Cracking the Holiness Code

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18

Cracking the Holiness Code

Feb. 20, 2011

In a three year cycle of readings, we read from Leviticus once.  So we may as well talk about the reading we have before us this morning.   Our next opportunity will be in 2014…Haley’s comet comes around more often than this!  It is a daunting book of the Bible, with its forbidding laws and seemingly narrow moral prescriptions.  Do this, don’t do that.  Start doing this, stop doing that. 

 The key to the book of Leviticus is the phrase holiness to the Lord, a phrase occurring 152 times.[1]   We are in the section of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26). There is an unrelenting call to holiness, because “I, the Lord thou God, am holy.”  God leads the way, and the people of God are to follow in God’s holy footsteps.  The areas of life in which holiness is required include eating, sexual behavior, social ethics, family relations, property, and things related to the priesthood and sacrifice.   In other words, all aspects of one’s life are subject to this code. The Holiness code is not a mere retelling of the Ten Commandments. It is a  practical illustration of how it all is supposed to work in our lives.

We have a real problem with this book of the Bible.  Namely, one of the more insulting things that could be said of a person is that he or she is “holier than thou.” Makes you cringe just to think about it, doesn’t it?  I have a friend who teases me about my vocation, calling me “her Holiness.”  I know he is kidding, but if I didn’t it would be pretty insulting! (He also calls me “your Grace”, which I like a lot more.)  Anyway, suffice to say that being holy is something we ascribe to God and Jesus Christ, but shrink from applying it to ourselves.  And that is wrong.

Leviticus is setting forth a central truth of scripture:  we can and should imitate the holiness of God, and this is the point of all the 600 some laws of Judaism.  To imitate the essential character of God is not an impossible goal, but rather it should be the direction in which all of our goals in life are heading.  “God’s holiness acts both as model and as motivating force in the development and maintenance of a holy character.”[2]

This has nothing at all to do with being superior to other people;  although, in the Bible, holiness does mean separate or different.  Make no mistake about that.   Shirley Guthrie says that in the Old Testament the people of God are called holy people, and in the New Testament we are called the communion of saints because we are set apart by virtue of our belonging to God. [3] We are not conformed to the world but are, as Paul would say, transformed, in order to serve God and others in a new and better way.

When Jesus says, as he does in our gospel lesson and throughout the Sermon on the Mount,  be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect, he is making a demand for holiness as Leviticus 19 prescribes it.   It is not about being prim and pious.  As Walter Kaiser says it is about rolling up our sleeves and joining in with whatever God is doing in the world.  And social justice figures highly in this section of Scripture. “In Leviticus, if you want to be holy, don’t pass out a tract; love your neighbor, show hospitality to the stranger, and be a person of justice.” It is a new community being sown in the midst of an old one…a new way of being that transforms the old order of life.  And that requires some instructions.

Once in a while we all need to get the owner’s manual out, even for the simplest things.  The other day we got out the owner’s manual for the microwave!  We weren’t sure how to adjust the power setting when we were re-heating some tamales.  Actually, we never did figure it out so I guess it wasn’t all that simple.   Why wouldn’t we want to consult the owner’s manual on something as fundamental as how to be a people of God?  If we believe that God is the owner of the universe, and I do, then this holiness code is God’s owner’s manual of the universe.   Follow these instructions and the engine runs smoothly.  The results of not consulting the manual are clear enough, as we survey the state of things amiss in the world.

The simple precepts laid out in Lev. 19 pretty much describe what has gone wrong.  Unholiness is not all that hard to define.  It is when we set up little gods to worship, like money, youth and beauty, power. It is when we rob our neighbors in the developing nations by over consumption in this developed nation.  That is precisely what is meant by reaping to the edges of our fields, and not leaving enough for the gleaners.  Unholiness is when we hold grudges and refuse to see the log in our own eye.   It is failing to forgive.   Unholiness is not obeying the golden rule.   And then there are the moral lapses of which we are warned in scripture.  So we clearly given guidelines about holy behavior for ourselves.  What are to do about unholy behavior in others?

One of you asked me this week about a line from our confession in last Sunday’s worship.  It said to the effect that we need to confess to offering  moral prescriptions, or holding up moral standards, that injure and shame.  The very good question asked of me was, “what does that mean?  How exactly to I do that?” 

I want to clarify this.  A glaring example would be that group led by Roy Phelps, from that Baptist Church in Kansas, who protest the Army’s policy on homosexuality at the funerals of soldiers who die in Iraq and Afghanistan.   That group is engaged in very unholy behavior masquerading  as holy behavior–designed to injure and shame.  Obviously we don’t want that.  On the other hand, imagine that a friend comes to you and confesses to having an extramarital affair.   He or she wants to know your opinion.  You point out what scripture says.  You kindly point out to them the unholiness of this behavior and that in your opinion he or she is on the wrong path.  That is not moralizing in a way designed to injure or shame, but a simple statement of fact.  It is holy behavior to assist someone else to be holy, if you have been invited to do so.  However, if we treat that person coldly or judgmentally, or gossip about them…then we are holding forth a moral prescription designed to injure or shame.

The precepts of Leviticus, and indeed the commandments spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, are not impossible standards.  Any one of us, every one of us, can achieve the standard of holiness because we don’t do it alone.  One Anglican bishop has said that Holy Communion is about making the common– bread and wine– holy.   The common is blessed by God and returned to us so that we can be holy.[4]  What was impossible is now possible.   Think about the promises made this morning by our family who brought Briana forth for baptism.  “I will, with the help of God.”

In the Reformed tradition, sanctification is another word for holiness.  The Westminster Catechism defines sanctification, or holiness, in a startling way by calling it “improving our baptism.”[5]  God begins a great work in us at our baptism, and it is our life’s work to grow in holiness and improve our baptism.  Keeping the Holy One in view through worship, prayer, study and Christian fellowship, is the key to becoming holy.  Eyes fixed on God, we move forward with confidence and grace.

Winston Churchill once said:  “They say that nobody is perfect.  Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.”  No, we will never be a perfect people in the sense of never making mistakes, never falling short of the glory of God.   But if we love like God loves, we can be a holy people.  In so doing, we will reflect the glory of God and be the communion of saints. The words of the Apostle Paul quoted on our bulletin cover confront us with just how possible it is to be holy. “Do you not know that you are God’s Temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”


[1] Walter Kaiser Jr., in The New Interpreter’s Bible section on Leviticus, 997.

[2] Kaiser, 1131.

[3] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, WJK Press, 338.

[4] Citation uncertain

[5] Noted by Sheldon Sorge in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1, 366.