There is a way of living life, a mode of being religious that causes destruction wherever it appears. It is the misinterpretation of the concept of holiness. It was certainly an issue in Jesus’ day. The variety of the ‘Judaisms’ of Jesus’ day, the various schools or parties, the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai . . . the Essenes . . . apocalyptic sects, mainstream elite like the Sadducees and marginalized Samaritans alike all held to some kind of holiness code, that behavior which made the people right before God . . .
The Temple itself reflected gradations or strata of holiness, from the outer Court of the Gentiles to the Holy of Holies. This meta-map of the Temple was overlaid on Jewish society as well. Just as there were degrees of holy space in the Temple, so also in society various persons had various degrees of holiness . . . It was a hierarchical model, lived out by every group or party except one, that of Jesus . . .
Yet, oddly enough we do not find this holiness language in Jesus’ teaching. Unlike the constant refrain of holiness in the Dead Sea Scrolls or the later Mishnah, Jesus has another set of lyrics using the same melody. Instead of “Be holy as I am holy” Jesus taught “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Mercy was for Jesus what holiness was to many of his contemporaries. Notice the same form is used but the substance has changed. Why is this? Because for Jesus, holiness was not a solution but a problem. Holiness caused ostracizing and exclusion; mercy brought reconciliation and re-socialization. Holiness depended on gradation and hierarchy; mercy broke through all barriers. Holiness differentiated persons based upon honor, wealth, family tree, religious affiliation; mercy recognized that God honors all, loves all and blesses all.