Leviticus 4-6, Psalm 32, Mark 5
Assuaging guilt and turning to Jesus for healing and wholeness
Leviticus 4 – 6
The old adage states that there are only two things that are certain in life – death and taxes. It could be expanded to add sin and guilt. No human who lives for long in this world avoids committing sin, which means an act that causes separation from God and others, and experiencing guilt as a consequence.
Guilt is like a warning system. There are some children who are born with an inability to sense extreme heat and cold. They can inadvertently place their hand on a hot stove and feel no pain, while their hand is severely burned. Pain serves as a warning system. Likewise, guilt alerts us to what we are about to do, are doing or have done is dangerous to our relationship with God and others.
The question then becomes how to we address our guilt? This is a question as old as humankind. In the Old Testament, God required people to give offerings for a variety of reasons, including atonement for sin, thanksgiving, peace and prosperity and celebration of festivals. They were also required to give one tenth of their income to the Temple. In the New Testament, similar offerings are required but they are given freely by grace and not by mandate. They are based on our relationship with God.
The term “offering” in the Torah is usually represented by the Hebrew word korban, whether it is an animal offering or another offering. Other Hebrew terms include zevah for an animal offering and olah for burnt offering, from which we get the word holocaust. The term korban covers a wide variety of sacrifices offered by Jewish priests or Levites serving God in the Temple in Jerusalem.
A korban was an animal sacrifice, usually a sheep or bull that underwent Jewish ritual slaughter. The sacrificial animal was often cooked and eaten by the person offering the slaughter. Parts of the animal’s body were given to the priests to eat and other parts were burned on the altar. The Temple resembled a slaughter house at times. Incense was introduced to cover the smell of burning flesh, and symbolized the people’s prayers ascending to God. Other sacrifices included doves, grain, meal, wine and incense.
The Bible speaks about seven different types of offerings: burnt offerings, free will offerings, sin offerings, a trespass offering, a meat offering, peace offering and offerings of consecration to God. Each of these types of offerings had a specific purpose and meaning, and the Israelites were to perform these acts of offering at certain times of year and in response to certain situations to fill God’s requirements.
The practice of offering animal sacrifices in Judaism ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., although these offerings were later briefly restated in the second century and continued in some communities afterwards. Christians came to see Jesus’s death upon the cross as the “great sacrifice,” the final and ultimate sacrifice commanded by God to atone for human sins for all time. We shall contemplate this further as we read more Scripture.
Sacrifices, in the Bible, had a very solemn and specific meaning. The main requirement for a sacrifice in the Old Testament was the shedding of the blood of an animal. This was done annually for the atonement of sin. Once blood was shed, forgiveness from God was obtained.
It is worth noting in Leviticus 4:22-31 the author writes about the use of a male goat to take away the sins of a ruler, who has sinned unintentionally or a female goat to take away the sins of ordinary people who have also sinned unintentionally. The person seeking forgiveness lays his or her hands upon the head of the goat and prays for forgiveness. The goat is then slaughtered, symbolically taking away the sins of the person seeking forgiveness. The priest takes some of the goat’s blood and anoints the horns and base of the altar with it. It is from this process that the term “scapegoat” was introduced. Jesus eventually will become the scapegoat for our sins and the sins of all humanity.
Psalm 32 dovetails perfectly into our discussion of sin and guilt. The author tells us:
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord
imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Ps. 1-2)
That is the model to which we all aspire. Unfortunately, none of us fully reach it. We all fall short and commit sins. Bill Hybels is the leader of the Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois outside of Chicago. It is the third-largest church in the United States, attracting over 24,000 attendees each weekend. Once while flying on an airplane, Hybels got into a discussion with a business executive. After the man asked Hybels what he did and Hybels explained about his ministry, the man confided to Hybels that he rarely attended church because he saw no need and did “not sin a whole lot.” This caught Hybels’ attention.
Hybels asked the man to define what he meant when he said that he did “not sin a whole lot.” The man explained that he did not lie, steal or cheat on his wife a lot. Hybels took a pen and drew a quick chart with Jesus at the top and the world’s worst sinner at the bottom. He explained that he had just visited with Mother Teresa of Calcutta the previous week, and she had described herself as among the worst sinners in the world. So, Hybels put her three quarters of the way down from Jesus.
