Holiness and Mercy

Much of the Jewish religion of Jesus day was focused on holiness—the holiness of God and the corresponding holiness of God’s people. Many Christians today assume the Pharisees were strangers to divine grace and believed that faithful Jews could earn righteousness through fulfilling “works of the Law.” Such an assumption is wrong. The Pharisees were very concerned about the fate of their people. They believed the best way Jews could be faithful to God and show their love for God was to keep the Mosaic covenant by observing the Torah. Such faithfulness could bring about the long awaited coming of God’s reign on earth, the redemption of Israel, and the ultimate shalom promised by the prophets. (Although the Pharisees believed in resurrection, they were not obsessed with one’s destiny after death. Their faith, like that of all Jews, was this-world oriented.) By becoming holy (separate and distinct from the sinful world), the Jews could be like their God. A guiding principle was expressed in Leviticus 11:44— “Be holy as I (the Lord, your God) am holy.” By being holy, Jews were following God’s commandments and resembling their covenantal God. The Pharisees kept themselves separate from those who were less observant of the Torah. In their religious lives, the Pharisees strived to teach others by their example. They fervently believed that only as Israel would be true to her covenant with YHWH could God’s Kingdom come to earth. 

However, such a stress on holiness often led to exclusion and pride. The temple in Jerusalem was a monument to exclusion. Its very architecture revealed degrees of holiness. The outer courts constituted the limits that gentiles were allowed into the Temple precincts. The first inner court was the Court of Jewish Women. Beyond that sector was the Court of Israel for Jewish men. Next was the Court of Jewish priests reserved for the male priests and Levites as they performed their duties. Only priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place of the interior temple. The innermost part of the temple was the Holy of Holies where only the high priest was allowed to enter one day out of the year (the Day of Atonement) as he offered prayers for the forgiveness of Israel. 

These temple divisions reflected the wider social and religious demarcations which characterized first century CE Judaism (kosher laws, circumcision, Sabbath laws, proscriptions for lepers and menstruating women, gentiles, etc.) “Holiness” implied both moral and ritual purity. However, those who were lax in fulfilling those purity laws such as the ritual washing of hands, keeping all rules regarding the Sabbath, avoiding contact with ritually impure objects and persons, etc. were not among those labelled as “sinners” in the Gospels. That term was reserved for those who intentionally, blatantly, and repeatedly violated the Torah. “Sinners” included prostitutes and tax collectors who collaborated with the pagan Romans in exploiting their own people. We might wonder at the offence Jesus caused religious leaders when he said that “prostitutes and tax collectors are going before you into the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 21:31)

One distinctive feature of Jesus’ teachings was a lack of holiness language. In the place of holiness, Jesus put mercy.

One distinctive feature of Jesus’ teachings was a lack of holiness language. In the place of holiness, Jesus put mercy: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Jesus also quoted Hosea 6:6 twice where God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7). 

Michael Hardin in his insightful book entitled The Jesus Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus writes the following: 

Unlike the constant refrain of holiness in the Dead Sea Scrolls or the later Mishnah, Jesus has another set of lyrics using the same melody. Instead of “Be holy as I am holy” Jesus taught “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.” Mercy was for Jesus what holiness was to many of his contemporaries. Notice the same form is used but the substance has changed. Why is this? Because for Jesus, holiness is not a solution but a problem. Holiness caused ostracizing and exclusion; mercy brought reconciliation and re-socialization. Holiness depended on gradation and hierarchy; mercy broke through all barriers. Holiness differentiated persons based upon honor, wealth, family tree, religious affiliation; mercy recognized that God honors all, loves all and blesses all. (p. 75)

The most important part of mercy is forgiveness. Mercy includes surrendering one’s “right” to react violently or resentfully to some slight or injustice. Forgiveness puts an end to tit-for-tat, retributive, vengeful, divisive ways of living with others even when they may, in our minds, deserve retribution. Mercy involves treating others as God has treated us. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel (5:48), Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (The word translated “perfect” is translated “mature” elsewhere in the New Testament and, I suggest, should be translated “mature” in the Sermon on the Mount.) In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, instead of “perfect/mature”, we have “merciful.” “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke understands “perfection/maturity” as reflecting the same mercy God has toward us. Jesus’ mature ethic is always based on our being like God instead of blindly following arbitrary commandments. We come to know God and to know what God is like as we experience the mercy and forgiveness which are integral parts of God’s unconditional and indiscriminate love for each and all. 

Jesus focused a great deal on the importance of forgiveness because he understood its emancipating power. It frees both the one wronged from the poisoning effects of nursed anger and grudges as well as the one who, through receiving such forgiveness, can move beyond the nagging and crippling presence of guilt. Jesus recognized that forgiveness allows life to begin again as God’s children work toward reconciliation. The “sacrifice” offered to bring about such a redemptive stage is made by the one who has been wronged. He gives up his right to retaliate or to be resentful. In doing so, he imitates his Creator who has forgiven him and who is eager for Her children to enjoy the fruits of reconciliation. Mercy and forgiveness, based on unconditional love, are the only means capable of breaking the cycles of revenge, retaliation, and violence which have plagued our world since the beginning of civilization. Jesus knew, lived, and taught a radical alternative of forgiveness which few of us who claim to follow him have embraced. I guess that we all need the “maturity” found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. Such maturity comes only as we experience and recognize the mercy of God who loves us unconditionally. We mature through the mutuality and communion of God’s mercy and forgiveness and the mercy and forgiveness we give to and receive from others. 

[There is another way of understanding holiness which is positive and wholesome. In my blog entry entitled Isaiah 6:1-8 “Holy, Holy, Holy,” I wrote the following:

Let us first note what holiness in the biblical faith signifies. Holiness primarily means something or someone who is other than what we are. Holiness refers to the uniqueness of God. God, for all God’s intimacy with and love for us, is wholly different from creatures, human or otherwise. Whether we are talking about love, creativity, wisdom, power, purpose, goodness, truth, justice, righteousness, or availability, God’s capacity so far exceeds ours as to be uniquely different in quantity and quality. As God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 

What we are talking about is the mystery of God–the realization that God is far more than we can ever imagine–the humility which confesses that what we know of God is at best a smidgen of the vast truth regarding the Creator and Redeemer of this universe–the awe which results in joyful and thankful worship–the intimation that there are limitless frontiers beyond the vast horizons our eyes can already see–the peace which comes from knowing that God is in all and all is in God.

This understanding of holiness would not likely lead to the exclusion and pride associated with a morally judgmental approach.] 

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