Monday, October 29, 2012

No Worship Without Justice

The fifth sacrifice described in the opening chapters of Leviticus is the guilt offering or restitution offering. Leviticus 5:14 - 6:7 gives three reasons why this sacrifice might be offered. 5:15 states the first reason: "If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord...". Its not exactly clear what "a breach of faith" or "the holy things of the Lord" might mean. Many scholars guess that this has to do with the sacred items set apart for worship in the tabernacle. The second reason given in 5:17 is nearly as vague with the very general statement "If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done...". In contrast to this pattern, the third reason given in 6:1-5 is quite detailed.
"If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, of if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely - in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby - if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt." 
We have here the first indication in Leviticus that right worship of God is bound up with our relationships with other human beings. The first four offerings have all been directed toward God and even some of the reasons for this offering has to do with "the holy things of the Lord." But now we also see that an offering is to be made to God even when another person has been wronged, the unspoken reasoning being that taking advantage of our neighbor is an offense to God. In fact, God takes this mistreatment of our fellow human beings so seriously that merely making an offering to God is not enough.  The offending party must make full restitution and add a fifth to what was taken. Additionally, this is the only sacrifice described in these first six chapters which does not offer a sliding scale where wealthier individuals brought larger, more costly animals while less prosperous individuals could bring smaller ones. The only proscription for the guilt offering is a ram; an animal which was probably second in cost only to a bull. Given the demand for a ram and the command to make a 120% restitution, this was one costly sacrifice which was needed to atone for the sin involved in taking advantage of one's neighbor.

Although this may be the first indication in Leviticus of the connection between worship of God and care for others, it comes as no surprise following closely on the heels of Exodus. We have already seen in the destruction of Pharaoh and the liberation of the people of Israel from their slavery how seriously God takes the oppression and injustice that human beings inflict upon one another. Likewise, we see in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai that more than half the ten commandments regard our treatment of each other. Of course, the Hebrew prophets are well known for their calls to practice justice and mercy and to remind Israel that offering sacrifices is no substitute for respecting basic human dignity and caring for the vulnerable.

Standing in this same prophetic tradition, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for taking so much care in following their religious obligations that they tithe even a tenth of their spices but simultaneously neglect the weightier matters of the law, namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Similarly, Jesus says that if someone is offering a sacrifice and they remember that they have wronged a brother they should leave the sacrifice and go set things right before completing that act of worship.

I know this is sort of basic Christianity. Anyone who has spent much time in church is probably familiar with the passages I mentioned in the previous paragraph not to mention the fact that Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbor. 1 John tells us that anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar. James says we must show our faith by caring for others. Acts portrays the early Church as a community in which everyone's needs were met. This is a theme that is all over the Bible.

But, often... we need to be reminded of the basics.

Worship of God is not a substitute for loving our neighbor. Piety is not a substitute for justice and mercy. 

One of the stories I find most revealing in this regard is that of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. At first glance, this story is often read as a condemnation of business transactions taking place in this religious space but those who were selling and exchanging money in the temple-courts weren't just selling any old product. They were selling the animals necessary for sacrifice and they were exchanging Romans coins with images of the emperor on them for coins without an image so that faithful Jews could make an offering without bringing an idolatrous image into the temple. In other words, they were enabling Jews to carry out proper worship. But Jesus' words in this story tell us why this was a problem. He says:
Is it not written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers."
That first line is a quotation from Isaiah 56:7, a chapter in Isaiah which describes the temple as a place of prayer not only for Jews but for the people of every nation on the earth who turn to God. In fact, there was a specific place in the Temple called the Court of the Gentiles which was to be a place of prayer for non-Jews. As you might have guessed, this is where the sellers and money-changers set up shop and by doing so they effectively eliminated the one space where non-Jews, foreigners, that is, religious outsiders could worship the God of Israel. The piety of the religious was preventing the prayers of those seen as less religious. 

The second line of Jesus' words are a quotation from Jeremiah 7:11, a chapter which describes the people of Israel as practicing every kind of injustice and oppression only to run back to the temple for protection. The thinking was that as along as the temple stood in Jerusalem it meant that the presence of God was still with Israel and they would be safe. In other words, they were literally treating the temple like a robber's den, a hideout, a lair to which they could return and offer a prayer for protection after committing their evil acts. By quoting Jeremiah, Jesus declares that the kind of worship which went on in the temple, a worship that paid attention to every pious detail while turning a blind eye to the oppression and injustice of the world, made the temple less a place a worship and more a place for thieves to hide from their obligation to their fellow human being behind a veneer of religion and piety. 

And to think that this was the one thing in all the gospels which really got Jesus' blood boiling. This is the one episode of outright anger that we ever see from Jesus. Think of all the sin Jesus encountered in the gospels, the demon possessions, the often clueless disciples, the complete misunderstanding of who he was, even the threats of death and ultimately his crucifixion! But in the midst of all those things Jesus is calm, steady, patient, gracious, and forgiving. But this temple turned den of robbers, this worship without justice, is the one thing that turns that calm and patient Jesus into a raving mad man. 

If ever there was a word of warning to the Church today, I believe this is it. There is no bigger danger for "good, religious folk" like myself and the people who attend our church than that we will become a people so caught up in the details of our worship that we will neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, that we will become so enamored with points of piety that we will take what should be a house of prayer for all the nations and turn it into nothing more than a place where religious people can hide from the neighbor we are called to love. May the Spirit of Jesus come and overturn our tables as well if that is what it takes for us to be rescued from becoming such a place and such a people.

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