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Keeping Holy by Rev. Marvin M. Ellison

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Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

The other day on National Public Radio, I heard the last few minutes of an interview with Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor whose new book is entitled Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life.  Professor Gino describes how her four-and-a-half year old son Alex asked his parents at breakfast one morning if they still had the coloring packets they had used to dye Easter eggs.  Yes, his father said with some hesitation in his voice, and why do you want those coloring tubes?  “Oh, to make my breakfast beautiful,” his son explained.  With that, Alex took the colors from his father’s hand and proceeded to add red dye to turn his milk pink and blue dye to freshen up his Cheerios.  “Much more beautiful,” Alex smiled.

Professor Gino cites this exchange with her son and husband to illustrate how children as well as adults display what she calls “rebel talent,” the willingness to break with convention and, in the process, sometimes manage to make things “much more beautiful.”

This story doesn’t seem to fit the Book of Leviticus, from which our scripture lesson is taken today.  After all, Leviticus – the third book of the Torah or what Christians refer to as the First Testament — sets out lists and lists of instructions about how to conduct proper rituals, maintain purity and avoid contamination, and so forth.  It’s about God’s invitation to follow the rules.  “The instructions of Leviticus emphasize ritual, legal and moral practices rather than beliefs.  They reflect the worldview of the creation story in Genesis 1 that God wishes to live with humans. The book teaches that faithful performance of [these] rituals [and rules] can make that possible, so long as the people avoid sin and impurity whenever possible.”

Now, I won’t ask you to indicate by a show of hands, but just think of the last time you sat down and read through Leviticus, start to finish.  I dare say not many of us rely on this book for guidance about life, so it’s hardly surprising that most of us are unfamiliar with its rich themes and subtle complexities.  The one exception may be those few verses often cited as proof texts against homosexuality, but beyond that, few people are likely to consult this book or give it much consideration.  Remarkably, this passage from Chapter 19 is the only selection from Leviticus that most lectionaries even include.

So why has there been such widespread neglect, even dismissal, of this biblical writing among Christians?

When it comes to biblical interpretation, what we bring to scripture often determines what we take from scripture.[1]  Put another way, where we stand oftentimes influences what we see.  When U.S. slave owners in the nineteenth century read the Bible, they read scripture through a particular lens and with a particular set of interests.  In their reading, there was no question but that the Bible endorsed slavery and, further, that it obligated the enslaved to obey their masters.  But when slaves read the Bible for themselves, they heard a quite different message.  They did not hear an enslaving word, but rather a liberating word, a resounding call to freedom.  Similarly, when women claimed their authority to read and interpret scripture for themselves, they discovered that the Bible offers “bread, not stone,” an empowering word that calls forth women’s full humanity.

I stand with those who read the Bible as a liberating word, but at the same time I recognize that the task of reading the Bible faithfully, responsibly poses ongoing challenges.  Part of the difficulty lies with the Bible’s interpreters.  We humans are fallible and prone to read into the Bible what we wish to find.  As someone quipped, “Everyone has an opinion, and a text upon which to base it.”  Other difficulty lies not so much with the interpreters, but with the Bible itself.  The problem is that “not everything in the Good Book is good.”  Some texts uphold slavery.  Other texts reinforce the subordination of women.  Still others call for the death penalty for non-marital sex.  The Bible is a complex book with many differing, sometimes conflicting voices, so it must be read with care – prayerfully and with discerning judgment.

It’s always wise, then, to keep perspective when reading the Bible.  Comedian Lynn Lavner offers a helpful illustration.  She notes that the Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals.  “That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals,” she posits.  “It’s just that they need more supervision.”

Whether knowingly or not, we Christian readers may be dragging along some heavy baggage as we approach the book of Leviticus, including the sorry history of Christian anti-Judaism, exemplified in exclusivist claims about Christianity as the one and only true faith.  Tragically, Christian exclusivism has bred arrogance and hostility toward Jews, expressed most painfully in the genocidal violence of the Holocaust.

Christian animosity toward Judaism is fueled by supersessionism, a kind of “replacement theology” which contends that God’s covenantal relationship with Christians has displaced God’s earlier covenant with the Jewish people.  Hostility is further stoked whenever Jews as a group are blamed for Jesus’ death – even though, last I knew, it was the Romans and not Jews who used crucifixion as an imperial mode of execution.  Another telltale sign that things are out of whack are the caricatures of Judaism as a legalistic religion of “thou shall not’s” in contrast to Christianity as a religion of love, favored because it emphasizes God’s saving grace rather than meritorious works or observance of the law.

Think again.  “Arguably,” writes a biblical scholar, “Leviticus is the most important book in the Hebrew Bible—it is the ‘lively center’ of the Torah, or Pentateuch, a kind of canon within the canon—and at its center one finds [not one, but] two versions of the ‘Golden Rule.’ ”[2]  Leviticus 19:18, reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge . . . , but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This observation brings us to the heart of the matter.

