February 19, 2017
Compliment or criticism? He’s holier than thou. If you’re saying that about someone are you building him up? It’s a critique. Not a one of us would want to be called ‘holier than thou.’ Yet, I suggest that in our effort to see more of God and to know God better, in our lives, we must strive to be holy.
One of my parenting tasks is to help my kids with grammar and writing homework, so I have to note something about this well-worn phrase, holier than thou. The word ‘thou’ is archaic and it means you. The word ‘holier’ is in a comparative form: holy, then the comparative ‘holier,’ and the superlative ‘holiest.’ Holier than thou is a phrase steeped in competition. He’s not just holy. He’s holier than you!
No wonder it’s used as a put-down. Holy becomes a synonym for ‘better.’ He’s holier than thou. He’s better than you. O no he’s not! We think. We never stop ponder what makes someone better than someone else. We just resist the idea that one person is better at being a person than another person; we don’t like to think someone else is better at humanity than we are.
Holier than thou. We say it out of the side of our mouths, a euphemism for cocky. He’s so full himself, so holier than thou. He thinks his stuff doesn’t stink.
We’re so resistant to spiritual or moral comparisons, and yet much in our worldview is comparison-based. We value competition. Think about your own view. Do you see the world through a cooperation-tinted lens or a competition-tinted lens? In order for one to get ahead, does another necessarily fall behind? Let that question settle. Are you more prone to competition or to cooperation? Let the question simmer as it pertains to how you move through life.
Is it enough that the Tar Heels are having a really good basketball season? Or, is it only truly successful if they are not only good, but better than Wake Forest? Or N.C. State? Or especially Duke? Competition is admired in sports and it should be. I want my favorite team to be highly competitive. What I am asking us to consider is how this cooperation-competition dynamic spills over into life and into our thoughts about God and our own identity in Christ.
In the campaign of 2016, Donald Trump gave a specific compliment to Ted Cruz. He said of Cruz, “He’s fighter.” Later, Trump said the same thing of Hilary Clinton. “I know this about her,” he said, “She’s a fighter.” In both cases, he said it with admiration. He appreciates that tough, competitive spirit. So did Barak Obama. So do most Americans. Toughness; competitiveness; we see these as admirable qualities, except when we are dealing with holiness.
Holiness is a title reserved for the pope. To be extra reverent, we say ‘the holy Bible.’ But people, who are supposed to be competitive in all things, are suddenly expected to be humble and self-effacing when it comes to holiness. The great irony is the Bible really doesn’t commend us to be great champions in sports or politics.
From the Proverbs to the Parables, the Bible commends deference. Put others ahead of yourself. Don’t brag. Take the least significant place at the table. These are paraphrases of actual teachings from scripture – the Bible we call “holy.” In life, we are to put other ahead of ourselves. We’re not told by God to be “winners.” It’s strange that we say the Bible is authoritative in our lives. But some things we highly value, toughness & competitiveness, are not Biblical values.
But you know what is? We just read it in the holy Bible; but not just the Bible! This is the Torah, the law on which the rest of scripture stands. Here at the center of Torah we read this command, Leviticus 19:2. “You shall be holy. For I, the Lord your God am holy.” God did not say this to the Pope. This is not an inner-trinity conversation, Father-God speaking to God-the-Son. This is to every one of God’s people. This is to you and me. We must be holy, for the Lord our God is holy.
A quick aside: this is not a wholesale rejection of competitiveness. In your work, you may have to compete for grants. Compete hard! I want the scientists who get the grants to be scientists who worship HillSong. Compete hard in the interview for the job. Strive excellence in the things you do in life. Strive to be an excellent parent, an outstanding friend, the best student you can be, a quality, trustworthy employee. Be a leader in the workforce. If you coach a basketball team, strive to win every game. Compete in life.
However, when it comes to our primary calling, the Bible is directing us to view life through a cooperative prism, not a competitive one. We don’t need others to fail for us to succeed. In fact, the Biblical picture of holiness painted in Leviticus 19 is inherently cooperative. It’s not something we fight for. We join with one another in a mutually beneficial effort for the good of society.
Leviticus 19 appears to be a re-working of the 10 commandments. There’s the insistence on Sabbath-observance. There the prohibitions against coveting, lying, and stealing. There’s the rejection of idolatry. This is a helpful way of understanding Leviticus 19, but note this. The emphasis here is on relationships with people. Our obedience to God’s absolute command is seen in how we relate cooperatively with people. Samuel Ballentine writes, “the importance of how one lives in relationships with others in the human community is equal to, if not even greater than, the requirement of [faithfulness] to God. … Ethical behavior is not merely the necessary consequence of love for God; it is the fundamental prerequisite that establishes the authenticity of that love.”[i]
In other words, we know we are striving to obey God’s command to “be holy” when we cooperate with other people for their good according to the guidelines given in the Bible.
Let’s go through it and see this cooperation woven throughout the commandments.
