Many of us, I think, have an idea about holiness that associates it with a disembodied spirituality that denies the gift of the body and the holiness of the physical world. When we think “holy” we think “heaven”, not “earth”. The heavy influence of Greek thought on Christian understanding has often invited us to think of history as a shadowy stand-in for more “spiritual” realities.
But in today’s Hebrew Scripture, holiness is clearly associated with the actions of bodies in history. God speaks: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” What follows is not a strategy to skirt history, to escape the world, or how to transcend our bodies. Instead, we learn a way of engaging the world – of acting in our bodies, of participating in history – that is holy.
Don’t reap to the edges of your field or go through the field again to pick up what you missed the first time. Don’t strip all the grapes from the vines or pick up the ones that have fallen. Leave some for the poor and the alien who will come after you and pick up what you leave behind. The field is not yours alone. The vines are not yours alone. Why? “I am the Lord your God.” That is to say, loyalty to the holy God means commitment to these holy practices.
Other practices follow – labour relations, care for the vulnerable, and an economy in which one may not profit by the blood of another. No vengeance and no grudges. No contempt for kin or turning a blind eye to your neighbour's injustice. These, says God, are the holy practices.
So we have a choice to make, but only one. Either we are a people of God, of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebekah, of Rachel, of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, of Elijah, Elisha, of the prophets, of John the Baptist and of Jesus of Nazareth – or we are not. If we are that people, we will live in the world as stewards of God’s purposes, reflecting the generosity, compassion and justice of our God. It’s not an option. If we do not do these holy things, we are not God’s holy people.
There are other gods – lots of them. And they make a compelling case, some of them, for our loyalty. They promise us security or status. They promise us freedom and pleasure. They promise us power and comfort and terrific stuff – boats, bicycles, home theatre, cruises and second homes. They tell us to reap to the edge of every field and not to miss a grape that we can use for our own present or future advantage. They sometimes call themselves “common sense” and pose as revolutionary.
But the gods are not revolutionary. They are the same old gods who have ruled and ruined human lives since the dawn of history. Both the Qu'ran and Jewish midrash tell us that Abraham’s father had a little idol business in Haran – making statues of the gods that ruled and ruined the lives of their devotees. Before Abraham set out on the journey of faith, the journey “to the land that I will show you”, he destroyed the idols in his father’s shop. “I am the Lord your God.”
And the gods are not sensible. They do not tell us the truth – that we are holy, and that our deepest satisfaction will come in a working partnership with the holy God in whose image we are made, and whose purpose we share. This is the God who knows us, who holds us in the palm of his hand, who calls us by name and who guides us home to our true, eternal and holy life with God. As for the other gods, to quote Bruce Cockburn – “All they know is the price of lunch.”