"Are You Holy"
Leviticus 19:1-18
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, October 23, 2011


The Christian Church has fallen on tough times.  In the United States, Europe and many other places around the globe, church attendance is on the wane.  Not exactly earth-shattering news to anyone who has been paying attention.  In most Western countries, religious faith has been taking it on the chin as secularism spreads and people turn to themselves rather than God as their source of inspiration.

Self-reliance and independence have always been a part of the American landscape, but we seem to have entered an era of hyperindividualism.  Many believe that morals and ethical behavior are determined, not by religion, philosophy or any outside source, but rather by each individual.  This current wave can be summed up like this: whatever you think is right for you is what is right.

A recent study of 18-23 year-olds by a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, found that "a significant percentage of those interviewed would be willing to allow the possibility that almost anything is right - except judging others.  Judging another's individual choice and thus impinging on that person's moral relativity is the only thing that is absolutely wrong."1

As people of faith, we know there is greater wisdom than merely our own ideas or opinions.  We believe there is superior intelligence to our personal feelings.  In the Scriptures, we discover values that have endured the test of time in a variety of cultures, and have proven to enrich people's lives while providing a solid foundation for a thriving community that champions the common good.

This morning's Old Testament lectionary reading comes from a book of the Bible that most of us rarely engage.   Raise your hand if sometime in the last two months you have read a passage from Leviticus.  You won't find many Bibles where the pages of Leviticus are tattered from overuse.  This book is routinely passed over because it contains a number of ancient instructions that sound not only irrelevant to contemporary ears, but at times fall somewhere between silly and bizarre.   It contains constant references to throwing blood on the altar.  If you are skittish about blood, look out, because it is mentioned more than 60 times.  However, if you would like to know how to burn incense properly or to diagnose leprosy, this is your book.  Parents of teenagers may relish the prohibition against tattoos, but if you enjoy bacon you will need to skip a few chapters because eating pigs is strictly forbidden.  Also, there is way too much information on bodily functions.  Bottom line: If the Book of Leviticus is one of your favorites, I don't believe I would tell anyone.

However, sometimes a gem appears where you least expect it, and today's passage is a priceless jewel.  It echoes most of the Ten Commandments, but goes well beyond simple dos and don'ts.  God speaks to Moses and instructs Moses what to tell the community of faith.  God says, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

The second half of this statement is easily grasped, the first half, not so much.  We feel at home singing "Holy, holy, holy" when our focus is God.  We often begin prayers with the words, "Holy God" or end them with "In your holy name, we pray."  Holy is an adjective that naturally attaches itself to God.  What grabs our attention in today's passage is that God begins by saying that we are to be holy.

If your spouse, partner or best friend described you, would they use the word "holy?"  And if by chance someone used this word to describe you, would you consider it a compliment?

If you are in your 20s and looking for your life's partner - or if you can remember when you were in your 20s and looking for your life's partner - what would you list as the top attributes you hoped for in a mate?  Kindness?  Trustworthiness?  Intelligence?  Attractiveness?  Would you list holiness?

When Camilla and I send birthday cards to our grandchildren, we tell them that we are proud of them because they are sweet, smart, helpful and determined, but we have yet to tell any of them that they are holy!  Although occasionally one of them acts like a holy terror!

The problem with describing ourselves or someone else as holy is that the word has attracted too many negative connotations  When I hear someone described as holy, I immediately think of someone who is holier-than-thou.  I imagine a sanctimonious prude.  I imagine someone smug and insincere.  I picture a TV evangelist who is slick at enticing the naïve to send in a hefty contribution.  Perhaps the problem with the word holy is that it evokes thoughts of perfection and we all know that nobody is perfect, and anyone who acts as if he/she is perfect, is a fraud.

Our reading from Leviticus has a different understanding of what it means to be holy.  It has nothing to do with hypocrisy, sanctimony or pious words.  It is how God expects us to treat people.

