“The Lord spoke to Moses; he said: Speak to the whole community of the sons of Israel and say to them. Be Holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
The Book of Leviticus summarises all other commandments under this one commandment: that we, like the Lord our God, should be holy. Holiness describes everything that sets God above sinful creation. Holiness is something more than a slavish fulfilment of the law. To be holy is to enter into the mind and heart of God, to judge as God judges, to understand as God understands.
As the verses of Leviticus unfold we begin to appreciate the gulf that stands between the habitual attitudes of sinful humanity and the holiness of God. Many would see hatred and vengeance as almost natural responses to the harm that we suffer. The holiness to which we are called demands a different response, a response that seems to go against the grain. “You shall not bear hatred for your brother. You must not exact vengeance, you must not bear a grudge.”
One of the least attractive consequences of sin is the tendency to vindictive judgment. The Book of Leviticus excluded this by the commandment, repeated by Jesus, that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. The commandment is so familiar that we can easily overlook the radical change of heart that it implies. Sin predisposes us to put self at the centre of everything, to ensure, however unconsciously, that everything serves our own purpose. To love our neighbour as ourselves reverses this habitual mindset. This is the holiness that sets us above a sin, that takes us into the mind and heart of God.
The Gospel, continuing the Sermon on the Mount, emphasises the gulf between holiness and the ingrained attitudes of sin. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” seems perfectly proportionate. Something within us begins to rebel as we are counselled to offer no resistance to the wicked, to offer the other cheek to the person who strikes us, to surrender not only our tunic, but also our cloak, to the oppressor. The uneasiness that we feel is rooted in ourselves. Two economies battle within us: the economy of strict justice and the economy of grace. Christ did not come into this world to deal with us according to strict justice. He came to reveal the love of the Father, a grace that reaches beyond anything that we could deserve. The Sermon on the Mount calls us to the holiness that treats others with the graciousness that we have received. Only in this way do we become holy as the Father is holy, perfect as the Father is perfect.
It is only natural to feel inadequate before the demands made by Jesus in the Sermon on
the Mount. Can we truly love our enemies, do good to those who harm us?
St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians puts the demands made by Jesus against the grace that we have received.
“Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you?” It is only through the gift of the Spirit that we can become holy as the Father is holy, gracious as he is gracious. Paul went on to contrast the wisdom of this world with the foolishness of God. The wisdom of this world demands justice. The foolishness of God is selfless grace. This is the holiness to which we are called.