... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Epiphany 7 Year A
Message February 23, 2014

Be Holy!

Text: Leviticus 19:1-18; Matthew 5:38-48

If we thought last week’s readings were difficult, the readings this week are doozies! While continuing to look beyond the laws the regulations and the commandments, we are instructed in what appear to be unnatural responses to common human emotions and behaviours. The demands made by Jesus concerning justice and relationships go way past normal civil conventions and contractual agreements to push the boundaries of common sense. And we must receive them if we are to have any comprehension as to the depth and breadth of discipleship.

To begin by taking the lesson of the gospel out of context places a horrendous obligation on the back of disciples and would-be followers – a burden that truly exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. Yet it is this saying of Jesus concerning the exceeding of the righteousness of the Pharisee’s heard on Epiphany 5 that has set the tone for the past two weeks. How does one exceed the righteous of the Pharisees? What is it to be a disciple? What does it mean to be in the Kingdom or to see God? It is this context of a radically different reality of Divine human and human-human relationships which Jesus is calling his disciples to become and to be.

Over the years this particular Gospel passage has been taken in various ways to mollify or appease Christian followers in their comfortable pews: things like trying to explain how turning the other cheek was an elaborate ploy to avoid being struck with the back of the hand and thus avoid a certain civil offense. Yet we now see that these sayings of Jesus are not veiled niceties to the society of any era. In fact Jesus’ sayings are straight forward, uncompromising and, unfettered. They are beyond hard. However, if we are to be Disciples of Christ, if we are to be more righteous than the Pharisees or scribes, or if we are to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven we must follow what Jesus commands for it is that element by which we will truly be holy.

In the Leviticus reading we are informed that God declared the children of Israel to be holy not because of what they did or who they were, but because God is holy. And that holiness has a practical side in the present which cannot be ignored or relegated to some ethereal reality beyond. That practical side deals with relationships between one another and between humans and God. Superficially those relationships are covered by the Ten Commandments. But, like everything else in human behaviour, we find ways to skirt the commandments. We ask for specifics, we pose theoretical “what ifs” to test the limits and bounds of the generalities and we look for loop holes to ease our thoughts and consciences regarding our own behaviours. As we look at the injunctions mentioned in Leviticus we see a list of behaviours which over the centuries have engendered various laws enabling us to avoid the basic reasons why those laws were established by God in the first place. How many modern farmers or farming corporations leave edges of the field unharvested so that the general population can come onto the land and glean a part of the crop? That today would contravene trespassing laws, the farmers would see hordes of strangers devastating their farms, their income and their livelihoods. Defrauding neighbour seems like a no brainer. However look at it on a wider scope and we see how senators – staying within the “legal bounds” reap benefits on the backs of neighbours that would normally be considered unscrupulous. The rendering of judgments while not to be partial is always done from the vantage point of one’s own set of social parameters, e.g. long-haired bearded teenage boys are seen as ne’er-do-wells, and we become prejudiced against them by our own particular constructs.

The psalmist seems to have understood this and the human element which inherently flaws our actions as he (or she) asks to be taught the way of the statutes and to be given an understanding of God’s intentions. It is more than keeping the laws which is required, and which needs to be practiced. It is a consciousness of what is right in God’s understanding and being able to incorporate that into our being. Then and then only can we consider what it is to be holy.

And perhaps that is what Paul was attempting to convey to the Christians at Corinth. His logic goes like this: holiness belongs to God alone and was bestowed to Christ and as Christ brings people to him he makes them holy and that holiness is evident in how they act in the present.

And once again we return to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is a sermon on how one is to be holy. Holiness can only come from God and in response true disciples mirror that holiness in how they relate to the world around them. That relation is exactly as Jesus lays it out. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek – turn the other; if anyone sues you for your coat, give also your cloak. If you are forced to go a mile, go also a second. If someone begs from you – give; likewise anyone who want to borrow. The sayings are radical and go beyond the accepted norms of justice.

The saying, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” comes from an ancient Ugaritic law – the ‘Hammurabi’ Code which, radical in its day, stemmed escalating reprisals for offenses and thereby established a code that states, “let the punishment fit the crime.” Such a system of justice took centuries to incorporate into society and even today many thousands of years later still forms the basis of our punitive judgements. However, Jesus told his audience that such a system didn’t come near the relationship needed to experience the kingdom or to be followed by disciples. Forgiveness, reconciliation and, unfettered love needed to be the foundation of dealings with friends and enemies alike.

Such is the nature of living that Jesus calls us to live. Some will balk at these stating they are unrealistic and that given the nature of human behaviour “the others’ will simply take advantage of those trying to live as Jesus commands. The others will reap, pillage, take over and in general have their way with the disciples. Yet that’s not what Jesus implies. Elsewhere he tells his disciples to be shrewd in their dealings and to discern the ways of the worldly. We might thus ask, “How can this be reconciled?”

The best explanation is that of active non-retaliation – a seemingly oxymoron. None-the-less let’s examine what that means. It means resisting aggression and wrong systems by actively protesting by non-aggressive means – civil disobedience such as employed by Ghandi, or advocated by Martin Luther King. It means knowing how to give and at the same time to avoid being an accessory to the beggar’s addiction or abuse of the alms. It means knowing how to lend without causing harm to him, to self or, to others.

One of the most difficult things I face when in Toronto is dealing with all the beggars. Do I give them some money or just walk on by? My natural tendency would be to walk on pretending just to ignore them. If they are playing or performing for the public – then a giving shows an appreciation for their skills. But just those begging – a dollar for a coffee? How can you know that the dollar you give isn’t going to end up with a needle in the arm or a bottle in a paper bag? A friend of mine taught me that you offer to treat the beggar to a coffee and sandwich. Then it is up to him or her to accept or reject. Active non-retaliation. It is going the extra mile and in the end protects both.

The directive of Jesus if taken to its ultimate conclusion and practiced by everyone would see an end to hostilities, an end to poverty, and an end to criminality. Unfortunately we are not there yet but we are none-the-less admonished to be holy to be perfect and to love unconditionally. Let us pray

Gracious Lord we confess we are unable to be holy by our own efforts. We fall short in all aspects of our lives. But you are holy and have called us to be holy. Help us by your Holy Spirit to see how we can change, how we can be and, how we can relate to you and one another to truly become your disciples so as to be lights to the world and a hope for the future.

Amen!