Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. It’s the most important day on the Jewish calendar—and has been for more than two thousand years. The traditional greeting for Yom Kippur is “may you be sealed in the book of life.” Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, God forgives (or erases) any sins committed against God, but not those committed against another human being. They believe that to come out of Yom Kippur in a sanctified state, you must also make amends or seek forgiveness from anyone you have wronged over the past year.
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 for modern Christianity. We have a laser focus on the grace of God covering all of our sins—and this is a critical tenet of Christian belief. But has this single-minded focus led us to think we get a “free-pass” on making amends with those we have wronged—either intentionally or unintentionally? Is it enough to claim that God has forgiven us, and that’s all that matters? Jesus doesn’t teach that. Just a little bit later in that same passage, he instructs his disciples how they should pray. Within that model prayer is the following phrase along with an explanation:
“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
In this prayer, Jesus focuses on the personal obligation to forgive others. Not only must Jesus’s disciples seek out forgiveness for wrongs they have committed against others, but they must freely offer forgiveness when someone wrongs them. 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 forgiveness. 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.” A chapter later, he drops the proverbial hammer on Simon, a devoutly religious man, when Simon reacts to a “sinful” woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. Jesus tells Simon, “whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.” Core within Jesus’ reply 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 well over 2,000 years? I think there are a couple of reasons.
The Greatest Commandment(s)
First is a foundational teaching where Jesus ranks the importance of the commandments in the 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 Gezerah Shavah to make his point:
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 identical forms of the Hebrew word for “love,” Jesus says they are equivalent. Moreover, he says that these two commandments sum up a good chunk of the Hebrew Bible. If we truly love God, then we will love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Do you claim to 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 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 it might include that, but it’s not all of it.
There is a deeper and more relevant message here that we need to consider. The word translated as “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 do not use the name of the LORD “wrongly.” In other words, don’t try to represent God in a way contrary to God’s nature and divine will. What happens when we do things in the name of God that are contrary to God’s character? We represent God in a bad light. We make God out to be something that God is not. We become false witnesses to the nature and character of the Almighty.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed many 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.
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 have casual conversations before class—nothing very deep or serious. About two months into the semester, I was at our church one Sunday morning. 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 to interpret that question. 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 that people judge you by your actions and the settings where you encounter them.
I am convinced that the most significant deterrent to American 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 too many posts that attempt to demonize anyone in their opposing political party (as if God belonged to a 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 ‘ole common sense) could be proven to be not even remotely true. I’ve even seen people sharing satirical articles they thought were true! Have our divisions become so great that we can no longer distinguish 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 American political spectrum. I wonder if anyone really thinks that posting this junk will 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. And if you are reading this and thinking to yourself, “well they deserve it. Their idiotic arguments and views are un-Christian.” Then you have misunderstood what Jesus told us about our enemies. You need to love them, not tear them down—even if you disagree with them or don’t like their politics, beliefs on specific social issues, or even their religion. We are called to love them. Period.
When you misuse the name of the LORD by tearing down people you disagree with rather than showing them love and compassion, you are driving them away from the Gospel by how your actions have represented it. If you claim to be Christ’s representative on Earth, 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. Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for those who were devout in their beliefs but weren’t living into their calling. By their actions, they misrepresented the nature of God. That calling boils down to a couple of simple commandments: Love God and prove you love him by loving everyone else—especially your enemies.
I’m not a big fan of Christians co-opting Jewish practices. But I think Christianity can learn something from Judaism and Yom Kippur. We need a reminder that by God’s grace, we “may be sealed in the book of life,” but it is not without obligation on our part. We could use the reminder that we must seek forgiveness from our neighbors for the wrongs we have done them and forgive those who have wronged us. Setting aside a day each year for this purpose would be a good start. Maybe that day should be Yom Kippur.