The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

February 20, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Reading 2: 
Psalm 119: 33-40
Reading 3: 
I Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23
Reading 4: 
Matthew 5:38-48
By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s lectionary readings invite the preacher to reflect imaginatively on two passages: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” and “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Parent is perfect.” These passages beg the questions: What does it mean to be “holy” and what is the nature of divine and human holiness? and What does it mean to be “perfect” and what is the nature of divine and human perfection?

Leviticus identifies human and divine holiness in terms of care for the poor and the alien, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Holiness often is defined in terms of being “set apart” or “unique.” But, here uniqueness involves relationship and intimacy, of going beyond one’s self-interest to identify your well-being with the well-being of others including aliens. Perhaps holiness involves a way of life that embraces otherness as its primary value, and that’s what makes it unique.

Holiness is connected with economics: don’t strip your fields or gather up all the grapes from your vineyard. What would these passages mean today in North America? At the very least, they assert that we do not have full control or ownership of the proceeds of our businesses or properties. This is bad news for the Chamber of Commerce, the stock exchange, and those who would downsize to increase profits. By definition, business practices creating poverty among some to increase incomes for others will alienate you from God regardless of your other benevolences. Biblical ethics assert that the primary criterion for business is social welfare not profit. Sustainability is essential in business and denominational life, and sometimes difficult personnel decisions need to be made, but the bottom line has to be balanced by community well-being. Biblical ethics recognizes that all business decision-making is personal – putting people out of work, foreclosing on homes, and taking away health benefits harms persons, families, and communities.

The Leviticus passage calls us to an economics of love. Loving your neighbor as yourself invites us to expand our self-interest to include the well-being of aliens and neighbors. Bernard Loomer, one of my Claremont professors, maintained that “size” or “stature” was one of the highest spiritual virtues. The size of our sense of obligation, perspective, and ability to hold in contrast different positions is correlated with our spiritual maturity. Alfred North Whitehead noted that peace emerges from expanding our concern for others, becoming a “mahatma” (great-souled one) or “little Christ” (Luther). A large soul lives by interdependence, giving and receiving love, allowing others to shape our experience and seeing their well-being as vital to our own.

Psalm 119 sees the law of God as involving alignment of our whole heart with God’s vision. This is not God’s “because I said so,” but God’s “this is good for you and your neighbor.” God’s aim is toward the production of beauty and the achievement of abundant life for all creation, human and non-human. When we seek beauty of experience for others, we discover that same beauty in our own lives.

The reading from Corinthians asserts that “you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in us” and that “God’s temple [our lives, body, mind, and spirit] is holy.” This applies to all humankind, at the very least. Accordingly, our ethical mandate is to care for the temples of others as well as our own. This means creating ecologies of health and healing, including just and sustainable economic structures. It includes providing sufficient security, largesse, and provisions for people to pursue beauty, peace, and creativity, beyond survival. It also invites us to connect our own well-being with the well-being of the non-human world.

Matthew 5 invites us to “be perfect” as God is perfect. Divine perfection includes wholeness and relationship, not eternal indifference and apathy. Divine perfection is revealed in God’s involvement in the world; God’s being shaped by our experiences and moving through our lives seeking beauty of experience in concrete, not abstract situations. God is wholly embracing in God’s care, for God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; and God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Here, I believe, the words “evil” and “unrighteous” relate to our value judgments, not God’s. To God, even those who go astray are beloved and worthy of care. We may have aliens, but God does not. We may have enemies, but God does not. God is the ultimate example of stature or size in God’s embrace of all creation, inspired by the desire that all have abundant life.

To be perfect like God means to embrace otherness, to promote reconciliation, and seek the well-being of all. This is truly “holy” or “set apart” from the values of a competitive, win-lose, individualistic culture. Our perfection is grounded in our stature and relatedness, our oneness with all creation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.