Getting to the Heart of Holiness

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 5, 2013

Leviticus 19:1-2; Matthew 5:48; (ESV) Luke 6:36; (also CEB) Luke 10:30-36

Three verses that at first seem very similar in orientation:

Be holy.

Be perfect.

Be merciful, or as some translations render it, which I actually prefer, be compassionate (CEB).

But upon closer examination, these verses are in many ways poles apart, with “be holy” on one end, “be merciful” or “be compassionate” on the other end, and perhaps “be perfect” somewhere in the middle.  These verses, though simple as they might seem, are indicative of a deep tension that existed in the religious world of Jesus’ day, and in some ways are indicative of a deep tension that exists in the Christian religion of our own day.

“Be holy” served as the banner for the Jewish purity system that was the dominant religious and social vision of Jesus’ day.  It was the vision of the religious elite who controlled the Temple and religious system and rituals, and thus, that controlled people’s lives.  Of course, this vision had ample support in the Hebrew Scriptures, history, and Jewish social life.  To be holy really meant at the core to be pure, to be separate; to keep oneself clean from anything that might pollute or defile.  One need only read the book of Leviticus, which was considered by many Jews to be the authoritative Law of the Jewish people, to see why this idea of purity, being separate, keeping oneself clean, had such an impact on the thought and lives of the Jewish people.

The question arises as to why such an emphasis on being holy, remaining pure, became so paramount, especially to those responsible for maintaining the Jewish religion.  One factor, some scholars think, was the Jewish Exile to Babylonia which occurred in 597 BCE.   It was believed by many that the invasion of Judah and the Exile from the homeland was permitted by God because the Jewish people had failed to be faithful.  So in order to keep something like that from ever happening again, and to bring a sense of religious identity and cohesiveness to the Jewish people, it was important that they keep themselves pure, holy, set apart.  So partly out of fear and partly as a framework of identity that set them apart from the rest of the world, being holy or pure became paramount.  It became the controlling religious and social force for the Jewish people and was carried to such extremes that it made the lives of many miserable.

But the vision of a holy people—set apart, pure, unspotted by the world—was not the only vision present in pre-Jesus Jewish thought.  There was another vision that often was at odds with the holiness vision and purity system espoused by the priestly class, and that was the vision of the Jewish prophets that focused upon compassion and justice.  And so, we hear someone like 8th century BCE prophet Amos, who serves as an excellent antithesis to the priestly purity system, cry out in the name of God, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; . . .  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-22, 24).  Do you see the tension in those three verses between the priestly-purity, sacrificial system and the prophetic vision of compassion and justice?  There was for a long time this tension between these two different visions in Jewish religious thought: between those who believed that to be people of God meant to be holy, set apart, pure, and all the sacrifices and rituals and necessary support that went with it; and then those who believed that to be the people of God meant to be compassionate and see that justice was done.

And so, it was into this world of Jewish thought where the holiness-purity system prevailed that Jesus was born, raised, and educated.  It was a world where Jesus saw much hypocrisy, oppression, and extremism.  And it was a religious world that he felt he had to confront head-on.

The idea of a meek and mild Jesus that I grew up with seems to no longer be the case.  I have come to realize in recent years that Jesus was much more political than I had ever imagined.  As Marcus Borg points out in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Jesus was very political in his life, teachings, and overt actions.1  Borg states that Jesus advocated “what might be called a politics of compassion,” in contrast to the politics of purity that prevailed in that day.  Stories of Jesus’ healings, where he touched lepers, hemorrhaging women, and other untouchables; his practice of an open and inclusive table, as he ate with prostitutes, tax collectors, and others that were deemed to be the worst of sinners; his entering a graveyard where a man was thought to be filled with evil spirits; all of these actions and more flew directly into the face of the priests and holiness-purity system.  But one of the most overt, but also most overlooked, evidences of Jesus’ politics of compassion was his teachings, and most notably, his “warm and fuzzy parables” that we have by and large failed to understand.

Take, for instance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, what Marcus Borg refers to as an “often domesticated parable [that] was originally a pointed attack on the purity system and an advocacy of another way: compassion.”  As Borg points out, this parable is “most often interpreted as a message about being a helpful neighbor.”   But “it in fact had a much more pointed meaning in the first-century Jewish world.”   In the parable, the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side, refusing to go near the wounded, and possibly dead, man on the side of the road.  To have done so, could have made them unclean; broken the religious purity laws.  But the Samaritan, who himself is deemed by the priestly class to be unclean, “had compassion,” and ran to the wounded man, cared for him, took him to town, and paid for his care.  By framing the parable as he did, Jesus was casting a not-so-subtle attack on the holiness-purity system of the day by promoting the politics of compassion.

Thus, Jesus aligned himself with the prophetic vision of compassion and justice, and squarely pitted himself against the priestly vision of holiness and purity.  You see, the holiness-purity system of Jesus’ day had become an unholy alliance between the religious elite ruling class that controlled the Temple, and the political world of Rome.  It had become an oppressive system that crushed the common people, which led Jesus to utter cries of condemnation to the priests who demanded tithes even of the tiniest herbs, but neglected the weightier matters of the Law—justice and mercy (compassion).   “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:23)  In the spirit of the Hebrew prophets like Amos, for Jesus “Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God.”

Okay, fast forward 2,000 years.  The tension between those in American Christianity who insist on holiness and purity over against those who emphasize compassion and justice still exists today.  Those who insist on a life of complete holiness and purity tend to draw boundaries around themselves and exclude those who are not deemed to be holy or pure enough.  Everyone else who does not believe and act in the way that it is thought they should act is a sinner.  Often, the boundary lines come down around social issues.  On the one side are those who see these issues as issues of holiness or purity, and on the other side are those who see them as issues of compassion and justice.

For me, what it in large measure boils down to is the question of, Does holiness mean separating yourself from the world, or does it mean making yourself accessible to the world?  If we consider the life, teachings, and actions of Jesus, I think the answer is clear.  As Borg says, “Whereas purity divides and excludes, compassion unites and includes.”

And so, to consider the title of today’s sermon, what is at the heart of holiness?  Is it purity, separation, exclusion, boundary lines?  Down through the centuries, many have thought so.  And many still think so today.  Or, is the heart of holiness compassion and justice?  Amos the prophet thought so.   And so did Jesus.  And that is good enough for me.  Amen.

1Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.  Quotations drawn from Chapter 3, “Jesus, Compassion, and Politics.”


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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