Conditions for Forgiveness

The Jewish tradition has three words for sin:  Chet translates literally to missing the mark.  Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion.  We all miss the mark or fall short of our good intentions.  We each have free will, and at times, following our desires leads to rebelling against God’s will.  What does God do when that happens?  Different traditions answer that question differently.

Jewish theology describes God’s nature in terms of polar opposites that are simultaneously true.  God cares about justice and holds individuals and groups of people responsible for their actions.  God is also merciful to sinners who turn to him and change their ways.  Jews believe God is merciful and forgives when they take certain steps that include:

  • Tzedakah: helping those in need for the sake of fairness
  • Teshuvah: confessing, making amends to and getting forgiveness from those harmed, and, above all, stopping the wrongdoing
  • T’fila: prayer

The Jewish prayers of confession, called the vidui, include extending forgiveness to those who have harmed us.  The Jewish tradition encourages forgiveness but does not require it if the offender has not completed teshuvah.

Islam shares some similarities with Jewish teaching in the steps for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness:

  • Confessing the offense to those harmed and to God
  • Making amends to and asking forgiveness from those harmed
  • Tauba: feeling remorse and committing to stop wrongdoing
  • Istighfar: asking God for forgiveness

Whereas Jewish forgiveness rests on evidence—e.g. securing the victim’s forgiveness rather than asking, stopping wrongdoing rather than intending to stop—in Islam, God’s forgiveness rests on sincerity.  Forgiving others, even enemies, is a virtue the prophet Muhammad taught by his words and his living example.  While God loves and rewards extending forgiveness to others, it is not a requirement if all the other conditions are
met.

The Christian tradition departs rather significantly from both these traditions with only one condition for receiving God’s forgiveness:

  • Forgiving the offenses of others, whether they deserve it or not

New Testament scripture repeatedly makes clear that God extends forgiveness under no other terms.  The Christian tradition does include a practice of confession of sins to God, but since Christians believe Jesus’ death atones for all sins for all time, Christians are drawn to confession to reconcile their relationship with God, to grow closer to him, to bring him joy and to receive his help to change rather than for forgiveness alone.

Another significant difference between Christian beliefs and beliefs shared by the
Jewish and Muslim traditions concerns the victim’s exclusive power to forgive.  In the latter two, God only forgives offenses against God, and offenses against man must be amended and forgiven among men as a condition for God’s forgiveness.  Although the Christian tradition does not require making amends and seeking forgiveness for harm done, the process of Christian reconciliation with God does require forgiving others, so it has a reconciling effect among men nonetheless.

Join the conversation.  What do you think about these different conditions for God’s
forgiveness?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

The last post pondered whether good works are a cause or effect of faith from a Christian point of view.  To appreciate the Jewish perspective, it helps to understand the notion
of shared merit.  Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, there is a “closing of the gates” wherein God makes a judgment on
each person’s life and writes the names of all who have turned to him and lived faithfully in the Book of Life.  It is an
annual opportunity for Jews to reflect on their actions, to make amends for their wrongs, to seek forgiveness from their fellow man first and ultimately to seek atonement with God.

When Jews confess their sins, the vidui in the Yom Kippur liturgy, they confess in community, speaking aloud a long list of sins.  The community aspect of confession is
monumentally important.  It reflects the responsibility that Jews have for one another, so while I myself may not have committed murder, I did share responsibility for my brother’s actions.  Further, if I look deeply within myself, I will find some part of me that identifies with the sin.  My harsh words might have damaged someone’s self-esteem, for example.  In addition to the shared responsibility for sin, Jews recognize a shared responsibility for good works.

That notion of shared merit helps to explain the popularity of the Pharisees among the Jewish peasant class.  Not only were Pharisees generous with tzedakah, or giving what’s fair to those in need, their fasting and other acts of piety accrued merit for the whole community.  This perspective lets us see the Christian parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18) in its original context.

The tax-collector enters the temple racked with guilt for shaking down people in need to line his pockets.  His angst is heightened by the fact that he is not making teshuvah, or turning to God to change his ways.  He knows he will go back out the next day and
shake down more unfortunates.  Without teshuvah, he can’t hope for God’s forgiveness.  Across from him kneels a Pharisee who is moved with compassion for the
sinner.  He thanks God that he was spared tax-collector’s difficult position.  And
then he offers to share his merit—his tzedekah for the tax collector’s taking by force, his fasting for the tax collector’s feeding off his neighbors, etc.  The parable concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  Ok, which one was justified?  Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament Studies Amy-Jill Levine asserts “rather than” is properly translated “along side.”  In any case, suggesting an unreformed tax-collector could be justified at all would have astonished 1st century Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, Halakhah is the set of laws governing personal deportment.  The
purpose of the laws is not improved health, financial gain or appearance.  Rather, they offer a myriad of daily opportunities to submit one’s will for the sake of honoring God.  Observing Halakhah both strengthens spirituality for the individual through daily practice and earns merit for the community, and hence is at once cause and effect of faithfulness.  In view of shared merit, good works not only benefit a Jew’s fellow man in an earthly way but also lift him up spiritually.

Join the conversation.  What brings you present moment mindfulness for the sake of honoring God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.