1. Try to imagine losing the Constitution. Every copy of it disappears along with the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Amendments. There would be some phrases people would remember for a time like “We hold these Truths to be self evident that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
For a time there would be people who remember and there might even be those exiled drifters like in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” who memorized books to prepare for a time when people would be ready for them again.
But to go three hundred years without having access to the basic documents of our country’s founding would gradually produce a world most of us would not recognize – or maybe we would. It might not be the lawless Wild West but it would be a world where what passed for law was determined by whoever had the power. It would be a world defined by whatever seemed right in our own eyes was the rule and there would be no standard outside ourselves. We love freedom and it is our love of freedom from constraint that leads eventually to tyranny.
Well, that is not an imaginary state because Israel misplaced the Law for almost 300 years. Someone had left it in the Temple and people stopped looking for it until it was discovered during a restoration. They had learned to live without it and you can imagine what that was like. They had neither an external standard or an internal gyroscope.
Our lesson this morning is part of the Law – and perhaps part of that lesson is thinking about what life is like without Law. What do we risk if we forget how God intends for us to live with Him and with each other? It may not be chaos but it will certainly be unpleasant – at least for many.
2. In Leviticus 5 and the first several verses of Chapter 6 we have five different categories of sins. They are particular kinds of sins in that they deal with how we treat each other – our rights and responsibilities. They are detailed because the Israelites had no history of laws – they were slaves who either obeyed their masters or were punished. They had no experience with governing themselves so they needed an external law. When there is no internal law you need an external law. Think of it this way. “Caution: Wet Concrete” That is not there to harm you or to unnecessarily limit your freedom. It is there to give the concrete a chance to dry and to keep you from destroying your shoes. We need an external rule that allows the internal law a chance to form. That is what Leviticus is about.
3. “If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible.”
You might call this the Old Testament “whistle blower law”. It is not only that. It is describing the sin of silence. It is not just our responsibility to keep from doing bad things. It is our responsibility to report them when we know about them.
Most of us are familiar with Sherron Watkins who expressed her concerns about Enron’s business practices to Ken Lay. Others have included Karen Silkwood, Frank Serpico, Mark Felt (Deep Throat), or Jeffrey Wigand who revealed the tobacco companies knew they were intentionally raising the level of nicotine in cigarettes to make them more addictive. None of these people came to these decisions quickly and most of these people were punished by their co-workers and bosses. In fact, most people who blow the whistle are isolated, demoted, ostracized and eventually suffer from clinical depression. It’s almost like winning the lottery in reverse – but with the same conclusion.
Scripture does not say we will be blessed by doing what is right. It says we have an obligation to our neighbors and community to speak up when we know something is wrong. It could be someone falsely accused or a story being circulated that is false or someone’s reputation being slandered. Whatever it is, if we know the truth we have an obligation to tell what we know to be true.
4. “If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt.”
Whenever we re-enter the country from overseas travel we have to affirm that we had not spent time with livestock or had contact with animals in rural areas. That’s pretty much a no brainer for me and I’ve never really thought about it. Even though I always have to convince Carol that is not why my clothes look and smell the way they do I don’t believe I have ever had contact with animals in rural areas anywhere I have traveled.
So, why is customs so concerned about that? Hoof and mouth disease. It’s not just dangerous for health reasons. It is disastrous for a significant part of our economy. It results in the necessity of thousands of animals to be destroyed which, of course, raises the prices and puts people out of jobs. An infectious disease has consequences far beyond the immediate. Touching something that is unclean may not affect us at all but it may destroy a whole community.
In the same way, there are certain infectious diseases of the heart and soul that we carry around with us. This is the root of the seven deadly sins. They are not just harmful to us personally but they are highly contagious. When you inject pride, lust, envy, wrath, laziness, greed and gluttony into an organization you destroy the fabric of it. Think about what happens when we reward pride or greed. There are whole corporate cultures built on envy and anger. It’s infectious and it destroys relationships if it is not dealt with. Think of what it does to families, schools, churches and governments. It is deadly. Psalm 12:8 says it this way, ““The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men.”
5. Or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt.
A better way to say this is “if anyone makes a rash promise without thinking about it first”. It is not just a vow out of anger or frustration to do harm but also a vow to do good. There are wider consequences of our vows. I can give you several examples of this from my work. People make pledges of large gifts in a moment of inspiration of pride or get carried away by the desire to do something large – but then realize for whatever reason they cannot fulfill the vow. Conditions change. This has happened all over the country. Plans are made. People are hired. Buildings are named and expectations raised. Then the donor reneges on the commitment. It leaves everyone to scramble. It does harm to the donor and to a score of others.
There are other examples of people who make commitments they know they cannot keep. We make a mistake and we overreact. “I’ll never ever do that again. I promise.” “I will never miss another game.” “I will never travel on our anniversary ever again.” These are large promises that we come up with to end the argument – but we know in our hearts we cannot fulfill them. They are rash promises to do good and they are just as dangerous to relationships as rash vows to do harm. They are the mark of ungoverned emotions.
To make a rash vow is to make no reasonable vow at all. No one can expect you to fulfill it but they may be inspired by your saying it. It is the basic strategy of running for political office. Make no small promises because you’ll be expected to keep them. Impossible vows are easily forgiven. Rash vows devalue legitimate vows over time because they destroy trust. They are like currency that has nothing to back it.
“The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that he himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one’s self, of the weakness and mutability of one’s self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind.” G.K. Chesterton
6. “When anyone is unfaithful to the Lord by sinning unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel. It is a guilt offering. They must make restitution for what they have failed to do in regard to the holy things, pay an additional penalty of a fifth of its value and give it all to the priest. The priest will make atonement for them with the ram as a guilt offering, and they will be forgiven.”
