It was a sticky August weekday, and I was wearing a suit. In that county seat town, a jacket and tie generally meant were headed to a funeral, wedding, or court. The Chamber of Commerce Chair had asked me to offer a prayer at the new Chamber building. As I pulled into the freshly blacktopped parking lot, I did not spot a soul down by the pagoda or the funeral home tent. Too hot, I supposed. Opening my car door, a blast of acrid ammonia almost brought tears to my eyes. I held my breath and darted inside. The Chamber Chair began the meeting by apologizing for the terrible smell. Explaining that a local farmer volunteered to plant grass around the pagoda. The day before, unaware of the meeting, the farmer cleaned out a barn and spread a load of chicken manure as fertilizer all over the grounds. Hence our powerfully unpleasant greeting! The Chair then called on me the innovation. Unfortunately, my spontaneous prayer found context in the Chair’s remarks, “Creator and giver of life. Today, You reminded all of us that we live in an agricultural community.” I had not intended my prayer to be particularly funny, but we paused for over a minute to let the ripples of holy laughter subside.
The context of the Biblical economy is agriculture. Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, and Ruth all farm. Nothing moved faster than a horse or pulled better than an ox. One in three people farmed. Peter’s fishing boats, David’s sheep, Lydia’s purple dyes, and Jesus’ parables come to people who know farming drives the economy. The labor laws in Leviticus 19 revolve around farming.
Let’s keep agriculture in mind as we hear, “The Lord through Moses, say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What does it mean to be holy? Can people be holy? Can a community bear evidence of holiness? The Methodist movement began with a stated desire “to spread scriptural holiness across the land”. What is scriptural holiness?
John Wesley: “It has been the endeavor of Satan, to pull apart what God has linked together: to separate inward and outward religion from each other: to set faith and works against each other… Some well meaning people seem to place all religion in prayers of the church, receiving the Lord’s Supper, hearing sermons, and reading pious books while neglecting the point of these spiritual and inward acts: the Love of God and neighbor. And this (lack of love for neighbor) has led others to neglect and even hold contempt for the inward spiritual life.” (Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount Discourse 7) James 2 says, “faith without actions has no value at all!”
Scriptural Holiness demands a context. Any authentic inward spiritual transformation must flow out into our everyday living. If you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, that is wonderful, but if Jesus does not deepen your compassion, care and service to others then you are not that interested in Scriptural Holiness. The love of God becomes accepting one’s self as beloved by God then loving of neighbor, embracing the stranger, and forgiving one’s enemies. Holiness is more about Monday’s conversations than Sunday’s worship.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” We owe love to each other! Love fulfills the law. Love spreads Scriptural Holiness across the land. Our obligation is to love.
Say to the whole community of the Israelites, “You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What does scriptural holiness look like? How do we contextualize our obligation to love the whole community? Amy-Jill Levine reminded our joint Sunday School how the Old Testament laws created a protective hedge or warning track around the law, to ensure that the core of the law “loving God and neighbor” was upheld. Now in Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit, we have laid aside parts of Leviticus. We enjoy pork barbecue. We reject any system of slavery. We allow priests in wheelchairs and welcome queer clergy. The Law shows us a context for what it looks like to be holy.
- Respect parents.
- Keep God’s sabbaths.
- Don’t worship the false gods of gold, silver, stock options, or BusinessWeek covers.
- There was a Tabernacle sacrifice offered for Communal well-being.
- When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave enough for the poor and the immigrant, “I am the Lord your God.” (The free market does not advocate for such inefficient business practices! Does the market care if people without capital have enough to eat? Do market gods or business practises demand compassion, human dignity, and love? )
- Do not steal.
- Do not deceive.
- Do not lie.
- Do not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight. (Why does God want to regulate the market? Do free markets possess morality? Does capitalism care if people have living wages? Does Scriptural Holiness call us to regulate markets?)
- Your building codes need to give consideration for the differently abled. Fear your God!
- You must not act unjustly in a legal case.
- You must not go around slandering your people.
- Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.
- You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge. Instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
- When you enter the land and plant any fruit tree, you must consider its fruit off-limits for 3 years. In the 4th year, all of the tree’s fruit will be holy, a celebration for the Lord. In the 5th year, you can eat the fruit. I am the Lord your God. (Notice how holiness is named as present within creation itself: the almond and orange are all holy! The law calls us to care for the planet. The earth itself reflects God’s image.)
- Don’t mess with fortune-telling.
- Rise in the presence of an older person and respect the elderly.
- When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (It seems 3,000 years ago, God knew our tendency to love people who look like us and create systems of unfair access and opportunity! Systemic injustice is at least 3000 years old! God tells us to protect those who are different from us.)
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, is what Scriptural Holiness looks like! Love fulfills the law. Do not live for gold or silver. Do not glean profits to the edge of spreadsheets. Take care of workers. Protect immigrants. Care for the land. Never slander people. Never oppress people with clever economic policies like redlining.
At another small town ribbon cutting, I paid my respects to a church member who had founded a local business. I said, “You must be so proud of this growing company.” Without missing a beat, their smile deepened, “Pastor, do you know what makes me most proud?” No matter how stressful the day, I lay down every night and pray, remembering that sixty seven people from my hometown have a job with good wages, health insurance, dental, a retirement plan, and along with free donuts, and time and a half if you have to work on Saturday!” Over the next few years I fact checked their assessment at ball fields, band stadiums, and church dinners. That founders employees spoke over and over again about how their boss was a Christian, not because of some Bible verse cross stitched on an office plaque, but born out policies and practices that enriched the lives of those workers. I felt the same deep smile when standing on a busy factory floor with the owner of a company, as the owner related how increasing demand was stretching the company. When someone asked about swing shifts, the owner grimaced and said, “I am not going to ask my people to do anything I am not going to do.” Love fulfills the law.
Romans 13:8-10: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love is the fulfilling of the law.” We owe love to everyone! Love creates labor laws to protect people and the world that God so loves! You won’t find love on the market gods’ spreadsheet. Love fulfills the Law.
So let us be holy, for God is holy. What makes a family, a church, a business, or a nation holy? Check your margins. Check the spreadsheets. Check the bank accounts. See how we treat a stranger, the poor, or the dispossessed. Do we live with an obligation to love waiters, clerks, co-workers, employees, bosses, rivals,immigrants, hungry people, sick people, and prisoners? Are we living for profits or people?
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8) Amen.