It's important to point out that neither the word "prayer" nor the word "faith" appears in this passage describing holiness.  It's not because these are not important.  It's because talk about faith and prayer is beside the point if we are mistreating others.

Our passage lists several commands.  It's fascinating to see what gets top billing.  It is not, as in the Ten Commandments, "I am the Lord your God...you shall have no other gods before me."  The first thing God instructs Moses to tell the people is: "You shall revere your mother and father."

God says, "You are to be holy, as I am holy, and it begins with how you treat your mother and father."  Basic human interaction begins with our parents.  It is where we first learn how to connect and communicate with others.  It is where love is received and given.  It is where we learn what warms our hearts and what crushes our feelings.  If we get this relationship wrong, it will be difficult to get other relationships right.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Parents can abuse their power and authority.  They can become unworthy of our love and esteem.  But until they demonstrate through mistreatment or neglect that they do not deserve to be honored, we are to revere them.

After establishing the framework that holiness is focused on our treatment of others and grounded in our relationship with our parents, God says to keep the Sabbath and not worship idols.  Many moderns misunderstand idol worship.  It does not mean to simply refrain from bowing to a pagan statue.  Idol worship is whatever competes with God for first priority in our lives.  It is often wealth and possessions, but it can be sports, power, pleasure, entertainment, an addiction, anything that displaces God.

What it means to be holy begins with our relationship to our parents, moves to our relationship with God, and then expands to our treatment of others.  Interestingly, God does not begin with how we treat people we consider our equals or people in society that command respect because of their wealth or position.

Listen to the first mention of how we are to treat others.  "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien." (Lev. 19:9-10)

To be holy is to show compassion for people who are poor.  In the agrarian culture of the ancient world, it meant leaving some of the crop for others to gather.  Am I my brother or sister's keeper?  God says, "You bet you are."

The passage continues with what it means to be holy.  "You shall not steal.  You shall not lie or deceive others.  You shall not defraud your neighbor or hold back the wages of your laborer.  You shall treat everyone with impartial justice.  You shall not slander or hate or seek revenge."  And then, summing it all up:  "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

It is evident that Jesus knew his Hebrew Scriptures well.  In what we call the great commandment, from the gospels in the New Testament, Jesus said, "Love God with your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself."  It's all right here in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, written perhaps a thousand years before the time of Jesus.

In our age of hyperindividualism, when many want to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, perhaps they turn away from religious faith because they do not want any demands made of them and they do not want a spotlight on their treatment of others.  They will not strive to become holy because their basic philosophy of life is: "It's all about me."

Is it possible for us to think differently about what it really means to be holy?  Sweep away notions of becoming Mother Teresa or Saint Francis.  Give up the idea that it means we must believe all of the correct doctrines about God or spend countless hours in prayer.  To be holy is to genuinely love others and to want for them what you want for yourself.

A colleague says that one of the most holy people she ever knew "was a Roman Catholic woman who cursed and smoked, but had a heart as big as the Gulf of Mexico.  This woman started the shelter movement in Atlanta.  Once she stopped a knife fight at the homeless shelter by walking between the two combatants and saying, 'You guys know better than this.'  And that was the end of the confrontation."

"When a homeless men died on the street, she claimed his body, paid for the cremation, and waited for someone - friend or family - to come.   No one ever showed up.  She drove around for weeks with his ashes in the backseat of her car.  Finally, one day she asked the rector of a downtown Episcopal church if the man's ashes could be placed in the church's memorial garden.  The rector said, 'Our policies will allow only the remains of relatives to be placed here.'   Without batting an eye, she said, 'Perfect, Jesse was my brother.'"2

Who is your brother?  Who is your sister?

Through Moses, God says to us, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."  And the place to begin is with love.



  1. Andrew Root, reviewing the book, Lost In Transition, in an article entitled "In Review: Young adult realities," in Christian Century, October 4, 2011, p. 36.
  2. Joanna Adams, "Why Can't We Pull Up the Weeds?" on Day1.org, February 19, 2006.