her guests and sent them safely on their way (James 2:25).

Awarding a Medal of Righteousness to a French resistor of the Nazi regime, who saved countless Jewish families by hiding them from their persecutors, creating false documents and lying to his neighbours, ‘one of the speakers said, ‘The righteous are not exempt from evil.’ [The pastor’s wife] remembers the sentence word for word. The righteous must often pay a price for their righteousness: their own ethical purity.’[2]

But such conundrums are the exceptions. We know the rules for holiness, in our hearts. We have the potential to do better, to come closer to perfection when we affirm the equality of all, the dignity of each, the value of everyone. We know the rules for holiness in our hearts. We know that perfection lies not in slavery to them, but in love. “Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord,” concludes our Levitical passage. We know when we are acting out of something less than love.

The epistle advises, “do not deceive yourselves with clever excuses…. He catches the wise in their craftiness.” Paul should know. He spent his time and energy persecuting Christians in the name of holiness before he saw the light on the road to Damascus. “Do not deceive yourselves,” he says. We know when we are acting out of something less than love.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” says Moses on behalf of God. Throughout the Bible, the description of holy is used overwhelming for God above all else.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” says Jesus.

So our consciences are guided by the holiness of God.

What would God say about privatizing the prison industry so that “success” can be defined by the number of sons and daughters we incarcerate?

What does Jesus say about the death sentence?

What does God say about providing for the poor and the alien, the undocumented, the stranger?

How would Jesus respond to an application for permission to discriminate against a brother or a sister on religious grounds?[3]

What does Jesus say, hanging from the cross: what does Jesus say about standing your ground?

We know what we are called to do: to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our strength and all of our mind; to love God perfectly; and to love our neighbours as perfectly as ourselves.

We tend to hear commandments as a challenge, as trouble. But there is good news for us, too, and grace in the words of Moses and of Jesus. There is good news in the fact that the Lord our God is holy. There is grace in the perfection of our Father in heaven, and we, like our spiritual ancestors, faced with a choice wouldn’t want any lesser kind of god.

I am the Lord your God, says the Lord.

I have shown you holiness; I have shown you love. I do not resist you. When you persecute me, I set my angels to pray for you. I do not hold back from you the good things that you need. I shall not hate you, because you are my family, my children. I do not seek vengeance against you.

I am the Lord your God and I love you indiscriminately, making the sun rise on the evil and on the good, sending the rain to fall on the righteous and on the others.

I love you, whether or not you reach perfection, whether or not you are righteous, whether or not you feel holy.

I am the Lord your God.

So go ahead and be holy; be perfect; and know that God loves you perfectly, no matter what.

[2] Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, Philip Hallie (HarperPerennial edn, 1994), 126-7

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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