Sunday, February 19, 2017

Health Code

Last week we made much of the fact that there is not one but three areas of ethics: those that deal with our relationship with God, those that deal with our relationships with others, and those that deal with our relationship with ourselves. And that's important to note. But when you get to the Bible you don't see them set apart in that way very often. That's because they all touch on and influence each other, rather like the parts of the body. We can speak of the heart abstractly and consider it separately but in reality a heart apart from the body dies, as does the person from whom it was removed. Ethics work the same way. The person you are before God should impact the person you are with others. The person you are with others should impact the person you are by yourself. The person who has integrity is the one who has integrated all three spheres of ethical behavior in their life. Sadly, we often don't let that happen, which is spiritually unhealthy.

In today's Old Testament lesson (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18) and today's Gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) We get what appear to be a whole jumble of ethical rules, applying to all areas of life. Yet there is a thread that runs through these passages. And we get it right at the beginning of our passage from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Before “What would Jesus do?” was a thing, the Bible basically says, “You should act as God would.”

Bible scholars call it the Holiness Code. Holy,” however, throws people today. They think it applies exclusively to our relationship with God, to worship and religious behavior alone. The Hebrew word for “holy” does have roots in the word for “cleanse” or “purify.” Why do we want anything clean or purified? Because it's healthy. We all want to be healthy. So you could call this a spiritual health code. 

But let's leave that aside for a few minutes. The primary meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart.” God's holiness sets him apart from us with our mixed motives and sin. So for us to be “holy” means not only to be “cleansed” but to be set apart for God's purposes. When we sanctify something, like a church building or a chalice, we are setting it apart for God's use. So as God's people we are set apart for God's intended uses. It doesn't mean we are inherently better than others so much as designated as God's servants.

Again we think of ordained clergy as God's servants but in reality all Christians are. 1 Peter 2:5 and 9 says, “ yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ....But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It's from this that Luther derived the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Just because some of us have gifts that put us in more visible roles doesn't mean that we are more holy than lay people. We all serve God in different ways.

And this all goes back to what we are told about humanity in the very first chapter of the Bible: that we are created in God's image. So we should act as God would in our place. Those things that we think, say and do that are contrary to his Spirit are what we call sins, violations of his principles.

And notice that right off the bat in our Old Testament lesson we are told to help the poor. That's not unusual because the Bible talks about our duty to the poor more than 300 times. Proverbs 14:31 says, “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.” In Leviticus 19:9-10 God commands farmers not to reap absolutely every part of their crops but leave some for the needy and the immigrant to gather and eat. This may not sound like good business practice but God is saying that you needn't squeeze every drop of profit from your ventures. Leave something for the unfortunate. Build charity into your business model. If you are doing well, pay it forward. And notice that, as the New Bible Commentary points out, “The relief of poverty in Israel, therefore, was built into economic and legal structures, not left as a matter of private charity.”

Then we are peppered with a series of short commandments on honesty: don't steal; don't make dishonest deals; don't lie; don't defraud others; don't use God's name to perjure yourself. As Jesus said in our Gospel last week let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” “no.” Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't make any promises you can't keep and keep every promise you make. It's sad that such things have to be spelled out. After all what keeps relationships going is trust. If I can't trust your word, how can I continue to interact with you? Government, businesses and marriage need honesty to survive.

Next we get a commandment that sounds a bit odd: “ shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” In Biblical times, you didn't get a weekly paycheck, especially if you were a day laborer. Often folks lived day to day. After a day's work the laborer needed to be paid so he could buy food for his family. Hanging onto their wages, presumably to get them to return to work the next day, could mean that their family would go hungry. One nursing home where I worked became unreliable in issuing our paychecks. Everyone had bills to pay and it didn't exactly enforce loyalty to the company. If you're an employer you need to think of the welfare of your workers. It makes excellent business sense but employers sometimes get stuck in short-term thinking. God says that not only is stiffing your workers bad for business, it is immoral.

Next God tells us not to mock or mistreat the handicapped. To show disrespect for the disabled is to disrespect God. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And if you are truly wise, you realize that you could at some point become disabled. You could lose your sight or your hearing through disease or infection or accident. You could receive a head injury that could lead render you unable to speak or walk or think properly—or at all. And as Jesus said, you should treat others as you would like to be treated. I rather doubt that if you end up in a wheelchair or nursing home, you would like people to pick on you or take advantage of you because you are handicapped. One clear principle we find over and over in the Bible is the empathy and compassion for the vulnerable and disadvantaged that God has and that we should have.

