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by Doug Ward

A striking contrast is evident in the meanings of two biblical festivals that occur just five days apart in the middle of Tishri, the seventh Hebrew month. The tenth day of Tishri is the Day of Atonement (Hebrew Yom Kippur), a day of prayer and fasting, reflection and repentance (see Lev. 16:29-34; 23:32). But just five days later is the beginning of the Feast of Tabernacles (Hebrew Sukkot), a time of great rejoicing (Deut. 16:13-15) that looks forward to the coming of a future messianic kingdon (Zech. 14:8-19).

What is the significance of such an unusual juxtaposition of festivals? In part, it is a reminder of the age-old difference between human actions and intentions, the continuing gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be. This gap is a major biblical theme.

Consider, for example, the instruction given by Moses to the children of Israel as they came to the end of their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness and prepared to occupy the land of Canaan. In Deut. 15:4-6, Moses described what life in the Promised Land should be like:

``. . . there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you'' (NIV).

However, he then added the following admonition:

``If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. . . . Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land'' (Deut. 15:7-8, 10-11).

Notice that verse 4 says ``there should be no poor among you,'' while verse 11 adds, ``There will always be poor people in the land.'' Here Moses did not contradict himself. Instead, he was trying to accomplish two important goals simultaneously. On one hand, he wanted his people to catch the vision of the abundant life that could be theirs if they followed God's way. At the same time, though, he was realistic about the problems they would surely face on account of human weakness. There would likely be a large discrepancy between the real world and the ideal world, so he urged them to do everything in their power to diminish that discrepancy: ``Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land'' (v. 11).

The importance of bridging the gap between the real world and the ideal world is one of the messages of the Day of Atonement. Isaiah 58, a passage traditionally associated with this day, teaches that the fasting of Yom Kippur is not to be an end in itself. Instead, it should be a springboard to positive action:

``Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?. . . If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings'' (Isa. 58:6-7, 9b-12).

In Jewish tradition, the process of making the world a better place is called tikkun olam (literally, ``repairing the world''). Participation in this process is a fundamental duty in Judaism. It is also a hallmark of Christianity, as we shall see. 1

``By This Shall All Men Know . . . .''

The early Jewish Christians of Jerusalem viewed themselves as a righteous remnant of Israel, a group for which the messianic age had arrived. They set out to create an ideal community, obeying their Master's directive that their relationships be characterized by mutual love (John 13:34-35). According to Acts 4:34-35,

``There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.''

In verse 34, the Greek phrase for ``there were no needy persons among them'' is an almost exact quotation of the Septuagint's rendering of the phrase ``there should be no poor among you'' from Deut. 15:4. This clear reference to Deut. 15:4 is an indication that the early Christians hoped to form a society that would reach the standard articulated by Moses in Deut. 15.

As we read further in the book of Acts, we find that the Christians faced many obstacles in trying to build such a society. Even though the Messiah had come, his disciples still wrestled with problems posed by sin, Satan, and surrounding cultures as they prepared for his return. For example, the utopian conditions described at the end of Acts 4 are followed immediately by the account of the deception attempted by Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).

But with the guidance of the Spirit of God, Christianity quickly began to make a major difference in the world as more and more people were attracted to the loving communities established by the followers of Jesus. University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that these communities were a key factor in the explosive growth of Christianity during its first three centuries. In his book The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996), Stark points out that life in the Roman Empire, by all accounts, was often short, unpleasant, and filled with fears and uncertainties. The large cities of the empire-e.g., Antioch, an early center of Christianity-were very densely populated, even more so than today's most crowded cities. Without the presence of adequate sanitation and other infrastructure, life in ancient cities was characterized by filth, disease, fires, crime, and riots. 2 Into this cruel and chaotic world, Christianity brought love, support, and a purpose for living.

Stark also explains that massive disease epidemics were a prominent feature of life in the Roman Empire. 3 For example, one epidemic (perhaps an early smallpox epidemic) that began in A.D. 165 wiped out about a quarter of the empire's population. In A.D. 260, another devastating epidemic (perhaps a measles epidemic) swept through the empire. Faced with the threat of mysterious, incurable diseases, people were frightened, not knowing where to turn. Family and social networks were destroyed. Ancient pagan religions were at a loss to explain or cope with such disasters, and victims of the diseases were left alone as people fled from the affected areas. Christians, on the other hand, came to the rescue. Imitating Jesus' example of self-sacrificial love, they risked their own health by caring for the sick. They provided a caring community for people who had often lost many of their friends and family members, and they presented a worldview that made sense of what was happening and gave hope for the future.

Christianity continues to bring similar kinds of service to people today. In many areas of Africa and Latin America, for example, life is still very short and filled with poverty, disease, and chaos. Where civil governments have generally been unable to address the needs of their people, Christians have stepped in to give help and hope to millions. 4

In a sense, Christians have always lived in a space somewhere ``between'' the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. Our Savior has come, bringing atonement for sin and the promise of an ideal world to come. He has also given us an example of selfless love for the world. The ideal world will not arrive until he returns. But while we wait for his coming, our task is clear. Following his example and that of the saints who have come before us, we should do all we can to bridge the gap and make this world a better place.

Issue 15



1Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Marvin R. Wilson (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1989), pp. 332-333.

2The Rise of Christianity, chapter 7.

3Ibid., chapter 4.

4See Philip Jenkins's recent book The Next Christendom (Oxford University Press, 2002).

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