Monday, January 14, 2008

My Reparation Offering

by Daniel Harrell

Leviticus 6:2-7 " If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor ... he must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering."

I committed an unintentional sin this week. Didn’t mean to do it. An important pastoral duty required immediate attention and the minister who normally does these sorts of things was out of town. Usually this would be no problem. We have plenty of pastors who could fill in. And any of us would have done it if nobody else could, but the problem this week was that the nobody was everybody. The other pastors’ own schedules were unusually full, there was nobody else who could fill in. Still, somebody needed to do it which meant that somebody’s commitments were going to have to be completely reshuffled. We figured that the fair way to decide this would be the Biblical way; namely, draw lots, which in our case meant pull a name out of a hat. So I wrote all our names on cards, including my own, and proceeded to draw Dan, our Minister for Pastoral Care, which meant that he would now need to cancel all of his counseling appointments for the rest of the week in order to take this other responsibility.

Personally relieved, knowing that now I’d be able to finish this sermon, I emptied the contents of the hat into the trash, and discovered to my horror that in fact I had neglected to write my own name on a card by accident. I wasn’t in on the drawing. It was a mistake. An unintentional sin.

For me, my knee jerk reaction in such cases is first to feel bad, but then to mitigate that bad feeling through rationalization. Here’s where labeling something an accident or a mistake proves helpful. If is was an accident, unintentional, then it’s not really my fault. It’s no big deal. And any other month I might have let it go at that. After all, I did have a sermon to write. But as this is my Levitical month, and Leviticus clearly declares every sin a big deal, I knew that my workaround would no longer work. To call something an accident does not get you off the hook. An excuse is not the same thing as atonement. Still, the good thing about unintentional sin is that it does get you preferential access to atonement. Make a mistake and in Leviticus there is a remedy for it.

But there’s also an irony. The ready remedy that Leviticus provides is the remedy that we rarely take. I’m not talking the public sacrifice of a goat or two pigeons, but its modern equivalent; namely, the public confession of our sin and reparations for it. Perhaps for the same reasons of busyness, or our persistent minimizing of the effects of our actions on others, or our own faithless rationalizations, we don’t make things right with God or our neighbor. It takes too much time, and it takes too much courage to do it. Genuine remorse and genuine apologies are difficult things—especially for sinful people. But Leviticus demands that we act quickly to admit our sin, remedy our wrongs and fulfill our obligations. To do otherwise contaminates not just the people we love but also the communities we inhabit.

Leviticus 6 depicts examples of unintentional sin, one of which stuck me in the gut. Verse 2 mentions “sinning and being unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving your neighbor.” Of course I’m reading this just after I dumped the hat full of names into the garbage. But c’mon, what are the odds that my name would have been drawn? There were 8 names in that hat. Maybe I should just draw again. But I can’t do that. The other ministers have already counted on keeping to their own commitments now. What was I to do? Living levitically, I had no other option. Verse 5: “You must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day you present your guilt offering. And as a penalty you must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, your guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value.”

I had to go confess to Dan. I’d done him wrong. Suffice to say, Dan concurred that I had sinned (he called it a pretty big one) and agreed that yes, the proper restitution would be my assuming the pastoral duty. And that as a penalty, since sacrificing a sheep would be against the law, I could just take him to lunch somewhere they serve lamb (the priests got to eat the leftovers of the reparation offering).

But you know, even though I now had to readjust all my plans, as well as take Dan to lunch, I felt great. I knew that knowing what I did, letting Dan take the responsibility and cancel all his appointments would have left me with a nagging burden of guilt. Something between us would have been lost. When we know the right thing to do and don’t do it, there’s always a sense of loss; a lessening of who it is we know God has redeemed us to be. We live in a society that helps assuage guilt by labeling it unhealthy and unnecessary. We’re told to forget about it; forgetting too the hurt and harm we’ve caused other people. Leviticus thus demands a purification offering, but notice what gets purified. The blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the altar of the Tabernacle—the very symbols of God’s presence. It’s as if God himself has been contaminated by our wrongdoing too. In our sin we besmirch his name. We dishonor our calling. But we don’t have to live with that. We can fix it. Leviticus points the way. Confess your sin and make things right. Repent, restore and reconcile. It’s the right thing to do.

And not only is it right, but obedience can bring unexpected happiness. Restitution is a crucial step in repentance, not only because it repays the victim, but because it displays your genuineness. And that’s no small thing. The next day, Dan approached me to tell me he’d take on the pastoral duty. He’d actually decided this earlier, and as soon as he did, the appointments he was going to have to cancel cancelled themselves. God sort of worked things out. Praise the Lord. Though I still have to take Dan to lunch.

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