God’s history with His people, both ancient and modern, has always been about holiness, and the accompanying concept of sacrifice. Ever since God chose a separate people for Himself, sacrifice has been required. With sacrifice comes humility; and that humility results in holiness.
When the Israelite people left Egypt, God set up laws and rituals to manage their community life. When I read them, I am struck by how they continually point to the fact that nothing in the community really belonged to the individual. The first of everything an Israelite produced belonged to God; including a firstborn child, which had to be redeemed through animal sacrifice. There was no guarantee made to any Israelite that they could keep the property or people that they acquired. Every seven years, and especially every fifty years, slaves and property had to be re-evaluated and given up. The Israelites, if they were to be holy enough for God to live among, had to be humble enough to sacrifice their possessions.
Of even greater interest to me than property laws are the descriptions of the craftsmanship and riches that went into the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites left Egypt with a great deal of silver and gold; all compliments of their Egyptian neighbours. But they were not allowed to hoard their new riches. After losing a considerable amount in the calf debacle, the community was asked to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, which was the place where God would live among them. The community gladly gave up their riches.
Some of the gold was given to a talented craftsman, Bezalel, to make a fancy covering for the Ark. I’m guessing that his project was well-known, and that people may have even come to his workshop to watch. The building of the ark was an open process; nothing secretive about it. I can picture a whole bunch of oohing and aahing going on as the beautifully-crafted golden cover emerged from his skilled and willing hands. I believe Bezalel was proud of his work; as proud as I am when I can find a creative and interesting mix of words.
But no sooner had the Israelites’ voluntarily-surrendered riches been fashioned into something beautiful, when it was hidden away behind a curtain. The only person who was allowed to see the results of such skill and expense was the high priest, once a year. Bezalel and the Israelites had created and admired a wonderful thing, but they were not allowed keep it out in the open where the admiration could continue. If they were to be holy enough for God to live among, they had to be humble enough to sacrifice the right to marvel at their own treasure.
When Jesus arrived, announcing the Kingdom of Heaven, the demand for holiness did not go away; nor did sacrifice as the way to achieve it. What had been physically required through the Ark of the Covenant and property laws is now required in the Chosen People’s hearts. In order to be holy, the Israelites could never allow themselves to get into the headspace of permanent ownership; and neither can the residents of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus exhorted his followers to be no more concerned about possessions than are birds and flowers. He also taught that an attempt to hang onto life would result in losing it; but that to give life up is to gain it.
Back in the very human community of Israelites, there were probably people who, over the years, looked for loopholes to the property laws. The only reason to do so would have been to maintain the appearance of right-living, while getting everything you could for yourself. Perhaps there was even an Israelite priest who, since nobody but him could see it, was tempted to turn the Ark into a plain wooden box and take the gold for himself. To do so would have been to maintain the appearance of devotion to God while enriching himself. As humans in the Kingdom of Heaven we are constantly struggling with the tension between truth and appearance.
Jesus made it clear that outward form is not sufficient. It is now no longer good enough to avoid committing murder, we can’t even be angry at someone. Successfully steering clear of adultery will no longer do; we can’t even secretly lust. We are even (and I find this the most painful sacrifice of all) denied our perception of fairness and justice. Who wouldn’t want to see the wasteful, no-good son of a landowner reduced to the state of servant? But holiness demands that we give up that self-indulgent sense of justice. If we are to be holy enough for God to live among, we must be humble enough to sacrifice our own ways.
As the chosen inhabitants of the Kingdom of Heaven, we can’t simply look good, we must be good; just as surely as the Israelites had to honestly abide by their laws and the hidden Ark of the Covenant had to be expensive and beautiful. It is a sacrifice to choose to live this way—we’re humbled when we find out how hard it is—but, the result is holiness.