Leviticus 19:3, “You shall revere your mother and father.” We know we are striving for holiness when we honor our parents. And honoring our parents is a matter of cooperation within the family.
Verse 4, “Do not turn to idols.” In ancient cultures, idol worship involved looking at a statue, endowing that statue with qualities reserved for God, and then serving and worshiping the statue. This practice was the root cause of the destruction of society. When we give what belongs to God – our worship and devotion – to something that is not God, then our social orientation is so off kilter the damage ripples throughout society.
In ancient times it was statues – literal idols. Today, our idolatry is seen when we give the loyalty and the allegiance that is exclusively God’s to someone or something else: a political party, a value like consumerism or patriotism, or a country. “Do not turn to idols,” Leviticus says. God should be our center and our all-in-all.
Verses 9-10: don’t harvest everything! This made sense for the agricultural society in which these commands were originally given. Land-owning farmers who worked hard to maximize the productivity of the land were told point-blank not to harvest everything. Leave some of it for hungry people. Cooperate with those people who don’t own land and might starve without your help.
In today’s contex, this command might be worded don’t hoard. Don’t keep everything. Why not?
Remember the overarching command in verse 2 – “Be holy.” The only reason God gives us is “I am the Lord,” and this phrase is repeated in verse 4, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 25, 28, 30, 31, 34, & 37. In 2017, when we read Leviticus 19:9-10, it sounds like this. “When you receive your paycheck, don’t keep it all. Take some of that money and share it with someone who is struggling. No, that person with whom you share it didn’t work for it. You did it. So why in the world should you share it? What the heck? Why?”
“I am the Lord.” It’s the only reason given.
To say one person is holier than another, as in ‘holier than thou’ makes no sense. It’s an absurd notion. Holiness is not comparative at all, when we understand it Biblically. One cannot be holy as God commands us to be holy alone. The only way we can obey this command of God is in relationships of cooperation with others. We have to cooperate in our worship community to exalt God and only God. Together we reject idolatry by rejecting idols.
Together we honor our parents. This is true in our own families but also in our church family, where we honor those who are elders among us. We honor them for the work they do in the life of the church today. Our elderly are as active as anyone. Second, we honor them for the wisdom they’ve acquired over years. It’s a cooperative effort in which we all experience blessing.
Together we honor everyone in the community by recognizing that the paychecks our hard work produces are a means of cooperation. When seen this way, we realize we aren’t giving to charity when we share our money so others can eat, be clothed, be educated, and have housing. The sharing of money contributes to helping everyone in the community join God in holiness.
Verse 17 couldn’t be clearer. “You shall not hate in our heart anyone of your kin.” Based on the life and teaching of Jesus, we know our “kin” is the human family. We are not to hate anyone, period. That is followed up with something that might be familiar to New Testament readers. Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
We Christians are tempted to think of ourselves as New Testament people who no longer practice the system of worship described in Leviticus. We don’t do animal sacrifice. However, as New Testament people, we would readily submit to the authority of the books in the NT, including First Peter. First Peter 2:9 says, to us, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”
That verse colors our reading of Leviticus 19. No, we don’t undertake the sacrificial system of worship prescribed in Leviticus because Jesus was the sufficient sacrifice, once and for all. Our worship involves singing praise to the one true God. It does not involve sacrifices. After the cross, that’s no longer necessary. However, the values of Leviticus, especially the holiness commanded in chapter 19, are formative for anyone who would be a God-worshiper.
Leviticus 19:17 says, “You shall not hate anyone of your kin.” How do I accomplish “holiness?”
How can I be holy as the Lord my God is holy? Don’t hate anybody and love your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? The person who needs my help. Why would I love him? God’s answer comes at the end of verse 18. We do it because God says to us, “I am the Lord.”
And to drive the point home, in Leviticus 19:34, God says, ‘you shall love the alien who resides among you as you love yourself.’ That’s it. When we meet immigrants, people from other places, our first and only response to them must be as Christ-followers, people of God, a holy people. It doesn’t matter where they are from. It matters who we are. Who are we? We are a holy people (First Peter 2:9). Because of that, what drives us is love. We love the alien who travels to our home town. Why? God says, you do it because I am the Lord.
Every message this year at our church has been driven by a desire to know God. From Leviticus 19, it is clear God wants us to know Him. He loves us so much, he gives us guidance for every aspect of life. God doesn’t want us confused. God wants us to be assured of His love for us and our place in His Kingdom.
This week, our task is to strive for holiness; not to be holier than thou, but rather to be holy alongside thou. We do this and we will see God.
Our starting point is love. Who is hurting? Who has deep need? Who is the neighbor in our path we are called to stop and help? There is so much noise in America right now, and most of it competitive in a damaging way that will leave us all defeated. This week, let’s raise a different sound. Let’s make some noise for cooperation – cooperation rooted in the holy love described in Leviticus and demonstrated in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Let’s go from here as holy witnesses who use everything we have to help people find their way into the Kingdom of God.