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Title:Pentecost 21 – Holiness
Commentary by Fred Horton. Horton is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Wake Forest University.
The lectionary is here.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) is a separate source within the Priestly Writer’s great law
book. Although the Priestly Writer (P) composed his work in exile during the middle of the 6th
century, the Holiness Code (H) must be an earlier body of priestly regulations that stem from the
period of the monarchy before the Exile in 586 BC. The theme of the code is well expressed in
today’s reading: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (NRSV) As 19:9-18
makes clear, Israel’s holiness is not only a matter of keeping the laws of clean and unclean but
also of acting justly with neighbors and providing for their needs. The remarkable prohibition
against grudges (verses 17-18) includes the equally remarkable commandment to love neighbor
as self (19:18). Here the law code goes well beyond what law courts could enforce to deal with
the matter of intentionality.
The scholars of the royal court’s school in Jerusalem composed Wisdom psalms to help young
pupils understand and apply the fundamentals of honesty, modesty, and right-dealing to every
aspect of their lives. Although these psalms were not composed for the Temple, as were the other
psalms of the Psalter, they came to be part of Israel’s treasury of sacred songs during the exile in
Babylon while the Temple stood in ruins.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Because Paul must deal with the serious pastoral problem that afflicted the community in
Thessalonica by gently correcting the errors that led to their distress (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11),
he now makes it clear that he is not chiding them for their errors by comparing his fruitful visit to
them with the abusive visit he suffered in Philippi. (See Acts 16:11-40.)
Rabbis often gave summaries of the Torah as heuristic principles that a simple person might use
to comprehend the essence of God’s commandments. Matthew’s Gospel, following Mark 12:28-
31, has Jesus make his summary in the words of the Torah itself (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus
19:18). This answer is unremarkable in its Jewish context, but the same cannot be said of the
question Jesus put to the Pharisees as to whose son the Messiah might be. Because Jews
considered the Messiah to be a king in David’s line, the Pharisees answered reasonably enough,
“”the son of David.” Jesus then quoted Psalm 110:1 in which God calls the king “my lord.” On
the assumption that David was the author of Psalm 110, Jesus inquired as to how David could
have addressed his own son as “my lord.” The Pharisees had no answer, showing the superiority
of Jesus’s wisdom over theirs.
Commentary on Matthew 22:34-46 -The Rev. Nancy Cox, the rector of All Saints’, Concord.
Jesus’ summary of the Law demands attention to both parts. We cannot focus only on God to the exclusion of attending to our neighbor nor attend to our neighbor without loving God.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” was not a new commandment. Jesus was quoting part of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6, central to Jewish life then and now. Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The opening of the Shema was left off, but every Jew who heard Jesus’ words would have heard those words: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. One God. One Holy God.
Holiness is a prism that reflects love in surprising ways, ways that our hearts can feel, our souls can embrace and our minds can grasp. Holiness begins with the abstract and ends with the concrete. It begins with, “In the beginning God created,” and culminates with, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.”
Holiness is also the subject of the second part of Jesus’ response, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19, which begins with the commandment, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” The rest of the chapter, then, instructs the Israelites how to “be holy.” The instructions are practical, not ethereal. Holiness is made real by leaving crops in your fields for those who are poor to gather, by speaking truth and acting in justice.
Walking the Camino was a time filled with holy moments and practical concerns. It taught me to be more aware of the beauty all around, even as my feet hurt. It was as if the way shouted each day, “Everything we’ve got comes from God, so look around! Creation explodes with beauty.”
Beauty is not only a gift from God, it is an experience of God, an experience of holiness. There is beauty in each one of our faces, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not. There is beauty in our tender care for those we love, which is only a tiny sliver of the love God has for us.
Priest and author Paul Fromberg observes that the experience of beauty creates a longing for beauty, a desire for change in the face of the ugliness that exists in the world. Hunger is ugly. Racism is ugly. Poverty is ugly. These situations, these conditions are ugly—not the people in them. It should not be a surprise that many folks involved in making beauty are also involved in making justice. Desire alone is not enough; action is required.
Creating beauty is then another way of loving God with everything we’ve got. When we create beauty, we participate in transforming the world. At its base, social action is nothing more than transforming the ugliness of the world into something more closely resembling the beauty our creator intends. When we take something ugly and transform it into something more beautiful, we begin to engage in social justice.
And, as we act, all of a sudden we may find ourselves reaching across barriers, across preconceived ideas, across our own failings only to discover it’s not as scary as we thought.
Radically welcoming the stranger doesn’t distort our identity. It stretches, expands and transforms how we see the world and all of God’s children in it.
We stand at a new threshold, a new way of understanding Church. The pandemic demands new responses to the command to love God and love neighbor.
The prism of God’s holiness reflects God’s love in ways we could not imagine. Ponder your holy moments; when you have been overwhelmed by the beauty, majesty and wonder of God, search them out with your heart, mind and soul. Be awakened to the capacity within to love God and, challenged to holiness, to creating beauty and transforming this world.
What is it you want to see more of, or less of, in your community? How can you partner to make that happen? Pay attention to both halves, for if we love God with all we’ve got, and we love our neighbor as ourselves, anything is possible.
Paul Fromberg “The Art of Transformation: Three Things Churches Do That Change Everything”
The Rev. Nancy Cox is the rector of All Saints’, Concord.