A New Holiness
February 4, 2005
I don’t consider myself to be that much of a rebel, although I do find it freeing to bend or break the rules occasionally. I think it just helps me remember that rules are not what life’s all about.
That’s probably why I love to read the passages that show Jesus breaking the rules in front of the Pharisees. The “in your face” moments between Jesus and the religious leaders are packed with irony. Jesus never seems to have a great deal of patience with the self-righteous. He would linger all day with sinners—maybe at a well, the pool, a house or a mountain side, but the self-righteous always seem to be exiting the scene in the biblical narrative. On one occasion Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in front of the Pharisees to show them that their idea of holiness needs to be redefined. It's a wild thought: Jesus breaks the rules to show them what holiness is all about. Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, heals a man and says a few choice words, and the Pharisees leave ticked off. The Pharisees didn’t care about the healing process—they cared about rules; they had a rule for everything.
I think this is the paradox we live in today. For many of us the idea of holiness is steeped in adhering to a specific system of thought: a formulaic list that says, If I don't do this or this, I will stay holy. I'll be honest, I don't typically get overwhelmed with a feeling of holiness; I don't feel very sacred most of the time. In some aspects, what I see as holiness in some people gives me a subtle disdain for the practices of the (so-called) righteous. Let's be honest; we all hate to hang around “holier than thou” type people. For some reason, the holiness that Jesus displayed didn’t have that effect on people. Jesus was the most holy to ever walk the earth, yet messed-up people were drawn to him.
Jesus radically redefined holiness. Jesus brought a new portrait of holiness that was drenched in the reality of grace. For the Pharisees, holiness was an act of self-righteousness and comparisons; for Jesus, holiness was the energy of God's grace flowing powerfully through Him. The more I look into the Bible, I see holiness and grace eternally connected. In Hebrew 12 the writer says, "Live at peace with all men, and be holy—for without holiness, no one will see God. See to it that no one misses out on the grace of God and that no bitter root grows to trouble and defile many."
The privilege to live a holy life is only by grace, nothing else; it should bring about a certain humility and peace, not bitterness and frustration. The new holiness system Jesus revealed was a catharsis of grace that spilled out in real life, a place where appearances and comparisons seemed to fade into the past. This is what Brennan Manning calls “getting rid of the Pharisee within.”
What does it mean for me to be holy? Well, I think it means that I follow in the ways of God's love above everything else. Holiness shouldn't be so much about what I don't do, but what I do and why I do it. Holiness allows us to see God and His grace. It shouldn’t drive others away; it should be inviting and mysterious, full of beauty.
How does this new holiness make sense today? Here’s an example: Let’s say your heart goes out with compassion for those who have lost loved ones in the tsunami, but you don't have a great deal of money. You decide to take your tithe or your regular giving and send it to aid in the relief efforts. You may have broken some church rule, but you have understood the better part of holiness. The modern-day Pharisee thinks you should always tithe, and it would be wrong to give that money that belongs to the church to someone else. A modern Pharisee would never think about foregoing his tithe to help an urgent need because he knows that it is right to tithe. The problem is—that is all he knows.
This new holiness that Jesus instituted is mind-blowing, people accepting, a place where relationships always emerge above rules. Rules have a purpose, but relationships are THE purpose; the new holiness understands the flexibility of the law. The new holiness is within grasp, down-to-earth and approachable. It’s the code of holiness we were called to live by because the One we follow is holy.
[Brian Orme is a writer and pastor in Ohio, desperately searching for a new one-line bio. You can contact him at www.brianorme.com.]