In this morning’s first reading from Leviticus 19 God’s message to Moses for the “whole Israelite people” is a clear imperative. “Be holy,” God says, “for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” God goes on to explain how this holiness is to be achieved, summarizing at the end of the passage with a line familiar to many of us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As if to put an exclamation point on that command, there’s a “P.S.” God adds for emphasis, “I AM THE LORD.” In other words, “This is a direct command to which you’d better pay attention!”
It seems as if they didn’t get the message very well as it is a constant throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and in Matthew’s 5th chapter as well. Paul asks the people, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God [and that] the temple of God is holy?” He goes on to talk about us all belonging to each other, and “you to Christ and Christ to God”. How is this belonging possible unless we recognize our relationship to one another?
When Jesus came he said he wasn’t here to abolish the Mosaic law (Leviticus) but rather to fulfill it. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s covenant with Israel was broadened and strengthened with each age as people learned more about this God whom they served. In Jesus, they saw the fulfillment of that covenant. No longer were they only to love those who loved them. Jesus said some startling things that even now are hard for us to accept. “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” OR “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.” Pretty strong stuff, yes? What Jesus was trying to teach us is that we need to go beyond our comfort zones because all people are children of God. It was easier to just stay in our own environment (hometown, ethnic group, religious community) when there were no automobiles. Still before the airplane, it was easier for us to engage only in our own state, province or country. Now we are citizens of the world! We can hardly go a day without encountering in person individuals who were born on the other side of the world – or through the media learning about ways of life radically different from our own. It seems much more difficult to be holy in our time. But the questions Jesus asks this morning are meant to resound in our hearts, not our heads.
If you love only those who love you, what recompense will you have? If you greet your brothers [and sisters] only, what is unusual about that?
With those questions ringing in my heart, I will need to go through the day observing what and whom I exclude from my circle of acceptance, whether near or far. Then I will need to ask myself “Do I really want to be holy?”