Sunday, October 23, 2005

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15:18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Ye shall be holy; for I Jehovah your God am holy.

Wow. Be holy because the Lord your God is holy. How's that for starting off with the impossible? I think of my days and wonder if I've ever had even one that could be counted as holy, let alone an entire life. When we think of God's holiness, it references two aspect of God's character His magnificence and purity. We tremble before God's majesty and all fall before His moral judgment. We can't stand before our God, for our righteousness is nothing but dirty rags in light of His presence.

So, how can we possibly be holy? I can't get through a day without yelling at my kids or thinking unkind thoughts about my neighbor. Some days I can't seem to get through a minute without doing something that is far from holy. Yet, we are called to be holy. What does this mean for you and me? What does it mean to be holy people of God, called to be like Him in this world?

Our reading takes us further into the chapter to a list of laws governing the public witness of our relationships with others. These rules are about judging rightly and fairly and treating one another as we would want to be treated. In other words, these rules call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In verse 15 the LORD says, "Do not pervert justice." He adds, "Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great." Justice is not about lifting up one type of person above another, it is about judging fairly. Though it might not seem right according to our politically correct society, sometimes the rich man is right. We are to treat all people fairly, no matter their circumstances.

The next two rules are related. "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor." We should not harm our neighbor by words or actions. As children we learn that "Sticks and stones break my bones but words can never hurt me," and yet as adults we learn that slander can destroy a life. If a businessman is slandered, he might lose his customers, leaving his family desolate. A false statement against a teacher can mean removal from the job. A leader who has been slandered will lose the authority of their position. For some, these loses are worse than death.

"Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart." I think there are few adults that would truly say they hate someone. It is more likely for us to separate ourselves from those for whom we have dislike or conflict. We'd rather not deal with the sins between us, so we walk away from the relationship. Yet, this instruction is juxtaposed with the law, "Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor." If we don't, the Lord tells us that we will share in their guilt. In other words, though we would much rather keep our noses out of the business of our neighbors, thinking that their sin is not our concern, we are called to rebuke our brother for their sake and our own. If a brother or sister is doing something wrong and we ignore the trespass, we are as much to blame for the harm it causes another. In this case, love means truth no matter how much it might pain us to speak.

Our reading ends with a command for forgiveness. In this passage it is given to us in the negative. We are not to seek revenge or hold grudges, but is that not forgiveness? When we choose to end the pain by not passing it back or holding on to it in our heart, we choose to be holy as our Father in heaven is holy. We choose to practice mercy and grace.

Finally, the passage sums up the previous rules, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." We are called to be righteous not in terms of moral behavior but in terms of justice, doing what is right and fair for and to our neighbor. We are called to be truthful in the way we deal with our neighbor both when speaking about them and to them. We are called to respect their life, body and soul. We are called to forgive, so that our relationships might grow stronger and our love deeper.

Wow. I don't think Moses' exegesis of that command to be holy because God is holy makes it any less impossible for me to be holy. I know I've been wrong when judging people. I know I'm biased, even if I don't want to admit it to myself. I know that there are times, even when I don't mean to do so, that I tell untruths about my neighbors that harm them in some way. I've endangered my neighbor's life when I've driven too fast on the highway. Worst of all, I've been silent when I should have said something that might have stopped another from continuing in sin.

The Old Testament lesson ends with the statement, "I am the LORD." In the midst of our inability to be obedient to these commands, our inability to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are reminded that God is the LORD. We see ourselves, our brokenness, our failure through the eyes of His majesty and purity. Yet, there is hope in those words, that He is LORD, despite our inability to stand before Him. He has given us His words His law as a gift. Through His word He draws us into His presence and fills us with His love. As we meditate upon His laws, they are written on our heart and though our flesh is weak, He makes us strong. God's word separates us, transforming us even as it humbles us. It is not our ability to be majestic or pure that makes us holy. God makes us holy through His word.

We see an example of such living from the Apostle Paul in today's epistle to the Thessalonians. Things apparently did not go very well on a recent trip to Thessalonica. There was some sort of opposition to the work of Paul. It seems as if he was somehow slandered, requiring a defense of his actions. He appealed to their hearts and to their faith. "But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us." He shared the Gospel message of God and took nothing in return. He loved them wholly with the love of God.

Jesus draws from the Old Testament passage in today's Gospel lesson. The Sadducees and Pharisees were trying to find some way to put a stop to Jesus' ministry. They thought that if only they could catch Him in violating some Jewish or Roman law, then perhaps the people would turn away or he would be arrested. Last week they tried to trip Him with the question of taxes. This week a Pharisee, an expert in the law of Moses, asks him which is the greatest law. With six hundred and thirteen to choose from, surely Jesus would make someone mad with His choice.

Jesus answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." He added, "And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." The entire record of God rests upon those two commands. The scriptures of the Jews Pharisee and Sadducee could be summarized with just a couple sentences. While we could spend days some theologians spend a lifetime discussing, debating, interpreting and understanding the Ten Commandments and the other six hundred and three laws, holiness is not achieved by obedience to a list of rules. Holiness comes in our commitment to living as God has called and gifted us to live.

Love is about commitment. All too many young people today talk of love and rush into relationships that have little basis or commitment. When things go sour, when things do not go the way they want, when their partners fail to live up to their expectation, they walk away. Many people try to test out marriage, to see if it will work. Yet it will never work because they do not go into the relationship with any sense of commitment. Commitment takes work. It means giving heart, soul and mind the whole self into the relationship. Love is far more than physical attraction. It is willing to sacrifice for the sake of another, to give one's whole self into the relationship.

Yet, these commands Jesus lists call for us to love threefold God, neighbor and self. How is it possible for us to give wholly to all three? We automatically assume that if we give 100% to someone else, then that leaves nothing for ourselves, so we give 50%. Doing so makes us neither holy nor whole. Yet, when we give everything to God heart, soul and mind He is able to do that which we can not do.

The problem with the Pharisees and the Sadducees is that they had a preconceived notion of what they expected from the Messiah. He was to be a son of David, an earthly king who would save the people from Rome and leave them alone to continue the work of the temple. Though David played a role in the work of the temple and had oversight authority over the priests, He could not engage in the tasks specifically given to the priests the sons of Aaron. So, they expected their place in Israel to be unaffected by the emergence of the Christ. Jesus devastated that perspective with His teaching.

Jesus ended their questions with one of His own. "What think ye of the Christ? whose son is he?" They answered, "David." Out of the scriptures Jesus showed them that it was not possible for the Messiah to be simply a son of David, for the Messiah was foretold to be a King-Priest in the line of Melchizedek, who was of a higher order of priests whose rule is permanent and irrevocable. He would reign forever. Jesus was not the Messiah for whom they were looking. He was far more. He was the holy, anointed One; the only one who could ever be holy even as God is holy.

The psalmist writes, "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: but his delight is in the law of Jehovah; and on his law doth he meditate day and night." While it is good and right for us to spend time reading and studying God's Word, laying it upon our heart so that we will be transformed by God into disciples, it will never bring us the holiness we so desire. No, we can't be holy as our God is holy.

We can, however, love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. In loving God, He will dwell with us and in us. "And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, That bringeth forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also doth not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." We love because He first loved us and in His love we live. We are holy not because we can attain holiness but because God brings His fruit to life in our lives. Thanks be to God.

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