The best exposition of the book of Leviticus is that written by Ray Stedman and I like what he says about this. “What is this kind of sin? What sort of offense is this? It was to do something with deep sincerity, with utter conviction that you were doing the right thing, and to do so in the name of The Lord, but later to find out that you were wrong, that God didn’t want that done at all. We have fomented hatred and attack against one another in the name of Christ, and have thought we were honoring God in the doing! As a result our churches are filled with people who are going through empty religious forms and ceremonies, all because they think God wants this, while their hearts are very, very far from him.”
We all, at one time or another, have used God, Jesus, or the Bible to justify, rationalize and validate our particular beliefs. Obviously, this does not mean there is no right and wrong but what it does mean is we have proof-texted and used Scripture to make what we want to believe or to make our own prejudices the rule. We twist it to fit our desires and biases. We are unfaithful to the Lord’s holy things.
“Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective “Christian”. Wendell Berry
Ray Stedman goes on to say, “There has been a great deal of unwitting harm done in the name of Jesus Christ. And when we see it we need to repent and make restitution, to try to correct it and as far as possible…”
7. In the opening verses of Chapter 6 we read: The Lord said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit— when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty.”
This is not a rash vow but subtle deception. It is not an accidental infection but intentional harm. It is not the sin of silence but the sin of misleading people with our words, ideas, and actions.
I am afraid our whole economy would collapse if we followed the implications of this! As Charles Revson said years ago. “We don’t sell lipstick. We sell dreams. Cosmetics are made in a factory. Hope is sold in the stores.” Of course, it is not just lipstick, is it? Virtually everything we are sold has to be sold not as a product but as something that promises us something more valuable than the product. We are buying more than cars, houses, computers, clothes, trips and even education. We are buying hope. “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
In a sense, the first person we need to convict of deception is ourselves. We are accomplices.
When deception is the rule it erodes trust and that destroys a community. In the movie “Jersey Boys” there is a moment where Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio make a contract on a handshake. Frankie called it a “Jersey contract” and it lasted forty years. Nothing in writing but they agreed to share all the revenue either of them produce equally.
There is an academic article on why the diamond trade is dominated by Jews. “The Jewish community’s role in the diamond industry has helped sustain what appears to be an interesting paradox. On one hand, trade in diamonds invites extraordinarily lucrative opportunities for industry players to cheat (i.e. steal the diamonds). Liquidity constraints and efficiency considerations discourage simultaneous exchange, so most diamond transactions cause individual diamond dealers or brokers to possess hundreds of diamonds that they have not paid for.”
Yet, because of their ability to operate without outside restrictions and enforcement they are more efficient and responsive to changes in the market.
In other words, trust is the basis of their economy. Trust of even their competitors. There are benefits to trust that go far beyond personal relationships. Mistrust and deception add to the overall expense of any venture. What might it be like to eliminate the layers of expense required to account for all the legal protections and assumptions about lawsuits and regulations? What efficiencies we might enjoy if we did not have the extra expense of protecting ourselves against each other.
8. In all of these we read there is the requirement for two things: confession and restitution.
First, the confession is specific. It is not, “Lord, there are probably some things I let slip today.” There is no evading the guilt or putting it off on others. There is no sense of “Well, if you think that was wrong then that’s your problem.” We cannot say as many are saying today, ““If I did something that you felt was wrong then I am sorry for your feeling that way.” We are not victims of what others feel. We are guilty of breaking trust with others.
The comedian Anna Russell wrote a poem that pokes fun at this.
I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find
And here’s what he dredged up from my subconscious mind.
When I was one my mommy hid my dolly in a trunk
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
And when I was two I saw my father kiss the maid one day
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomania.
At three I had the feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy now I’ve learned a lesson this has taught
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.
However, it is not a confession that overstates the sin. In fact, the very word “confession” means “to say the same thing”. In other words, we are to say the same thing about the sin as God says. We are not to make it more or less than it is. What does God say about rash vows, deceit and silence. We are not to wallow in guilt. We are to confess it and then pay for it. It is not enough to confess it. In “Crime and Punishment” the police officer says, “The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.” I disagree. It is not enough to feel badly and to repent. Something concrete needs to be done.
So, second, there is a specific payment that takes care of it so it does not linger. There needs to be an act on our part – something sacrificial no matter how small. I’m not talking about “Say five hail Mary’s” but some tangible show of our contrition and recognition of what we have done. Too often, we want to silently confess and then move on. There has to be restitution. There has to be the acceptance of restitution on our part. Otherwise, the offense lingers and there is no closure. Why else do we give our wives flowers when we have offended her? We want there to be an offering she can see and smell. It’s not guilt or it should not be. It’s gratitude that she loves us in spite of ourselves. It’s more than a grudging apology. It’s not a payoff or an extravagant gesture hoping she will forget or be pacified with a bribe. It’s something both of us can enjoy.
And that is what God intended with the offering. It is a sign that we have come to grips with the sin, confessed it and done something about it. It is something that will be a sign of a relationship we can both enjoy again.
9. So, this leaves us all with a good deal to consider this morning, doesn’t it?
When have we been silent when we should have spoken?
When have we infected a family, church or work place with something unhealthy?
When have we made rash vows to do something and have not fulfilled them?
When have we used Scripture to justify our own beliefs and practices and done harm?
When have we deceived our neighbors and friends?
Matthew 5:23-25: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
It’s good counsel.