AND the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy.’” [Leviticus 19:1-2]
As I was sitting down to write this sermon, I remembered that this is Presidents’ Day weekend. This, in turn, reminded me of a situation that occurred quite a few years back. If you all will remember, there was a great controversy when a courthouse was ordered to remove a memorial it had in its lobby to the Ten Commandments. It made news, and pundits had a heyday with it. Since that time, there has been a segment of our society that has maintained there is an assault or “war” against our Christian sensibilities in our public forums. They also maintain that this assault goes against what the founding fathers wanted. These pundits do this on the basis that, when founded, we were a “Christian nation.”
Now, as I have read history, I really do not think the founding fathers were out to form a Christian nation, per se. It is true that the common law that came to us via England was based on Judeo-Christian principles. And it is true that most Americans in the colonies were Christians of one sect or another. But, Thomas Paine was an atheist, and Thomas Jefferson was a Deist. Jefferson was such a devout Deist, he actually rewrote the New Testament removing all miracles, as he did not believe that God ever interfered with the natural order of things.
As a matter of fact, many of the founding fathers were Deists or agnostics. When President Pierce took the oath of office for the Presidency, he refused to swear on a Bible. He affirmed his office on a law book. And he did this because he had lost all faith in God after his son died in a tragic accident.
However, even though many of the founding fathers were not traditional Christians, or were agnostic or atheists, recent works have shown that many writings have demonstrated the incredibly important role the Bible had as moral authority in the founding years of our country. The Ten Commandments and other Old Testament references were in many political writings from the birth of our country through the Civil War and even up to the twentieth century. Yet, now these references are all but gone.
What many people want to ask is why are they gone? My question turns this question on its head. My question is why were they there in the first place? After all, HL Mencken once said, “Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.”
The only way to truly understand why we have the Ten Commandments, and for that matter ALL the Commandments, is to look at our lessons for today.
Our Old Testament lesson in from Leviticus is extremely important for two reasons. The first is that it makes clear why we have the Ten Commandments:
AND the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy.’”
This phrase is of vital importance. It explains why God gave the Israelites the commandments.
This is the point of the Mosaic Law. It was not to establish a bunch of laws; it was to make sure that the Israelites would become holy. God is not the supreme rule maker or enforcer. He is NOT legalistic. Rather God wanted His chosen people to be what He is – namely Holy. Therefore rule-making and even rule-keeping was NOT the goal. It never was. What was and what still is the goal is the striving to be like God.
Therefore, we have what follows in Leviticus. And we have the very important rule that all farmers were to keep some of the harvest in the field for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned so that they would have something to eat. And then in verse 18, we have an incredibly important statement:
“‘Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.’”
This passage is the second reason why this lesson is so important. This passage is the first time in the Bible that our Lord explicitly commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and it is the ONLY time it appears in the Old Testament. However, even though this command only appears once in the Old Testament, it is clear that the religious Jewish people of Christ’s time knew of its great importance and saw it as the summary of all of the law that deals with how we deal with our fellow man.
In the Gospel according to Saint Luke, a lawyer quotes this section and then asks Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ’s response is the parable of the Good Samaritan. This answer explains clearly this verse in Leviticus.
And this is the point of our New Testament lesson. God gave us the Law so we can be holy, but God is NOT legalistic. The goal is holiness, which Christ through His life and in His words explains clearly. Jesus, in other words, is the Supreme definition of Holiness. And the conflict between He and the Pharisees clearly shows us the difference between holiness and legalism.
The scribes and Pharisees were scrupulous keepers of the Law. They wanted to enforce the Law absolutely. But, in the process, they had lost focus. They kept the Law but lost sight of the Law-giver. They were NOT holy because they were NOT trying to be like God. They were just checking off the boxes and making sure they followed the letter of the Law. But the spirit was lost.
In our New Testament lesson, we see the Spirit when Christ tells us:
“YE have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’: but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy.’ But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you: that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” [Emphasis added.]
As I have told you before, the Eastern Orthodox have a concept called “Theosis.” It is the process in which we try to be more like God. This is NOT like the temptation of the devil when he tempted our grandparents, Adam and Eve. This is NOT the belief that we ARE like God. No. This is the process in which we strive to become more Holy. It is both the goal and the process where in which we strive to be more like God AND in union WITH God. This, of course, means that we MUST become more Christ-like. And this is precisely what Christ meant when He told us that we must love our enemies. For only when we can do this will we be more Christ-like, more holy.
As Saint Paul tells us in his first epistle to the Corinthians:
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy: for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
Here is the ultimate truth – keeping the rules and regulations are NOT the goal. Checking the boxes is an administrator’s answer to the problem. Rather what matters is that we grow in grace, becoming more Christ-like. This is our goal; this is for what we must all strive. The rules and the commandments are to help us achieve this goal, but they are NOT the goal in and of themselves.
So, let us come back to my question – why were the Old Testament references in our founding fathers’ works? And the answer brings us back to what they wanted to achieve. They wanted a new society. They wanted to achieve what had never been achieved before. And they had a host of problems for which there seemed to be conflicting answers, the biggest of which was the issue of slavery.
It is my theory that what they really wanted was an absolute moral authority. Morality without God becomes morality by preference, but morality based on God’s commandments is absolute, unchanging, and revealed. Through the Old Testament examples and the Mosaic Law, I believe they thought they could glean what they needed to do in order to achieve this new and brave world. And they also used it to show how they failed. President Lincoln was convinced that the Civil War was divine retribution for the sins of this nation. But ultimately, what the founding fathers wanted was a better nation than had ever existed.
But, what WE must remember as we look back at what our founding fathers wrote and what some pundits want us to believe is that the letter of the Law would never achieve what our founding fathers were after. Only the Spirit of the Law would have given them a better society.
The end of slavery cannot be justified merely from what the Old Testament or even what the New Testament commands. In fact, slavery was institutionalized in both. No: only through the Spirit of the Law, only through understanding what loving our neighbor as ourselves means, does it become clear that slavery is wrong. And only through the Spirit of the Law can we ever hope of achieving Theosis.
Today is Septuagesima Sunday. We are not in Lent, but we are approaching it. As we approach, let us pray and think as to what we should do during Lent to help us become more holy. Let us think what we must do to go through and achieve Theosis. And, as we do, let us ask help from the Holy Ghost. For only through the Great Comforter can we ever hope to become more Christ-like. And let us remember what Saint Paul tells us:
Ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.