Next come some principles for the human administration of justice. Judgments must be just and impartial. A person's social standing should not affect the outcome. In addition, people spreading slander and scandalous rumors are condemned. Though at that time they did not have the press, it was known that gossip could ruin a person's life. Today with the internet that can happen in a few minutes or hours. Just last year a man entered a pizza parlor with a loaded AR-15 because he believed a vicious internet hoax that it was the site of a ring of pedophiles. Contrary to the old rhyme, words can hurt you.

And in that vein, the passage warns us not to profit by the blood of our neighbor. It literally tells us not to “stand against” our neighbor's blood. The NIV translates this “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, “You must not jeopardize your neighbor's life.” The NET Bible renders it “You must not stand idly by when your neighbor's life is at stake.” Any way you look at it this commandment means we must always look out for our neighbor's safety and well-being. Negligence is not an option. Perhaps this is what motivated the good Samaritan in Jesus' parable.

And at this point our passage gets to the heart of the matter, literally. “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Remember that all of Israel had descended ultimately from one man and his 12 sons so were all related. For that matter so is all of humanity. Our DNA reveals that we are all descended from the so-called mitochondrial Eve, who lived about 200,000 years ago in Africa and a Y-chromosome Adam who may or may not have lived at the same time. We are truly, as the Key West motto says, one human family. So we are forbidden to hate each other.

We can and should reprove our neighbor, however, when they are doing something destructive or self-destructive. But, in view of the previous verse, we must do so without hatred. Thus we are talking about sincerely trying to help someone make a better choice. If a student is having trouble, the wise teacher doesn't yell at him or call him names or imply he's stupid. Or think how a fellow student would help a friend who is having trouble getting the hang of something. You would ask what the problem is, listen and then work with that kid till they got it right. If they shut you down, at least you tried.

Finally, we are told not to take revenge or bear a grudge. God is trying to break the vicious cycle of anger and retaliation. The only alternative is forgiveness. And all this is prelude to the famous commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

When we get to Jesus he goes farther. Not only are we to refuse to take revenge, we are not to resist the person who wrongs us. We are not to fight but to turn the other cheek. And not only are we to love our neighbor, we are to love our enemy as well. This sounds crazy.

And it is. Unless there is a just and loving God whom we really trust. The thing about trust is that we need it the most when it is the hardest thing to do. Our natural instinct is to fight back, to lash out, to get our own back. The enduring popularity of the good guy versus bad guy plot is due to how good it feels to see the bad guy get his comeuppance. Would we cheer if the good guy decided to leave the bad guy's fate in God's hands and love him instead? No, because it is unnatural.

The world is the way it is because we follow our nature, our flesh, as Paul would put it. To change things requires us to go beyond our biological urges, to change the script, as it were. And the only thing stronger than our nature is God's Spirit.

For the most part in most instances we know what is right and what is wrong. Why don't we do what we know is right? Because we cannot do it, not every day, not every time, not if we rely on our own strength. We need God's Spirit, the Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism, who empowered his ministry, whom he poured out on the church at Pentecost, with whom we are sealed at our baptism. We need his Spirit in us if we are to be holy like God, if we are to live the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus died to give us.

Just as only a healthy person can run two miles without getting winded, only a spiritually healthy person, a person filled with the Spirit, can live according to God's law. None of us is healthy enough to do it perfectly. We are in rehab, building our strength, trying to graduate from the parallel bars to the walker. But with the help and guidance and encouragement of the Spirit, we can get there.

And that's something to remember: our enemy is spiritually ill as well. If we lash out at him, it doesn't move either of us closer to God's saving health. But we can encourage him to become a patient of the Great Physician. We can show him what we can do already because of God's healing in our lives. And we can pray for his healing as well.

As students and followers of Jesus, we need his Spirit within us so we can manifest his grace and love to a very sick world. To make it worse or to sabotage our fellow sufferers is not only wrong but unhealthy. We must let him cleanse us from the sickness of sin so we can be healthy and holy, as he is. And so we can make our one human family, our brothers and sisters, created in the image of our Heavenly Father, healthy and holy too. 

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