Sunday, February 19, 2017

Be Perfect, Be Holy

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A)
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3.10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5.38-48
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect? Really?

You thought last week’s Gospel lesson was difficult to hear. Where Jesus reinterpreted “you shall not murder” to make anger equal to murder and “you shall not commit adultery” to make even impure thoughts equal to adultery. Things that are pretty near impossible for us mere mortals to live up to. And now he tells us that we are to be perfect like God. What is he thinking?

Maybe the first part of today’s Gospel reading will help us figure it out. Jesus starts today’s lesson talking about the ancient principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” While we often think of this as justification for retribution, if not revenge, that is not quite what the Old Testament concept was about. Yes, “an eye for an eye” was meant to indicate that one suffering a grievance was entitled to exact a commensurate payment from or inflict a corresponding punishment upon a wrongdoer. But this principle of retaliation was originally intended to put limits on penalties – to prevent personal vendettas and the escalation of violence.

But just as Jesus reframed and provided stricter interpretations for some of the commandments last week, here he is likewise putting his followers under a stricter interpretation of the law – holding them to a higher standard. His followers are not to seek any act of revenge against one who does evil to them. For in doing so, they are liable to become the very evil they seek to oppose. It is too easy to go from seeking justice to “getting even.” He then gives specific examples. Examples that would have been clearly understood by his original audience, although maybe not so much for us modern-day hearers.

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Since most people are right-handed, striking the right side of the face would require a backhanded slap. This was the normal way for a superior to demean an inferior. While not too painful physically, the act was more symbolic. It would have been meant as an act of insult and shaming, striking a blow to the honor of the one being struck. Turning “the other cheek,” presenting the left cheek for striking, would require the aggressor to use the fist of his right hand to strike another blow. To hit someone with the fist was considered an acknowledgement that the other person is an equal as opposed to an inferior. By turning the other cheek, one does not lift a finger in retaliation, but rather forces the aggressor to acknowledge the other as an equal. The recipient of the blow succeeds in denying the aggressor’s power – his power to dehumanize and humiliate another person.

“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” In Jesus’ time, Jewish men wore two garments: a linen tunic as an undergarment and a heavier cloak over the tunic. Jewish law protected the rights to the outer garment, which was often used as a blanket. The law specifically prohibited taking the cloak as security for a loan. The example Jesus sets up is a lawsuit in which the debtor who is ordered to give up his tunic as payment for a loan is urged to give his cloak, as well. By giving up both garments, the defendant would be left naked. Scripture says that it is shameful to look upon the nakedness of another (unless they are married). Therefore, the creditor in this lawsuit would have brought shame upon himself rather than shame upon the defendant.

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This is a reference to the legal right of Roman soldiers to force citizens into service, primarily as porters. However, Roman law stated that a soldier could require a civilian to carry his baggage for only one mile. To have the civilian carry his belongings a greater distance, the soldier would risk disciplinary action. By offering to go an extra mile, a person is not only making an act of protest, but also paving the way for the soldier to be reprimanded.

In all these cases, Jesus is commending his followers to be obedient rather than resist. In fact, he is commending them to be extra-obedient. And in their extra obedience, they receive satisfaction for the offenses against them because their honor is upheld, even in situations specifically meant to dishonor them. But the key message Jesus is conveying is about our relationship with God. That we need to be extra obedient in our relationship with God. To go the extra mile. God wants us live according to his laws. But Jesus suggests we do that and even more. To go farther. Not because we have to, but because we want to. And when we go that extra mile out of love for God, we are blessed and honored in God’s sight.

As always, Jesus manages to connect our relationship to God directly to our relationships with one another. As we talked last week, something of our relationship with God is reflected in our relationship with others. We see this when Jesus then says it is not enough to simply love our neighbor. Rather, we are also to love our enemies. It doesn’t mean we have to like them and become best buddies with them. But we are to love them. To recognize that they are children of God, just as we are. And not only that. We are even to pray for them. Because to pray for our enemies is to lift them up before God. To attempt to see them from God’s point of view and to respond to them positively rather than negatively. To put before ourselves a stark reminder that these, too – even our enemies – are loved by God. And because God loves them, we are to, as well. Try it. It can be hard to bring yourself to pray for someone you don’t like or who you consider an enemy. But once you get to the point where you can, you will find that you cannot pray for an enemy for very long without beginning to see them in a different light. To see them as a child of God, just as you are. To recognize that they are loved by God, just as you are.

And this brings us to that troublesome verse – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect here does not mean that we are to be sinless, but rather whole, complete, mature. Being perfect is not being morally flawless, but rather is about serving God wholeheartedly. As in so many other places in scripture, we see that serving God completely means loving neighbor as self. This means being complete, impartial, and even-handed in living out the laws of God. That we are to put aside our personal biases, our animosities, and to begin to, or at least try to, see others, as children of God. To see them the way God sees them. To treat them in the same manner God would treat them. In the same manner that God treats us. We are to treat everyone – neighbor and stranger, friend and enemy – with extreme generosity, with love and mercy, just as God does. Because we are God’s children. No. Because they are God’s children.

This actually refers back to a similar, although more complete, injunction put forth in our Old Testament reading from Leviticus. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” To be perfect is to be holy, just as God is holy. This section of Leviticus is part of the Holiness Code which lays out a series of ethical and ritual commands that are intended to help humanity at least approximate the holiness God desires for us.

We often think of holiness as being special or extraordinary, a step above. Maybe as being perfect, even unapproachable. Particularly with respect to religious matters. And while that may be the case in one sense, the real definition of “holy” is something or someone who is set apart, dedicated to a religious purpose or a god. For Israel, being “holy” is a positive concept, meant to be an inspiration and a goal associated with God’s nature and his desire for humans to be holy. As he tells his people directly “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Because God is holy and because God is in intentional relationship with his people, they are therefore holy by virtue of that relationship. Based on this definition, we are holy simply by virtue of being Christian. We have chosen, by entering into the Body of Christ, to be holy – to be set apart and dedicated to Jesus and to God.

In the part of his first letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning, Paul addresses the same issue using different language still. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” In our baptisms, we are given new life in God through Christ. The Holy Spirit becomes part of who we are, energizing us and giving us life in God. The Spirit makes us holy and gives us the resources we need to live a life of holiness.

When Paul says “you,” he is not talking about the individual. “You” is plural, referring to the entire Christian community. The Body of Christ. Assuming the imminent end of the ages, Paul sees no need for Christian temples – for buildings for worship. Instead, he sees the community as the temple within which God dwells. Of course, 2,000 years later, we have a slightly different perspective. We do have buildings for worship and for doing ministry. But that does not change the fact that we ourselves are the true temple of God. Dwelling within us, we are the means by which God is made known to the world. We are the means by which God’s love and mercy are made manifest in the world.

All three readings demonstrate the ideal way of living that is a result of our obedience to God. We are to exhibit radical love toward our neighbor – toward all people – through the perfect example of Christ. In this, we are called to holiness. In this we are made holy. The Holiness Code lays out the basic requirements – love of neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes this to a whole other level, rooted in the lived experiences of the people. And 1st Corinthians places these expectations for holiness squarely on the members of the community as the outward and visible sign of God’s work in the world, lived out in our lives and ministries. In this, we are truly perfect, truly holy.

That’s why one of my favorite invitations to communion, after I consecrate the bread and wine, is an ancient Orthodox invitation – “These are God’s holy gifts, for you who are God’s holy people.” As a reminder that we are all indeed holy, just as the sacred gifts of bread and wine, made body and blood through the prayer of consecration, are holy. Nourishing us and strengthening us to be the perfect, holy presence of Christ in the world.

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