We have just completed the High Holy Days in Israel. This past Wednesday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the most important day on the Jewish calendar—and it has been, pretty much since Moses received Torah from God on Mt. Sinai. The Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, God forgives (or erases) any sins committed against God, but not sins against another human being. They believe that to come out of Yom Kippur in a holy state, you must make amends or seek forgiveness from anyone whom you have wronged over the past year as well.
Interestingly, Jesus seems to echo this thinking in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift (Matt. 5:23 NRSV).” In effect, Jesus says you need to get right with your neighbor before you can get right with God. That’s the same spirit reflected today in Yom Kippur.
There’s a lesson here that we’ve lost sight of in modern Christianity. We have a laser focus on the grace of God covering all of our sins and wrongdoings—and this is definitely a key component of Christian belief. However, this has given us the idea that we get a “free-pass” on making amends with those we have wronged—either intentionally or unintentionally. God has forgiven us and that’s all that matters. Yet, Jesus doesn’t condone that. Just a little bit later in that same sermon, he teaches his disciples how to pray. He says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matt. 6:12, 14-15).” The assumption inherent in this text is that if you have wronged someone you should actually be seeking their forgiveness. Jesus teaches that such forgiveness should not be withheld. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ teachings are pretty well-aligned with Jewish beliefs and practices around this aspect of Yom Kippur.
The more I think about it, Jesus has A LOT to say about this. In Luke 6:37 He says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Just a chapter later, he drops the proverbial hammer on a devoutly religious person named, Simon, in response to Simon’s reaction to a “sinful” woman that comes to anoint Jesus’ feet. Jesus tells Simon, “whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.” Inherent in Jesus’ teaching is the counterpoint: whoever has been forgiven much, loves much.
Why is seeking forgiveness from our community so important? Why has it been part of the religious fabric of Judaism/Christianity for more than 3,000 years? I think there are a couple of reasons why this is very important.
The first is reflected in a seminal teaching of Jesus where he ranks the importance of the commandments in Torah. He is asked by an “expert in Torah” what the greatest commandment is. In actuality, I believe the real question here is what’s #2. Everyone agreed on #1. They didn’t agree on #2. Jesus skillfully uses a rabbinic interpretive technique (called Gezerah Shavah) to make an important teaching:
One of them, an expert in Torah, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in Torah?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All Torah and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:35-40)
Because these two Old Testament passages use the exact same form of the Hebrew word for “love”, Jesus says they can be made equal with one another. Moreover, he says that all of the Hebrew Text (Old Testament) can be summed up in these two commandments. If we truly love God, then we will love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Do you really love God? Then put your money where your mouth is and show love to your neighbor.
In case you’re asking yourself, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered that too. It’s everyone—even your enemies. No. Wait. Especially your enemies. I’ll let you look that one up on your own.
The second reason is stated in the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:7, God says, “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” That’s the 4th commandment. Maybe you learned it as, “Don’t take the name of the LORD in vain.” I think the NRSV does a better job translating it “misuse”. What does it mean to misuse the name of the LORD? Is it simply using it in expletive declarations or as “OMG”? That’s what I was taught growing up—and that is certainly part of it, but it’s not all of it.
There is a deeper and more relevant message here that we need to consider. The word translated “misuse” has its root in the Hebrew word that means “to lift up”. In other words, don’t lift up the name of the LORD improperly. I’ve also heard this interpreted as don’t use the name of the LORD “wrongly.” In other words, don’t try to represent God in a way contrary with His nature and divine will. What happens when we do things in the name of God that are contrary to His nature? We represent him in a bad light. We make Him out to be something that He is not. We are a bad witness to the nature and character of the Almighty.
Unfortunately, I have seen lots of Christians (myself included) whose actions have “misused” the name of the LORD. If I wear the name Christian and live my life (public and private) in a way that doesn’t reflect the teachings of Jesus, then I am misusing the name of the LORD. If I don’t actively work to love my neighbor—even my enemies—as I love myself, then I am misusing the name of the LORD.
Back when I was getting my MBA—many years ago—there was a lady in several of my classes. We tended to sit in the same part of the classroom and would have casual conversations before class—nothing very deep or serious. About 2 months into the semester I was at our church one Sunday morning and I looked across the auditorium and saw this lady with her husband. I went over to say, hello and welcome her. When she saw me, the first words out of her mouth were, “what are you doing here?” Now, I don’t know exactly how she meant it, there are several ways that phrase could be interpreted. But I’ve got to admit that it hit me when she said it. Was there something about our interactions in class that would make her wonder why I was in a church? I couldn’t think of anything specific, but it was a sober reminder to me that people make judgements about you by your actions and the settings where you encounter them.
Today, I am convicted that the biggest deterrent to Christianity is social media. It’s not from what others say about Christians. It’s about what Christians post on social media says about themselves. Many of my Facebook friends identify as Christians. Unfortunately, I see a lot of posts that are focused on tearing down anyone in the opposing political party. What really gets under my skin is when people share “news” posts or memes that even the smallest amount of fact checking (let alone good ‘ol common sense) could be proven to not be even remotely true. I’ve even seen people sharing satirical articles that they actually thought were true! Have our divisions become so great that we can no longer tell truth from satire?!? God help us all!
You might think I am singling out one party over the other. Nope. I’ve seen this sort of behavior from both ends of the political spectrum. I wonder if anyone really thinks that posting this sort of junk is going to convince someone to change their mind. Actually, “junk” is not the word in my head right now, but I can’t print the word that better describes it—hint: it has the same number of letters.
All this type of “dialogue” does is divide and alienate. Even worse, it dehumanizes those on the other side of the debate. It makes them into your enemy. And if you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “well they should be dehumanized for their idiotic arguments or un-Christian views,” then you have misunderstood what Jesus told us about our enemies: we need to love them, not tear them down—even if you don’t agree with them. Even if you don’t like their politics, their beliefs on certain social issues or even their religion. We are called to love them. Period.
I’ve seen people lament that America is no longer a Christian nation. I tend to agree with them. Yet, unfortunately Christians share in the blame for this situation. When you misuse the name of the LORD by tearing down people you don’t agree with rather than showing them love and compassion you are driving them away from Christianity by how you have represented it. If you are Christ’s representation on Earth, then why would they want to be a part of that?!? I know I wouldn’t.
To call yourself a Christian implies that you are living a life that is imitating Jesus. We are striving to become who Jesus is in all aspects of our lives. Jesus’ life mission was to seek and save those that were lost. He did this by showing them love, mercy and compassion. His criticism and harsh words were saved for those in the religious circles who thought they had all the answers—but weren’t living into their calling—they were misrepresenting the nature of God. That calling could be boiled down to a couple of simple commandments: Love God and prove you love him by loving everyone else—especially your enemies.
I think Judaism has held onto something right and Godly with Yom Kippur: seeking forgiveness from your neighbors for the wrongs you have done them. It would do Christians good to have a day each year where we reflect on this and actively seek to make things right in our community and beyond. Maybe that day should be Yom Kippur.