Updated: Jan 31
In a dictionary, the word “atonement” is found defined as, “Amends or reparations made for an injury or wrong.” This is specifically defined, relative to Christianity, as meaning, “The reconciliation of God and human brought about by the redemptive life and death of Jesus.”
Nothing is said about the connection between “atonement” and the Jewish people’s most holy day each year, Yom Kippur, which in Hebrew translates to be “day to atone,” or commonly, The Day of Atonement. This day is preceded by the Days of Awe, when Jewish persons try to amend their individual behaviors and seek forgiveness for their wrongdoings against God and against other human beings.
The Jews, on the Day of Atonement, set aside the evening for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that one has been forgiven by God.
Rather than one day a year, Episcopalians each week recite: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”
One of the ceremonies done on the Day of Atonement was to symbolically place the sins of the people on a goat and cast it out into the desert. That was begun during the Exodus and continued until the days of the temples in Jerusalem. It was called the goat for Azazel (meaning, “who God strengthens”), but we know it as a “scapegoat.”
In a way, the readings for today all recognize how flawed the children of God will be.
We see God telling Jeremiah that they are like clay, which can be good or bad, such that it is up to the potter to decide if it can be reworked, if it is not strong enough to be tested by fire.
In David’s psalm, we see how we are woven from the depths of the earth, with nothing hidden and all known by God … both sinful thoughts and well intentions.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, the head of the church of Colossae, its shortcomings were to be corrected by the return of Onesimus, who should be welcomed as a beloved brother and as Paul himself would be welcomed back.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus recognizes there are those who can be his disciples, through his making clear who cannot be his disciples.
All of these readings are offerings for atonement, in varying ways of presentation.
A warning from God says, “Atone or else evil will befall you!”
The song of David sings, “Always seek atonement because God knows everything about you, and God’s hand can forgive your flaws.”
The letter from Paul is stern, saying, “I command you to accept atonement because sin will not be acceptable.”
The message from Christ is, “Atonement can only be wholehearted, or else it will not be granted.”
Who here has not seen some action-drama movie where the hero is forced to make a decision that he or she hadn’t planned on while chasing down the villain?
They turn a corner and come face to face with evil, only to hear, “Put down the gun or I shoot your ______.” (fill in the blank – wife, girlfriend, child, father, mother, most favorite pet, etc.)
They always give in and drop the gun.
Would dropping the gun suddenly be an act of atonement for having chased someone with a gun, causing the villain to see that act of humility and stop being evil? If the guy is evil, why wouldn’t he or she then shoot the hostage and the unarmed hero? If the hero will drop the gun because of a threat against someone else, why not run in without a gun in the first place? Then when he hears, “Drop it!” he can say, “Oh I don’t need a gun. Drop yours.”
When Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate even life itself cannot be my disciple,” he is making a loud statement that life on earth is an obligation of service to the LORD, more than it is a reward from God. Death can be our release to Heaven … as long as we have atoned for our past … as long as we are good clay that has been fired in the kiln.
Certainly, when one has atoned for past sins, one is not running around with guns trying to shoot people who are also running around with guns trying to shoot people. Innocent people, like wives, children, mothers, fathers, and favorite pets are always put at risk then. And while our mundane lives will rarely be the stuff from which action-dramas are formed in Hollywood, an invisible enemy will be always be lurking to compromise our ways, to force us to sacrifice a commitment to Christ.
We will find our faith extorted by evil, to test our worth.
Invariably, some personal attachment in this world will be held hostage, in exchange for that commitment Christians make to walk in the ways of the LORD.
We will be forced to chose between that commitment and the possibility of sacrificing someone or something loved in this life we have on earth.
Our personal ties to those we love seem so real because we can use all of our five senses to know them. In contrast, we cannot know God or Christ in such physical ways. Our faith is for things hoped for, which cannot be seen.
The ways of the LORD are what our faith is based on. We hope our lives will always go just as we hope and pray they will go; but, too often, we have to recalculate what we thought worked. We have to rework the clay of our individual faith.
