What does holiness look like?
What makes a person (or a people) holy? What are the traits that would mark them out?
Some images that may pop up in your thoughts…
- Holy people make sure they are there ahead of time. (To quote a recently and oft-heard maxim ‘To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, to be late is unacceptable.’)
- Holy people are always washed and presentable(because Godliness is next to cleanliness)
- Holy people are very straight-laced and never lose control, emotionally…
Really? Holiness is not actually about piousness, respectability or being stiff-upper-lip English.
I seem to remember that Jesus was noted as turning up in his own time, rather than on other people’s timetables, that he wept over his friend’s death, and that wearing sack-cloth and ashes was a Biblically acceptable way of showing grief.
Chris Wright points out this list that follows the ‘stark headline of Leviticus 19.2 “You shall be holy…”’:
Holiness in Leviticus 19 involves:
- Respect within the family and community (vv. 3a, 32)
- Exclusive loyalty to YHWH as God; proper treatment of sacrifices (vv. 4, 5-8)
- Economic generosity in agriculture (vv. 9-10)
- Observing the commandments regarding social relationships (vv. 11-12)
- Economic justice in employment rights (v. 13)
- Social compassion to the disabled (v. 14)
- Judicial integrity in the legal system (vv. 12, 15)
- Neighbourly attitudes and behaviour; loving one’s neighbour as oneself (vv. 16-18)
- Preserving the symbolic tokens of religious distinctiveness (v. 19)
- Sexual integrity (vv. 20-22, 29)
- Rejection of practices connected with idolatrous or occult religion (vv. 26-31)
- No ill-treatment of ethnic minorities, but racial equality before the law and practical love for the alien as for oneself (vv. 33-34)
- Commercial honesty in all trading conditions (vv. 35-36)
As Chris Wright points out – this entire list is ‘thoroughly practical, social and very down to earth.’†
‘Holy’ in its first definition means ‘a characteristic of God’ and then secondarily ‘belonging to God’ (ie the tabernacle and its fittings which were dedicated to Him.) It’s only at a third level that ‘holy’ becomes a trait of how God’s people are supposed to live.
Looking at the list above, how would it be if God’s people were known for the whole collection of standards rather than mainly the ones which focus on the ‘religious’ aspects of life? In other words, the Church stood for social and trade justice, strong families, ethical dealings with one and all as much as matters of faith?
At this juncture, Christian friends of mine from all directions who are involved in international development, who are campaigning against both international and domestic poverty and debt, who are running parenting classes and refugee projects (amongst many other things) are jumping up and down and shouting at me ‘What do you think we are doing?’
My point is that these are things are seen as secondary characteristics of a religious institution, rather than the distinctives of a justice-loving, practical, socially-concerned, holy people. They’re spin-offs, not foundations.
Lunch time conversation involved discussion of a charity telethon that took place at Westminster Central Halls and the comics who were presenting the event being very aware that they were in a church. If the ‘integrity, compassion and justice’ Leviticus 19 holiness were the prevalent characteristic of God’s people, I doubt that this would have been such a big deal.
Holiness is actually a missional issue. To quote Jesus on the subject, after calling his followers ‘salt and light’, in other words be distinctive change-makers where you are, he gives us this purpose: ‘Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.’ (Matt 5.16, CEV).
Bless others – live holy lives – make a difference – so that God will be made known.
† pp. 125-126, Chapter 7, People who represent God to the world, ‘The Mission of God’s People’, Zondervan , 2010