The first reading this Sunday is both short enough and worthy enough of our attention to be reprinted here in its entirety. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord’.” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18)
The book of Leviticus is a collection of religious laws and policies, some of which are of ancient origin, and some of which were later developments in Hebrew religion. The editors of Leviticus tried to present their contemporary experience of Hebrew religion in an organized and coherent fashion. In this first reading we have an excerpt from that description of Hebrew spirituality during time of the great prophets.
As so much time has passed since this book was written there are a few things in this reading that require explanation. The definition of the word “holy” is one of those things. In this short excerpt from Leviticus God said to the people of Israel, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Holiness, in Hebrew religion, meant being separate or distinct from the world. This notion of separateness applied to both God and God’s People.
In contemporary Catholic terminology, we describe this quality of God as transcendence. God transcends the world. God is intimately related to the created world, and deeply interested in world events. God is always close to God’s People, but God is not part of the created universe. God is above the created order, not a thing in addition to other things in the world. Divine transcendence doesn’t imply a physical or relational distance between God and the world. Rather, it describes God’s “otherness,” in the sense that God is Creator, and we are created.
As a consequence of God’s separateness, God’s People are also obliged to be separate from the world. The separateness that described holiness of life for God’s People meant maintaining a separation between Hebrew society and the pagan societies that surrounded Israel. It also meant maintaining a separation between the strictly secular activities of believers and the specifically religious activities of worship and prayer.
Holiness, in the Scriptural sense, isn’t “other-worldliness.” It doesn’t imply being unrelated, disinterested or disconnected from the world. It describes the necessary distinction between the sacred and the secular. God isn’t a creature. God’s People aren’t like non-believers. Worship and prayer are time taken out of daily life and dedicated to God’s service (rather than to serving oneself). Holiness is the act of giving appropriate attention to God and appropriate attention to the other relationships in our lives.
On a practical level, when God said, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), God was saying that God is not like the false gods of the pagans. This requires God’s People to be unlike those who worship false gods. Today’s short excerpt from Leviticus describes a few of the ways in which God’s People must be unlike those who worship false gods. God said, “Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:17-18)
These aren’t merely moral injunctions. These aren’t commandments about being nice, or avoiding getting oneself into trouble. These commands are the requirements of faith. They are about holiness, about God. God transcends the world, not in the sense of being disconnected or disinterested, but in the sense of being above the created order and greater than created things. Holiness for us is a requirement that we, too, transcend the created order. Holiness is not permission to act as if we’re better than others. Jesus abhorred this in the Pharisees. Nor is holiness permission to run away from reality. Jesus expects us to pick up our Cross each day, and follow him in this life.
Our transcendence is about being above pettiness, above selfishness, above anything that would separate us from one another and from God. Holiness of life is about living with God and others, rather than fleeing from this world or condemning those in it. There is an uniquely Hebrew insight in these commands, an insight which formed the core of Jesus’ teaching.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus said, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:44-45) He went on to say, “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) The word “perfect,” in this usage, has the same meaning as the word “holy” in the first reading. It does not refer to moral perfection. Rather, it refers to being distinct from the randomness and mutability of created things; it refers to transcendence.
While moral perfection is possible for God, it is not possible for us. Happily, God does not call us to pursue an impossible goal. God calls us to pursue a holiness that is both possible and necessary. If we are to live in this world, and maintain faith in God and love for one another, it is necessary that we not allow ourselves to be unduly influenced by the changing nature of the world. To love God and neighbor means to love our neighbor in the way that God does: unconditionally.
These commands from God have direct, practical application to our lives. The daily news reports are filled with acts of violence. Occasionally, an automobile driver will work themselves into a frenzy, and then commit an act of road rage. Some people feel so threatened that they lash out violently toward someone else. Others feel so marginalized by society that they might feel justified in committing a crime.
These sorts of occurrences are the result of living in a flawed universe, and feeling powerless in the face of random events. They are both unfortunate and unnecessary. It is not only unnecessary that we allow ourselves to be driven by the randomness of the universe, it is completely destructive of our humanity. God calls each person to holiness, not in the sense of abandoning or condemning the world, but in the sense of not being determined by the random events of life. God calls each of us to the holiness that transcends those things that can make us less than human, those events that can separate us from God and one another.
God speaks to us today, “Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Although polite behavior is virtuous, it is insufficient for us to be pleasant to one another. Although it’s always a smart idea to avoid harming others, it is insufficient for us to do no more than keep ourselves out of trouble. We are called to holiness, not merely to being non-threatening to self or others. To belong to God’s People means to be intimately concerned for the well-being of our neighbor, and to do so because, like God, we rise above pettiness and self-concern and worry. To be holy means, not merely to be a good person, but to transcend the created order, and to do so as an expression of our love of all creation.
God says to us, “Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:17-18) To be holy in the way that God is holy is to be separate from what would separate us from God and neighbor.