The word in Luke that translates to say “hate” is the Greek word “miseo.” Reading that translation makes it seems as if Jesus was requiring a disciple to “hate” his family. However, the word, in this context, should be read as stating “to love less,” such that all are loved, but whoever loves Jesus less than his family cannot be his disciple. Jesus must be loved more than family, just as one must love God with all one’s heart and with all one’s soul.
When Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Knowing what we know … where we have read the ending of Luke’s book and seen the end of Jesus’ life on the ole rugged Cross … it is difficult to not read that statement and think of that cross. We think that Jesus was telling listeners they had to be willing to be crucified … to give up their lives in an agonizing public death … in order to be a disciple of Christ. Well, while that is often found to be the case for the Apostles, Jesus did not go quite that far in this context.
The Greek word that does translate as “cross” is “stauros.” A Roman cross was shaped more like a T, but not everything shaped like a T, or even a t, was meant to infer a form of Roman execution. The basic meaning for the word “stauros” was “to hold something up straight.” Hence, a Roman crucifixion would hold a human body up straight (relatively speaking) for public display.
However, the most common use for such a “cross” was in a vineyard. It was the post set into the ground, and along the top of the “T” a cross beam was set, which was for the weight of fruitful vines to be supported. In that way, the weight of the vine would not cause everything to fall to the ground … to be bent over.
This means Jesus was saying, in effect, “Whoever does not maintain the cross of support, to remain upright and follow my path (as a good vine), cannot be my disciple.”
Being upright and following Christ may lead to persecution and death, but one has to be willing to accept such attacks to be a disciple of Christ. Therefore, “Whoever comes to me and does not love, even life itself, less than me cannot be my disciple.”
Being upright is a way of the LORD that is required.
The final requirement stated by Jesus is in line with the message God sent to the people of Israel, as evil people not following the ways of the LORD. Jesus said, “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all of your possessions.”
When they coined the phrase, “You can’t take it with you,” the point was to admit recognition that one loses all material things when one dies. If one is upright and walking in the ways of the Lord, thus good clay and atoned of past sins, reworked to be strong disciples of Christ, then the cross of death is a possibility before death would come naturally. Either way, you will reach a point in time when you cannot take things with you to the other side, to Heaven.
When that day comes, you cannot be a disciple of Christ if you think losing things is reason for being sad.
The children of Israel did not have the luxury of that clarification given by Jesus, at the time of Jeremiah. Although history believes the Jews were actively practicing recognition of Yom Kippur in the temples of Jerusalem then, perhaps they though placing the sins of the people on the back of a goat and sending it out into the desert would allow them to continue having their cake and eating it too.
Keep in mind that a goat does not usually stand upright, and it has no mental abilities to understand symbolism and metaphor. Thus, Jesus was speaking to those who were the descendants of Jews who had been blown like chafe in the wind to the four corners of the world. All the sins of their lives had been placed on their backs and they were forced to leave. Those scapegoats who found their way back to Judea, and were there at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, they had returned to repeat the same mistakes.
Simply wandering around lost does nothing for redemption.
Thus, we are each a potter with our lives. Our clay must be molded to fit the ways of the LORD. The cross we bear is how we are tested by God, so we adjust ourselves through repentance, based on knowing the ways of Christ to follow. If we cannot stand up straight and face the LORD, then we have something to hide.
We must always rework the clay so that it is ready and able to be placed in the oven and be fired. If we are not upright, the heat will shatter us to pieces, and we will not be disciples of Christ, unable to follow the commandments, decrees, and ordinances of the LORD our God.
We do not have the luxury of a scapegoat. We do not have the luxury of a Hollywood script writer who will make us wily sharpshooters, whose gun never runs out of bullets, while our enemies are always the worst shots imaginable.
We pack our own sins on our backs, so that only by becoming Jesus reborn will our sins be lifted away.
When our end comes, it will not be about self-glory, from having saved the girl or having won the big prize. It will be about knowing we were good enough to be disciples of Jesus, good enough to be Apostles.