Too often these days, I fear, many of us feel holier-than-Thou in so many unhealthy ways. We’re right, and the other fellow is wrong. Our side is blessed, and the other side is cursed. Thus, coming together with the other to get it really right is never on our minds and seldom on our calendar. We would rather prosper alone, and, even better, at the other’s expense. And, truth be told, we often commit and hide wrongdoing, if it betters our position and that of our side, and hurts the other.
This cocky self-righteousness and its sometimes-attendant misbehavior are at the center of the Bible’s concern in this week’s passages.
Let’s take a look.
As much as we tend to think of holiness as something ethereal, perhaps of the ceremonial world of special priests, the Hebrew Bible introduces another perspective. Right at the center of the verses now before us is the more fundamental idea that to be holy is to live lovingly and righteously in the here and now.
Indeed it is here – right in the middle of Leviticus – that we find the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as yourself.
In the verses surrounding this central guidance, we see more detailed ways of living true to it. We’re not to steal or to oppress our neighbor. We’re not to put a stumbling block before the blind or to judge others with bias. We’re not to gossip or seek revenge or bear a grudge. We’re not to engage in sexual misconduct. Rather we’re to love others and share with the poor and stranger. We’re to judge with righteousness (including those on the other side or in the other party). We’re to be loyal to God and Divine expectations.
The first verses, though, seem to recognize that human beings are not perfect creatures; rather, it is in our nature to stray and err. So, the sacred time of Yom Kippur is created, literally, a time of “at-one-ment.” While these verses speak of a holy day, they, more profoundly, encourage us at all times when we realize that we’ve fallen short, to turn back in the right direction, repair the wrong we’ve done, and resume loving and righteous behavior.
In our readings this week from the Prophets, Amos sees a people who have strayed from right living and appear oblivious to the fact that they’ve done wrong and indeed contemptuous of the idea that they should turn back and change their ways.
Hypocritically, they seem to be singing “songs of the Temple.” And, at the same time, they “swallow up the needy” and “cut off the poor.” They look for every advantage to cheat in commerce, even in sacred time, and take advantage of the other to get the extra edge.
Amos makes clear that people who act in such awful ways yet believe they are treasured because they’re “religious” or “well placed” are no more favored than any other group. Indeed, while the prideful ones may appear to live in splendor in the now, their world will one day be shaken, their day darkened, and their future made perilous.
Yet, even in the midst of this gloom that will confront those who choose never to return, God is always hopeful of our return. The promise of Yom Kippur (and all the mini-Yom Kippurs) is ever-present, always calling us to be “at-one” with our Creator.
Return to the path of love and righteousness, the Text seems to cry out. And the truly rich blessings of living in God’s ways will forever be ours.
There will be a day when “the one who plows the field will meet the one who reaps it, and the one who treads the grapes will meet the one who carries the seed, when the mountains will drip sweet wine, and all the hills will overflow.”
May this day come for us, too.