The core thematic of Leviticus is found in God’s invitation to the people to become holy “as I the LORD your God is holy.”  This complex biblical book, containing both a Priestly and Holiness Code, expresses an abiding faith in cosmic unity and encourages a deep commitment to harmony in nature and society.  The book’s strategy is to map out detailed regulations to govern daily activities and keep matters rightly ordered.   Now, I was raised as a Presbyterian, a Southern Presbyterian to be exact, and Presbyterians often cite the apostle Paul – and here we’re almost channeling Leviticus — in asking, even demanding, that all things be done “decently and in order.”

Although we might expect that the call to holiness would be extended only to the priestly caste, the invitation is to all the people, men and women, young and old, temporarily able-bodied and not-so-abled-bodied.   As Lev. 19:2 records, God instructs Moses to “speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel.”  But if the call to holiness is inclusive, what does holiness mean, and what does living a holy life require?

Here a theological choice must be made between two notions of holiness, both of which find expression within Christianity and Judaism.  According to the first perspective, holiness is about purity – and abiding by strict rules to avoid contamination.  It requires keeping separate from whatever threatens to pollute or might blur the boundaries, thereby helping to maintain an individual’s or a community’s distinctive identity.  Personal and community security depend on keeping a safe distance from the Other, the not-me, the not-us.

The purity culture is booming among some contemporary Christians, as Linda Kay Klein writes about in her book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free.  Klein grew up in a conservative Christian community that expected young women to avoid sex before marriage, but went far beyond that.  Young women were shamed for having sexual thoughts, desires, and interests – and held responsible not only for their own purity of mind and body, but also for not causing men to stumble.  As Klein explains, “it is worth remembering that ‘purity’ is a proxy for ‘sameness.’  Whether we are talking about sexual purity, gender purity, racial purity, ethnic purity, or religious purity, we use the term purity to refer to “keeping out” or even “cleansing” humanity of diversity.  To be “pure” in someone else’s eyes is to be like them – absent of the elements that make you difficult for them to understand or accept.  Of course, the reality is there is no such thing as purity, as we are all different!  And so, when we try to be the same, or “pure” as defined by one person’s or group’s concept of normality, we are set up for failure.”[3]

There’s a second, contrasting biblical perspective about holiness.  It centers on God’s holy desire for the renewal of creation, the re-ordering of our lives and the healing of a world marked by deep fractures of inequality, estrangement, hostility, and fear.  Be holy as God is holy, or, again, be compassionate as God is compassionate, or again, love justice as right relation as God loves justice.  Lev. 19 highlights this second trajectory by explicitly linking holy living with justice making and the mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Jesus stands firmly within this holiness tradition, in which neighbor-love means creating the social, economic, and religious conditions so that all persons may thrive and share more fully in community life.  The call to holiness, here defined primarily not in relation to cult or temple but rather to life-in-community, is an invitation to inclusive wholeness, in which “you shall not render an unjust judgment,” nor “go around as a slanderer,” nor “hate in your heart anyone of your kin” (Lev. 19:15-17).   As Jesus himself demonstrated, sometimes the work of making the world more just, more loving, more compassionate requires “rebel talent,” the willingness to break with the conventional rules, step across the boundaries, connect with those from whom we’ve been separated, and grab hold of the colors that make the world much more beautiful.

The definitive expression of holiness in the Bible is the granting of equal citizenship status to the resident alien.  As Lev. 19.34 puts it, “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  The Israelites’ identity-shaping experience of liberation from slavery presses them to take up the work of justice as holy work, not only justice in the big things, but also in the small, everyday places of their lives together.  It’s what Cindy preaches when she spreads her arms wide and encourages us, in faith, to live free, live large.  It’s about drawing closer to each other, building up the kind of community in which we quietly, respectfully bear one another’s sorrows and rejoice in one another’s joys.  This is a holy faith that widens the circle, draws in the stranger, re- distributes the power, and risks change, all because God is still speaking – and all is not yet as it should be.

The biblical test to determine whether the community was practicing holiness as inclusive wholeness is straightforward.  First, ask whether the community is showing respect and giving proper regard for the powerless and vulnerable in its midst, including the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed.  Second, ask whether they, whether we are willing to trade places with the least powerful, the most vulnerable among us.  If there’s a moment of hesitation on our part, then we have a sure sign that all is not yet rightly ordered, not yet as God intends the world to be.

May God keep us on this journey toward biblical holiness that promises life abundant for all — and increase our hunger and thirst for freedom.  In the meantime, grant us, we pray, a hefty measure of the rebel talent we’ll need to make the world and church “much more beautiful.”


[1]  Robert McAfee Brown, Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Themes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 81.

[2]  David Tabb Stewart, “Leviticus,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (London: SCM Press, 2006), 77.

[3]   Linda Kay Klein, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2018), 78.

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