Confession and Forgiveness
When Jesus criticizes the traditions of the elders
When James waxes eloquent about forgetful hearers and gifts from above
And when the Israelites Identity is being formed by Statues and Ordinances
I can’t help but think about Confession and Forgiveness… confession and forgiveness.
What’s Jesus on about today? Who wouldn’t want people to wash their hands before they eat? It’s one of the basic things you get taught as a kid, don’t touch the hot stove, say please and thank you, wash your hands before you eat.
Jesus is not against this practice because he likes microbes crawling around on his hands, or because he, like a Chinchilla prefers a dust bath.
No, he has two reasons for rejecting the practice. First He sees this ritual action as following an invented tradition, and secondly creating a division between holy and common things that ought not be created.
The Pharisees were Popularizers, egalitarians if you will… they took the laws, many of them intended only for the temple, and brought them into the home—so that everyone was a priest, everyone was seeking holiness. In this case the people were told to emulate the priests ritual cleaning before the altar of God at their dinner table. And Jesus takes this to be a way in which human tradition has trumped God’s.
Additionally, this ritual washing was a way in which people would move from their common every day lives into a holy portion of their life—their table and their home a separate place from the world outside of it.
And this is not an uncommon religious impulse. Think of dipping your finger in the baptismal font to remember your baptism before going up for communion—you are ritually opening up a holy space as you enter into a holy meal.
Or, think of the tradition of wearing your Sunday’s best. Putting on a certain style of clothing, not our work a day clothing, but Church Clothing—Holy Clothing for a Holy Time.
Again, this makes sense, we’re opening up a space where we are more fully aware of God’s presence.
The danger however, is that in these things we do, the sign of the cross, wearing our Sunday Best, ritually washing up to our elbows—we end up doing these things for the wrong reason.
We end up doing them to hide what’s inside—if we can control the outward then we can ignore what is inside.
James might compare this to looking into a mirror, looking away, and forgetting what we look like… the danger is we’re distracting ourselves from ourselves.
There was a man who marched into a clinic and told them to run him through a battery of tests. He said “MRI my whole body, except my left foot.” Then he had them X-ray all of him… except for his left foot. Then an expert clinician examined every inch of him, except for his left foot.
By the end one of the interns had to ask, “Why haven’t we examined your left foot?”
And he responded, “Oh, well there’s something wrong with my left foot, but I don’t want to know about that.
Yes, the danger is we end up hiding from what is wrong, leaving it’s image in the mirror, hiding it under our Sunday best, washing with water that which needs to be dealt with in community and by Christ.
And that’s why I’m so glad we’re a Church that confesses. It’s almost an anti-ritual in which we take off our Sunday best and all the rest and appear naked before God. We confess a whole alphabet of intricate ways we offend both God and our Neighbor.
We abuse, betray, curse, destroy, envy, act foolishly and with greed, hate, injure, judge, kill, lie, murder, notice not our neighbor in need, oppress, profit unjustly, stay quiet when we should speak up, rig the game in our favor, sin, torment, utter falsity, act with vanity, will evil, stoke xenophobia, yearn for the good but do the evil, and lag in zeal.—Do those 26 cover everyone, at least a little bit?
Yes, confession of sin keeps us from manufactured holiness. It helps us recognize with James that every act of goodness, ultimately, comes from above—it is a gracious gift from God. Every good act is from God.
It’s like when you talk to city and suburban kids…some adults too I would venture—they think food comes from the grocery store. Perhaps packaged elsewhere, but it’s connection to earth, to soil and work, agriculture and irrigation, is lost.
So too, when we put our trust in our own actions—whatever equivalent to washing to our elbows we come up with—we miss God too acting within us. The very struggle between saint and sinner, which follows us our whole life long, that’s all churned up by God. When care for Orphan or Widow trumps adultery or avarice—that’s ultimately from God, we maybe even cultivate the act a little—but it’s bursting on the scene, the fruit of it all, is from God.
And recognizing that, these things we do—ritually and morally—become part of our identity—a badge to point to God. Just as Moses and the Israelites “heeded the statues and ordinances of God” so that people might look and say, “Wow, the God of those folks sure is close to them,” we too can wear grace and generosity as a marker pointing to God—even as we must remember it is not ours alone and comes from God alone.
It points to our identity as a freed and forgiven people.
It points to the reality of our forgiveness.
Just as confession points to the ABCs of our brokenness, forgiveness points us to the ABCs of God’s grace.
It points to a God who:
Affirms, Bestows life, sent Christ, Destroyed death, Enlivens us all, Forgives continually, is Generous, Hates not anything He Has made, Invites us in, Justifies, shows Kindness, Loves us, Made us in His Image, Names us and claims us as His own, Opens the gates of heaven, Pours out mercy, Quells our doubts, Receives us as beloved children, Saves us, Turns us around, Ushers in the Kingdom, Values every one of us, Wills life, is exalted, is the Yes to all the world’s No’s, and renews our Zeal.