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The Spirit of Holiness – Br. Jim Woodrum

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Br. Jim WoodrumLeviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-46

I became a fan of football my freshman year of college at the University of South Carolina where I was in the marching band.  Even though I had been to many football games in high school, I didn’t find them very exciting and was more interested in socializing with my friends in band than watching the game.  College football was different.  The sole purpose of the marching band was to support the football team and to boost school spirit and I found it to be great fun.  So, I started to learn what the game of football was all about, little by little.  This was daunting for me because I didn’t want my friends to know that I had no clue as to what was going on.  So I tried to learn the rules quietly.  When a friend would give me a high five and yell something about a touchback I’d try to save face by being excited too but inside my head I was yelling “What’s a ‘touchback?”

To be honest, I thought the most amazing people on the field were not the athletes but the referees.  They were usually at least 20 years older than the players, ran around the field wearing no protective equipment, trying to enforce what seemed to be thousands of rules.  When a rule was broken, they threw their handkerchief on the ground and then announced everyone in the stadium the violation and its consequence, which made some people happy and others not so much.  How long did it take them to learn all those rules and be able to recall them in an instant?

I imagine the Pharisees, who were the leaders of the Temple in Jesus’ day, were a lot like these referees.  The difference however was the rules they were enforcing were not to a game but to a covenant between them and God.  Israel was to be a holy nation and the Law was considered for some to be the revelation of God’s will for that nation.  There were seven major bodies of law in the Old Testament.  We in the Christian tradition are most familiar with the first of these, “The Decalogue,” which contain the original Ten Commandments given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.  But in addition to that there is:  The Covenant Code, The Ritual Decalogue, The Deuteronomic Code, The Holiness Code (which contains our Old Testament Lesson for today), The Priestly Code and The Curses Code. (1) In all there were around 613 commandments in the Torah—248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions—that is “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s,” respectively. (2) The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation.

Jesus, who was a popular rabbi and preacher, also studied the law and knew it well.  You may recall earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus proclaims, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  Those are strong words.  Yet, Jesus and the Pharisees seemed always to be at odds.  Why is this so?  It seems that their source of contention lie in the interpretation of holiness in terms of the Law.

Holiness in this context meant a setting apart, a way of distinction; of identity as God’s chosen people.  On this I think both the Pharisees and Jesus could agree.  The Pharisees however had come to view the Law in terms of black and white.  With whatever was prescribed or proscribed by the Law, there was no exception.  If you did something contrary to any of these Commandments, even if you had the best of intentions, you were considered ritually unclean and treated as an outsider.  If you did not have access to a good education like the Pharisees; if you were unable to support yourself because of some infirmity; if you were poor and were uncertain where your next meal would come from, or a number of other conditions, then you were likely to break the Law either out of ignorance or desperation.

This is where Jesus differed in His interpretation of the Law.  For Jesus, justice was always melded with mercy.  Holiness was not being set apart as morally superior to others but rather by exhibiting the highest attribute of God, what was known in Hebrew as chesed, which is translated as loving-kindness or compassion. (3) The Law was important but it had to be kept in the spirit of chesed, which is why Jesus responds to the Pharisee’s test as he did.  When he was asked which commandment in the law is greatest he responded predictably:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  This is a quote from Deuteronomy and is part of the Shema, the primary creed in Judaism which begins every service.  But Jesus throws in a second which he says is like the first.  What could be equal to loving God with every fiber of your being?  Jesus uses a line from the Holiness Code in Leviticus which we heard a few minutes ago in our first lesson:  “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall not reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but (and here is the line Jesus uses) you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The verse from Leviticus ends with the statement, “I am the Lord.”  In other words, this is my essence, who I am.  By keeping this law you will be set apart as my own.  “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  Jesus doesn’t negate any other part of the Law, but rather says on these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets.

This is Jesus’ gospel message or ‘good news,’ and it is a message that is desperately needed today as much as it was then.  The holiness or distinction that God calls us to is one of relationship; relationship to God and relationship to each other.  I think to live into this calling we have to begin close to home with ourselves.  The first point Jesus makes in his summary of the Law begins with the word “You.”  You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  Why?  Because that is why we were created.  We were created in love for the sake of relationship with God, and in the image of God with the capacity to mirror the same love that is His essence, chesed.  I know that one of the greatest challenges I’ve lived with in my life is to see myself as one of God’s beloved, to see His image in myself.  All too often, I’ve been my greatest critic and have done more to separate myself from God’s love than to embrace it.  Maybe you can relate.  But one of the images I love in this chapel that reminds me of my connection with God is this beautiful sanctuary lamp that hangs in the center of the chapel.  The lamp symbolizes the pillar of cloud that made known the presence of God to the Israelites in the desert by day and the pillar of fire by night.  It shows us that God is ever present here in the sacrament that is kept in the tabernacle in St. John’s chapel; which points to the greater mystery:  that we ourselves are living tabernacles, embodying God through the incarnation (4) and that in this interconnectedness with God, we ourselves become bearers of God’s light, life, and love to the world.  The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson said, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”  This is the holiness we’re called to.  If you’re having trouble seeing yourself as God’s beloved, you may want pray using the verse from Psalm 26:  “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” (5) You are that abiding place!

Once we recognize our interconnectedness with God as His creation vertically, then I think we can the move to love of neighbor in the horizontal.  This love of neighbor is of the same essence as the love of God, chesed.  Our neighbors are a testimony to the vast diversity of God.  This was another facet of Jesus’ gospel message.  We cannot say, “I have no need of you.”  We were made for relationship and it is in our neighbor that God comes to us.  You may know that later in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus was teaching and he bore witness to this mystery when He said:   “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (6) Our neighbors, are a sacramental sign of God’s presence and it is through them that we will know the essence of God, chesed.

So, if you don’t know all 613 Commandments of Torah, if you’re just beginning to learn the rules, don’t panic.  Begin with the basics:  Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.  This is the holiness we’re called to:  chesed and it is in this gift of God’s grace that we will all be fed as God’s beloved.  In the feast of the resurrection here at this altar hear God’s invitation to you:  “Behold what you are!”  May we live into this calling joyfully by responding:  “May we become what we receive!”  Amen


  1.  Winters, Charles L., ed.  Education for Ministry, Year One:  Old Testament.  Sewanee:  The University of the South.  1978.  Print.
  2.  Harrington, Daniel, ed.  Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew.  Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press.  1991. Print.
  3.  Winters, Charles L., ed.  Education for Ministry, Year Two:  New Testament.  Sewanee:  The University of the South.  1977.  Print.
  4.  The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother and that the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man. (From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).
  5.  Psalm 26:8
  6.  Matthew 25:34-40
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2 Comments

  1. Lisa on November 2, 2014 at 07:38

    Br. Woodrum: Thank you for your moving writing. It is an answer to a prayer regarding a brother in Christ. I wish to be chesed!

  2. Barbara Frazer Lowe on October 30, 2014 at 17:13

    Br. Woodrum – A moving and scholarly homily – historical aspect and clarity , humanity spoken to so beautifully. Thankyou.

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