Pentecost 21 A: Be Holy, Not Holier Than Thou

The alternative Old Testament reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost is Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18


The Lord directs Moses to lay down this foundation for all of Israel’s behavior: “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy.”

This is followed in our reading with social justice demands against judicial bias, slander, hatred, and violence within the kinship circle, or, indeed within the family of humankind (See Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus, Harper One, pp 208-214 for a discussion about the Hebrew word and concept of neighbor which indicates that foreigners of all kinds can also be “neighbors.”)


In these times of testing it is vital that we learn how to be both people of holiness and people who truly promote the belonging of all humankind.

Our reading contains the theological foundation of all of what scholars call the Holiness Code of Israel’s priests, from chapters 17 to 26 of Leviticus. Holiness is a catch-all adjective for God’s character. It is what sets God apart from all else: God is more powerful, but also more just and loving than all other people and things. Because Israel is expected to be God’s possession, the people of Israel are also expected to be set apart. President Abraham Lincoln called Americans to rise up into their “better angels,” and not to be dragged down to their baser instincts. And, perhaps, the idea of holiness is to demand more from one’s self, and not to whittle away one’s dignity and worth by constantly excusing, rationalizing, and compromising in the important matters of life.

Leviticus 19 has shaped some of the best of civilization. This has been true for our Jewish neighbors as they have regularly recited this call to holiness on the high holy days of Yom Kippur. Our Christian neighbors also have also read in the first chapter of 1 Peter, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” ’ (1:15–16). Thus we have reminded ourselves of what God is like, and what God’s people must also be. With good reason, therefore, faith communities have affirmed that holiness is central to the biblical understanding of who God is and who God’s people must be).

To be sure the “shall be” of this summons is aspirational, but aspiration is what it’s all about. It is the call to be a witnessing people, showing the world that things can be better, because we can be better.

There is indeed hope in God to see us through these troubled pandemic times, because people can be better. And we must be part of that process.

But this call to holiness is a good thing only when it is also a call to work for belonging. The call to holiness must be kept a call to be set apart as a witness to a hurting world, but never allowed to fall into devolving into “holier than thou” exclusivity–no longer witness, but barrier.


Leviticus carries the argument of Deuteronomy and the prophets, that God demands moral righteousness out of Israel, into the world of the Temple. It argues that ritual holiness is just as important as moral holiness. Our reading for this Sunday contains some of the social justice demands. But elsewhere in the Holiness Code, it is all about  proper slaughter, sacrifice, whom to marry, diet, the sacred calendar, etc. We modern readers may not understand why pork should be holy and beef not—or why it is so wrong to cross breed animals, or wear fabrics that combine different kinds of cloth.

Mary Douglas, in Leviticus as Literature, Oxford University Press, 1999 sees the priestly sensitivity at work in Leviticus as the attempt to bring order into experience.  She believes that the reason animals with cloven hooves that do not chew the cud were prohibited was simply that the ancient Israelites saw them as abnormal. The priestly writers of Leviticus didn’t like them because they liked their world  neatly divided into categories of holy and profane—normal and abnormal–inside and outside the circle. It gave them a sense of order and comfort. It gave them a sense of identity and normalcy. Under this principle a man with a bodily defect of any kind should be prohibited from service at the altar of the Temple, just as animals with defects could not be sacrificed (Leviticus 21 and 22).

As we say, Leviticus is the work of the priests who saw their role as keeping things tidy. But all of the Torah, or Law of God in the Old Testament isn’t like that. Deuteronomy keeps the focus on moral demands. The prophets emphasize social justice—read Amos; and Micah 6 tell us the Lord is not pleased with sacrifice, but, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There are biblical differences of opinion about what makes us holy, normal, and righteous.

I think we can learn good things from the priestly perspective. Priests and boosters of liturgics today are helpful when they say we humans are not just spiritual—we are also fleshly. As such we need things we can see and smell and touch and perform. Saying you love someone is fine, but the beloved crave ceremonies like weddings, tangible things like wedding rings, and a hug in the morning and before bed at night.

So, in this time of pandemic, when we are away from church, it is all that tangible stuff we miss. Yes, the hugs—but also the standing and sitting, and the smells of furniture polish, candles burning and the cross and altar before our eyes. So, it would be very healthy for us to do the priestly thing and brighten up our Zoom and Facebook sessions with some rituals of our own devising. Along with plenty of hugs for our family members who also are craving them.

But, again, we are mistaken when we use holiness to define normalcy, health, and boundary. When holiness is no longer witness, it works against God’s ideal of belonging.

If it is order that the priests of Leviticus are after, we must, at all cost, prevent order from becoming a false standard of normalcy. We all, of course, prefer our own way of life. We develop a comfort with people who look, believe, and act like ourselves. Out of this preference it is easy for us to think of our way as the only way, the normal way, or God’s way. This, of course, is the opposite of the opening verse of Leviticus 17. Instead of thinking, “God is holy, therefore I must be holy like God,” we are subconsciously thinking, “God must be holy in the way I am holy.”

john a. powell (he prefers lower case), University of California, Berkeley, Law School Professor, and head and founder of its Othering and Belonging Institute has realized that many of progressive or liberal attempts at “inclusion” fail because we subconsciously are asking too high a price for inclusion. The other must give up their ways and their identity. They must adopt our ways to become part of our group or our club.

This is the dark side of “holiness” that makes not only morality and social justice the standard, but also ritual—also doing things the way we have decided is holy.

As an aside it is interesting to note that the only two unequivocal condemnations of homosexuality in the Jewish Bible come from the priestly Leviticus. So, are these commands moral, or are they about ritual? Are they really God’s demand for all people, or are they what is considered “normal” and “orderly” by Israel’s priests?


What should be our standard of holiness in this time of pandemic? It should be one of witness and summons to our “higher angels.” It should be holiness, but not “holier than thou.” It should be something that lifts us all higher by bringing us all together in the circle of belonging that is God’s goal and purpose for us all.

So, we should wear masks and advocate for our whole nation to be on the same page and work together to stop or at least slow the virus so that we can “open up.” But we should never do these things with an air of superiority, and allow ourselves to despise the other. And we should all be honest about the unfairness of our structures that mean that the poor and the people of color in our neighborhoods get sick and die from the virus at a much higher rate than the privileged; but we should do our advocacy as acts of witness and love for the other, not as scolds who push others further and further away.

We should summon ourselves and our neighbors to a belonging that is marked by being holy as God is holy, not by being holier than thou.


[Bibliographical note: Many of the above insights into the Holiness Code are taken from Collins, J. J. (2004). Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: an inductive reading of the Old Testament (pp. 146–148). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.]



About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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