The notion of holiness as perfection is not a helpful understanding of holiness.
In our journey in following Jesus, simply “not behaving badly” is a misunderstanding of the mission of God. We often point to a verse in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount for a definition of holiness: “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The problem with this is that the Greek word translated as perfect can be translated and interpreted differently. The Contemporary English Version translates it this way: “You must always act the way God chooses to act.”
The reason for this difference is best seen in light of the concept of shalom. In the Old Testament, shalom was intimately identified with who God is and how God engages in the world. Shalom is peace, but more broadly understood it is wholeness, completeness. It is that inexplicable sense of right-side up in a very upside-down world.
Holiness redefined by the shalom of the God who desires all things to be made right is the ultimate illustration of right-side up. It is acting and working and being the very nature of who God is. God is wholeness and God is completeness. Our pursuit of this is holiness.
As Jesus stood in the synagogue to officially begin his ministry, he gave us an image of what holiness looks like. Luke’s Gospel records Jesus’ words, speaking from the text of Isaiah. Jesus says, “The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen'” (Luke 4:18-20).
If Jesus embodies the very sense of who God is and what God is seeking to do in the world, this gives us a clear picture. Jesus is far less concerned ensuring we measure up to our own self-defined standard of moral behavior. While living morally upright lives is an important part of following Jesus, holiness as shalom or completeness is more akin to acting the way God chooses to act.
God chooses to speak good news to the poor – news that a Kingdom is coming where tables are spread and every mouth will be fed. A Kingdom where men and women and children will never go without simply because they cannot afford or cannot work.
God chooses to announce freedom for prisoners of debt and self-deception and political corruption and unbridled mercy even for enemies, announcing a Kingdom where the King washes feet and befriends commoners and gives grace lavishly and abundantly and absurdly.
God chooses to give sight to the blind and to free those who suffer and to proclaim that the corruption and tyranny of an upside-down world is over and that the new era of right-side up has begun.
As we cross from the expectancy of Advent to the paradox of Christmas, it is appropriate to notice the quiet character in the incarnation narrative – Joseph, who speaks no words in the Gospels.
Joseph embodies holiness because he sought the wholeness, the shalom of Mary. After receiving the visit by the messenger of God, Joseph would have been well within the rights to divorce her or worse. It would have saved his reputation. It would have been easier. It would have been exactly what was expected of him. Instead, Joseph chooses to remain by her side, knowing full well the cost to his reputation.
Joseph knew that sending Mary away unwed, pregnant and alone would leave her but a fragment of a person. She wouldn’t be complete. Joseph chooses shalom. He chooses to keep her complete and whole, deliberately acting the way God acts. He sought right-side up for the very least among him: a poor unwed and now pregnant, rural teenage girl.
Though Joseph is the quiet character in the Christmas story, he embodies for us our calling as followers of Jesus. We are called to live and speak and breathe right-side up into a very upside-down world.
Holiness is a deliberate choice to seek wholeness in the world. And it is difficult. In many respects it would be much easier to pursue a life of holiness defined by a checklist of do’s and don’ts. But holiness that is defined by our own personal moral success is fundamentally self-centered and deceptive. It leads us to believe that our personal spiritual development is all about us. This holiness is clear-cut; it is black and white.
But true holiness, that is acting the way God chooses to act, is primarily self-sacrificing. It thinks of others first. It loves enemies. It embraces hardship. It seeks the completion of others before it seeks the comforts of self. It is not black or white; it is gray and messy. And we do it together.
Christopher J. Montgomery is pastor of Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren in suburban Philadelphia.