Ok. Odds are, my title either piqued your interest or made you turn to something else without reading any further. If you are still with me, I want to discuss how an ancient Jewish holiday will reveal something about your faith and your Christianity today. It begins with the holiday, Rosh Hashanah, the “Head of the New Year.”
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a New Year on the Jewish calendar. It is a time for reflection as the Jewish people head into Yom Kippur, the High Holy Day of Atonement. And this year, there is something special about Rosh Hashanah…it is a “Shemittah,” literally “remittance” or “release,” 7th year, lasting from September 25, 2104 to September 13, 2015.
Shemittah, found in Deuteronomy 15, is a year in which Jews practiced forgiveness of debt and a rest for the land. Few Jews, primarily only the very religious farmers in Israel, still practice the “land rest” portion of this holiday. But it is the forgiveness of debt that is much more applicable…and controversial. And believe it or not, the controversy dates back almost 2,000 years.
You see, even before the days of Jesus, Jews were trying to find a “loophole” on the forgiveness of debt. They lived in a “modern” society. They did not want to forgive debts. Even worse, repayment concerns caused the wealthy to avoid lending as the 7th year approached. Poor people could not get access to badly needed funds, and God’s laws were being abused and trampled.
So Rabbi Hillel provided a solution. He decided that only “private” debts needed to be cancelled. His reasoning? Deuteronomy 15 mentions loan forgiveness to a “friend” or “brother.” He therefore instituted a complicated legal system of “Prozbul” where you can temporarily (say for a year or so) turn over your debt collection to a court. Courts, after all, are not my friend, neighbor, or brother. Orthodox Jews still use this system today (see www.chabad.org). So, problem solved! At the end of the year, you can demand your debts back from the court and all is good.
Or is it? What level of tolerance does God have for loopholes? Jesus challenged Hillel’s prevailing ‘idea of the day’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He challenged the Jews to understand that their “neighbor” isn’t just the person living next to them. Rather, we are all created in God’s image and we are all inextricably connected. It is the one who does God’s will that is the real neighbor. He also challenged us to forgive our debtors as we are forgiven of our debts by God.
So, here’s my application, Christians: 1) Do you see those outside the church as your friend, brother, and neighbor? If not, Jesus would challenge you to start treating them as the Good Samaritan did. And, 2) Though you probably don’t celebrate tomorrow as your “New Year,” why not put into practice the spiritual principle of forgiveness this year? Are you harboring resentment? Do you hold an old debt? In this year of release, why not begin by reconciling with those who you should be treating like a brother. Forgive. Christ did, and He calls each of us to do the same.