1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
It’s an uncomfortable question. We want to move quickly to the grace of God, the welcoming embrace, the overflowing forgiveness. We don’t want to ask who is worthy to dwell in God’s presence.
The question of cultic purity was an important one in the ancient world. There was a vivid sense of the sacred around each shrine. To bring what was profane into the presence of the holy was a dangerous act, offending the god of that place. It invited wrath just as an offense against a king invited wrath.
There is behavior appropriate to a football game that isn’t appropriate in court. To speak out of turn in a legal proceeding, to violate the norms of the court, can land you in jail for contempt. We make these distinctions all the time. We raise our hands at school but such behavior would be out of place – or intentionally offensive – if it happened at the dinner table. When I was a child, I had to wear a coat and tie to church; we had to wear our best in God’s presence. Saturday night required a bath because you couldn’t go to church unclean. These are only vague hints of the demands of an ancient shrine. Paul was almost murdered by a mob of worshipers because of a rumor that he had desecrated the temple by bringing a Gentile into the inner court – and saved only because they had to drag him out of the courtyard before killing him lest his blood desecrate the temple and, as the mob was dragging him out, soldiers stepped in to arrest him. Purity was exceedingly important.
Many cultures leave their shoes at the door to keep the outer impure world from desecrating the inner realm of the home. It’s not just about keeping literal dirt outdoors. The whole concept of ‘dirt’ is symbolic of something out of its proper place. Dirt in the field isn’t dirt; it’s soil. It only becomes dirt if you try to bring it into the kitchen where it doesn’t belong. There is a boundary at the threshold of the house. Just so, there is a boundary at the threshold of the shrine – a boundary between the heavens and the earth, between the realm of the gods and the world of the common, between the sacred and the profane. You cannot bring what is unclean into the realm of the holy.
So who can enter into God’s sacred shrine? Who can enter into the presence of the holy? There are extensive descriptions regarding purity in the Torah, and the rituals to restore it. But in answering this question of who may come onto God’s holy hill, our poet does not speak about abstaining from sex, ritual washings, or avoiding contact with blood and what is dead. The true measure of purity is our treatment of others: refusing to take advantage of a person’s need by charging interest; refusing to speak ill of another; speaking the truth; keeping one’s oath even to your own detriment. Those who are welcome in God’s holy city are those who do justice and mercy, who live on earth the justice and mercy that is the mark of heaven.
God is a God of grace. There is welcome for the sinner. He has made us worthy by wrapping us in Christ. Yet the true measure of holiness remains: not personal purity but the care of our neighbor.