Yesterday, I suggested that Jesus’ Summary of the Law – love God and love neighbor – was impossibly simple. Today, as I read the Levitical foundation for the second Great Commandment, I’m realizing that it might go even deeper than that. Forget impossibly simple, these words from God to Moses really seem simply impossible.
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
Be holy? Are you kidding me, God? Have you ever actually met people? If you’ll pardon the modestly NSFW language in the following meme, this pretty much summarizes the human experience.
So, what are we to do with this simply impossible commandment from God? I think the first thing we need to do is come to grips with the reality that our vision of holiness is probably a bit far fetched. The Hebrew word translated at holy literally means to be set apart. This is the goal of the Levitical Law, a way to set apart the Hebrew people as chosen by God. By living to a higher standard of purity, hospitality, and religious observance than their neighbors, the Hebrews could show themselves as closer to the ideal of humanity. When we take this ideal too far, we come up with the image of holiness as poverty-avowing Franciscan life that is in conflict with nothing and no one.
What is more real, however, is the understanding that the Law is impossible for humans to live up to. Noting Dr. Cox above, human beings will often choose to be inhospitable, lazy, snarky, or whatever, not because of some malice, but simply because we have the ability to choose and the decisions we make are often self-centered. Once we come to grips with God’ simply impossible demands, we can move to the next step, which is the realization that the only way holiness – set-apartness – is possible, is with God’s help. We cannot choose to be more loving, but God can change our hearts. We cannot choose to be more generous, but God can change our hearts. We cannot choose to to be more active in our faith, but God can change our hearts.
The gift of the impossibly simple and the simply impossible is God’s grace in the midst of the impossibility. Be open to the Spirit. Be ready to be surprised by grace. Be holy, not because you are capable of it, in and of yourself, but because God is.