Seeking Forgiveness

Happy New Year! Today (actually beginning Wednesday at sundown) is Rosh haShanah – Jewish new year. Today celebrates God’s first day of creation. The day is a significant milepost along the path of high holy days for Christians’ Jewish cousins. The focus of the season has much to teach all of us.

A central theme of the season preceding Rosh haShanah and culminating especially in the days leading to and including Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is seeking forgiveness. The pattern follows the call of the prophet Isaiah: “Seek the LORD while he may be found. Call on him while he is near. {7} Let wicked people abandon their ways. Let evil people abandon their thoughts. Let them return to the LORD, and he will show compassion to them. Let them return to our God, because he will freely forgive them.” (Isaiah 55:6-7 GWT) The foundations for the Jewish observances go back even further, recalling the forty days after Moses had destroyed the golden calf made by the people awaiting his return from Sinai. God summoned Moses back up the mountain, where Moses interceded for the people and God sent him back down with assurances of forgiveness – and the second set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. This turning point in the history of the faith of Israel centers the high holy days in recognition of God’s wondrous creation, Gods gracious and loving nature, and how each person is called to respond to God’s love. We are to seek God’s forgiveness, certainly, but a crucial element in Jewish understanding of seeking God’s forgiveness is seeking forgiveness from one another.

Selichot is at the core of Jewish liturgical life, calling for special prayers, readings, and songs during this season. But Selichot – seeking forgiveness – is perhaps more vitally an individual practice for each faithful Jew. Especially between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur (the 10 Days of Awe) individuals seek forgiveness. As Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains, “We approach family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors and others with whom we interact and say, ‘If I have hurt you in any way knowingly or unknowingly, advertantly or inadvertently, I ask your forgiveness.'” (“A Guide to the Jewish Fall Holy Day Season,” Associated Baptist Press, 9/23/2011.) The crucial lesson is that when we humble ourselves to seek forgiveness from others, we are conditioned both to offer forgiveness to others and to seek and to receive forgiveness from God.

Followers of Jesus could learn well from the practice of Selichot. We are familiar with at least musing about penitence and God’s forgiveness during the 40 days of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Do we miss the important corollaries of forgiving others and seeking forgiveness from others? Jesus tells his followers: “This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.” (Matthew 5: 23-24 MSG) Jesus knew that right relationship with God is seriously impeded if we have not sought forgiveness from others whom we have wronged. James emphasized proper humility toward God and each other in his practical directions for living the life Christ intends. I believe that he knew that a humble spirit engendered by actively Seeking forgiveness is essential to his counsel: “Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed.” (James 5:16a MSG) Jesus and his brother James could have had in mind the best of the spirit of reconciliation practiced by their Jewish forebears who recognized the necessity of seeking forgiveness: “After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph is still angry with us? We did many wrong things to him. What if he plans to pay us back?” {16} So they sent a message to Joseph that said, “Your father gave this command before he died. {17} He said to us, ‘You have done wrong and have sinned and done evil to Joseph. Tell Joseph to forgive you, his brothers.’ So now, Joseph, we beg you to forgive our wrong. We are the servants of the God of your father.” When Joseph received the message, he cried. (Genesis 50:15-17 NCV) God always desires brothers and sisters to live in harmony with each other and with himself. Seeking forgiveness is a key step toward getting there.

So, Happy New Year (Jewish)! Draw from their rich practice of faith. From whom do you need to seek forgiveness? What secret, untended grudge continues to separate you from God and from giving and receiving forgiveness with others? Seeking forgiveness and offering forgiveness can prepare us for living more fully by God’s loving mercy. Seek forgiveness today. It will become a high holy day.

– J.Edward Culpepper

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