They say fences make good neighbors.  I guess so.  I’ve just always been blessed to have pretty good neighbors, so I’ve not had to worry about it.  Really what we are talking about are boundaries, and a healthy life has boundaries one does not cross lest things begin to get messy.

Religiously, we call this “holiness.”  The distinction between the sacred and common, pure and impure, special and everyday, safe and unsafe.  Holiness demands that we see the world a little bit differently.  All things are not the same.  Some are good and others not.  Some are in and others out.  Some clean and others unclean.  Holiness is necessary, uncomfortable, offensive, and a gift from God all at the same time.

Today’s section pertains to the topic of holiness, though the word is never used.  In this context, there are three groups of people the Medinan Muslims must relate to, and Allah offers instructions on how best to interact with each with holiness in mind.

First, how should the Muslims relate to the pagan Meccans who once used the “Sacred Mosque” or Ka’ba in Mecca as a pagan shrine and who now still want to even though it has become a shrine to Allah?  This section commands that they should be barred from the Mosque, as their idolatry and wanton rituals (i.e., naked circumambulation, says commentator Ali) degrade the holiness of the sacred spot.  Holiness is found in a spot.  Not because of the location, but because of what it represents.  Such holy places are to be “fenced off” from those who lessen the sacredness of the place with their ignorance and disregard.

Second, how should the Muslims relate to attachments? This would be family who are not Muslims, but also wealth, possessions, business dealings, and the buildings we erect to house our prosperous life.  Is God just one more item on a list of cherished items?  Is He one in a list of several equally cherished relationships — “Faith, Family, Friends”?  Holiness is shown in relationships when our allegiance to God outweighs all others.  Holiness is when we are attached to God more than a house, a paycheck, or a career.

Third, how should the Muslims relate to the People of the Book — Jews and Christians?  These people “ascribe partners” to God — the Messiah Jesus, Mary, Ezra (evidently an ancient sect of Judaism held the prophet up as a great “son” of God, though it is not clear if they meant this literally), even their cherished rabbis and monks — and this is simply “unclean” (9:28).  Note, that is a holiness word.  At stake here is the very nature and honor of God; “they try to extinguish God’s light” (9:32).  Be holy even in how you see God and what ideas you allow to go unchecked.

Holiness is mandatory if a group or religion is “to show it is above all [other] religions” (9:33).  Or maybe a more palatable way to say that is that we have to really be different if we want to be seen as a different people.

Let’s also remember as Christians that there is another side to the story.  In Jesus we find someone who could maintain a perfect balance between holiness and hospitality.  Sin was never condoned, but sinners were welcomed.  The woman who had sold her body the night before, was welcomed to place her body at his feet.  Proud Pharisees were welcomed to come to Jesus by night for a round of twenty questions.  Throughout it all, Jesus remained unsullied but also entirely welcoming.  That is the perfect balance and the perfect example.