Then Hybels gave the man his pen and said, “Where would you place yourself on this chart?” The man took the pen and made a mark just under Mother Teresa. Hybels was shocked. In his sermon that Sunday, Hybels told members of his congregation that we all are apt to inflate our own goodness and lack of need for God’s forgiveness. As a handball player, Hybels said that he took up the sport late and thought that he was really good. He beat several people and immediately thought that he must be one of the naturally great handball players. Then he played someone who crushed him. Hybels soon learned that there are various levels of rankings in handball and that he was at the bottom level.
Hybels is correct. We are all prone to envision ourselves as less sinful than we are. All of us need God’s forgiveness, and we need large amounts of it. Every Sunday in the Episcopal Church we have a confession of sin. It is called a General Confession. The priest hopefully pauses to allow us time to think about some sin that we know that we have committed either by doing or failing to do, words said or unsaid during the past week. After reciting the confession, the priest then offers a General Absolution.
To those who struggle to experience forgiveness for their sins, the Church recommends that they see a priest for private confession or what The Book of Common Prayer calls “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” It is one of the Church’s seven sacraments. It is generally said that, “All can, some should and none must” receive the sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent. It is a helpful spiritual experience to undergo, especially if we struggle with guilt and fail to experience God’s forgiveness. The psalmist writes,
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Ps. 32:5)
Nothing pleases God more than to forgive a person who has a humble and contrite heart and longs for forgiveness while pledging not to commit the same sin again.
In all four gospels, Jesus heals people who are physically ill. It is one of the most powerful aspects of Jesus’s ministry. The Church continues to operate hospitals around the world and Christians continue to focus on healing. One of the ways that the Church continues to heal is in dealing with people who are mentally ill. Throughout my ministry, I have been called upon to help families who are assisting a family member or friend who is mentally ill. Sometimes, they face enormous challenges.
In chapter 5, Jesus is confronted by a man who is mentally ill or who the Bible describes as having “an unclean spirit.” (Mark 5:2) The man was living among the tombs. Our church is surrounded by 12 acres of cemetery. Almost daily, we see persons standing by a grave, paying their respects to loved ones. They often leave flowers or place a wreath on the grave. Sometimes, they have a conversation with their family member or friend, updating them about family and friends or pouring out their love for this special person who has gone before them to God. All of this is human, healthy and natural.
For a person to obsess over the deceased and spend all of their time at the cemetery, however, is almost always indicative of unresolved grief. It is like having our car stuck in neutral. The person simply cannot move forward in life and is trapped in a very painful place of grieving and profound inner hurt.
Perhaps the “Gerasene demoniac” had experienced profound loss in his life which he could not overcome. He probably also suffered profoundly from mental illness. He was a danger to himself and others. Others had tried to chain in order to protect him himself and to protect others, but he broke his chain and could not be subdued.
We have dear friends who had a son who suffered greatly from a disease that allowed his body to grow into the body of an adult while his mind remained that of a little child. In fits of anger and confusion, he became a threat to his mother and siblings. His father said that the saddest day of his life was driving his deeply challenged son to an institution and checking him in on Christmas morning in order to prevent him from hurting family members and hurting himself.
Jesus’s heart is profoundly touched by each situation like this. He did what no one else was able to do for the demoniac. He did not ostracize him to a faraway place like the tombs, but instead brought about healing and restored the man to wholeness. God longs for each one of us to be restored to wholeness in order that we might experience peace and joy and serve God and others faithfully.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. (Ps. 32:1)
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. (Ps. 32:8)
But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ (Mark 5:36)
What causes you the greatest guilt? Do you suffer from guilt that will not go away? What prevents you from allowing Jesus to forgive you? Have you considered asking a priest to administer the sacrament of Reconciliation of a Penitent? Do you believe that God is the source of all healing and physicians, nurses and those who produce medicines to restore our health? Do you pray daily for those who are physically and mentally ill and longing for health and wholeness?
Gracious and Healing God, you are the source of all healing and wholeness. Help us turn to you in our quest for wholeness, health and holiness. Assist us each day as we lift up the needs of those we know that have great need for your compassionate, healing touch to restore them to wholeness, health and serenity. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania