(Sermon 3 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)
Two weeks ago we began our Lenten series which is examining the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We have covered:
- The Sermon on the Mount told in conjunction with Shavuot or Pentecost.
- The miracle stories, and John the Baptist confirming that Jesus was the Messiah, told in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah
Now we move on to the next High Holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, Yom Kippur, which takes place merely 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. Those 10 days are considered the Days of Awe, or the Days of Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and make a commitment for the coming year to be better.
(For the full video version, click here.)
In the time of Jesus, the ceremony for Yom Kippur was much different than it is today. What many people don’t realize is that the rituals, symbols and language of Yom Kippur have shaped much Christian language and much of our atonement theology.
In the time of Jesus, when the Temple still existed in Jerusalem, the Jews gathered for one long 24 hour day to meditate on their sinfulness in the knowledge that God was a forgiving God. This was not motivated by any concept of “original sin” but by the self-knowledge that we know we can be better human beings than we are. As Jews believed they were created in God’s perfect image, it was therefore their goal to try and attain that perfection with which they were created. A lamb and goat became the symbols of the human yearning to participate in the perfection of God.
On Yom Kippur a perfect lamb, without blemishes, scratches or bruises, was slaughtered. The Jewish high priest, after undergoing extensive cleansing rituals himself, took some of the blood into a place in the Temple called the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred part of the Temple, the home of the throne of God. Only the high priest was allowed in there, and only on Yom Kippur. The high priest would then smear blood on the “mercy seat” (aka God’s throne) so that through the blood of the perfect lamb the people now had, symbolically, a way to enter into the perfection of God.
Then a goat, a perfect one, was brought before the high priest. Spong explains, “He would grasp the goat by its horns and pray aloud confessing all the sins of the people. It was believed that as he prayed those sins were transferred onto the goat.” The goat was then driven out into the wilderness carrying away the sins of the people. Hence, the term “scapegoat.”
You can perhaps see how these rituals have manifested in Christian language and thought. However, that is not the intent of this message today.
To return to Matthew and its correlation with Yom Kippur, we turn to chapter 12, which Spong says, “presents us with a conflict between religious rules and human fulfillment, and it opens to us a new way to look at and to interpret human sinfulness.” The chapter begins with three stories of Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. First, he breaks them by allowing the hungry disciples to “work” by gleaning grain in the fields on the Sabbath. Then he does more “work” and heals the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath. And, finally, Jesus heals a man who was blind and mute.
Spong suggests that the question Matthew is really addressing with these stories is: “Where does holiness lie?” Does it lie in always following the rules? Or does it lie in addressing human need with compassion? Do the rules of the Sabbath take precedence over our fellow human beings, their well-being and their wholeness? And, let’s talk about that last healing. At the time of Jesus, being blind and mute were considered punishment from Satan (Beelzebul) for sinfulness (either of that person’s life or their parent’s lives). Healing that man presumed a certain authority, and yet Jesus wasn’t a religious leader! He was lacking the credentials to do what he did… so who the heck was he anyway? Maybe Jesus was working for Satan?
Basically, Jesus responds to the challenges of the religious leader’s by essentially saying, “You idiots. How can you confuse something good with something bad? Why do you look on the work of the Spirit and call it the work of the Devil? Nothing can fix that in you. Your distorted way of seeing is too deep. You are living in total darkness and don’t even know it.” Specifically, Jesus says, ” [A]nyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…”
In the context of Yom Kippur – a time of self-reflection on one’s sinfulness and mistakes, a time of repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, and receiving it because God is merciful – the religious scholars were completely blind to the presence of God among them. Spong suggests that the unforgiveable sin is only such because one can’t be cleansed of a sin they don’t even acknowledge they have!
Just after this passage, the religious scholars and Pharisees demand to see a miraculous sign from Jesus. Have they been sleeping? Did we not just have all those signs a few chapters ago where the blind saw, the lame walked, the dumb spoke and the leper was cleansed? Jesus says, “You are an evil and unfaithful generation and the only sign you’re going to get is the sign of Jonah.” Where on earth did Jonah come from?
What we don’t know, as non-Jews, is that the book of Jonah has traditionally been read on Yom Kippur. And the interesting parallel here is that Jonah didn’t believe in God’s compassionate, unbounded love for the Ninevites any more than the Jews believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done with the authority of the Spirit in an act of love and compassion. According to Spong, Jonah confused “his vision of what was holy with God’s vision of what is holy” as did the Jews who didn’t like Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. Both Jonah and the religious scholars wanted to put boundaries on God’s love in accordance with their own boundaries.
Are there boundaries to God’s love and compassion? No.
Are there boundaries called synagogue (church) rules that can actually dictate who is in God’s favor and who isn’t? No.
Are there boundaries called sin – present and past – that enable us to judge who God loves and doesn’t? No.
God’s love is unbounded. Any limits placed on it are human limitations devised by egos too small to understand the expansiveness of the Divine.