Measure for Measure

by Lois Tverberg

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. – Genesis 37:28

At the opening of the book of Exodus, we learn that four hundred years after the family of Jacob went down to Egypt to live, they have been enslaved. It is ironic that the brothers never would have moved their families to Egypt if they had not sold their brother Joseph into slavery there. In a strange way, when they sold one member into slavery, they were selling their own family into future slavery. Their fate is linked to their sin, somehow.

bronze scaleThe rabbis pointed out that this pattern of the punishment fitting the crime is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures. Because Jacob deceived Isaac in his blindness into giving him the birthright, Jacob is fooled into marrying Leah when he is “blind” – when she is brought to him veiled, and in the night he doesn’t see his new wife. Or, because Pharaoh killed the Israelite boys by drowning them in the river, God defeated his army by drowning them too. Haman was hanged on the gallows that he prepared for Mordechai. The rabbis called this pattern “measure for measure” – midah keneged midah.

While this is the pattern for divine justice, God tells the people of Israel that they should use midah keneged midah in a different way. They are to show mercy on the aliens and foreigners, because they were once foreigners too, in the land of Egypt. Instead of remembering their suffering there in order to be cruel or vengeful, they should remember how it felt to be in a strange land and to be oppressed, and to have compassion on others because of it.

Jesus tells us the same thing — that when we remember how much we’ve been forgiven, it should make us desire to forgive others too. He says that with the measure that we use, it will be measured to us as well.

For more details on this concept, see the longer article, “The Logic of Measure for Measure.”


Before Coming Up to the Altar

by Lois Tverberg

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24

Christians often focus on the phrase “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” We understand that forgiving others is crucial if we want God to forgive us— even though it may be very difficult. But in the passage above, Jesus isn’t asking us to forgive others before coming to God, but seeking forgiveness from others before coming to God.

Statue of two people embracing

Jesus’ words here sound reminiscent of a Jewish idea about forgiveness that has been largely overlooked by Christians. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Jewish people confess their sins before God and ask for forgiveness. But the liturgy includes a statement from the Mishnah (a compendium of rabbinic thought from around the time of Jesus) that declares, “For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against one’s fellow, the Day of Atonement does not atone, unless one’s fellow is appeased” (Yoma 8:9). In the weeks before Yom Kippur, tradition dictates that before Jews ask forgiveness from God, they must apologize and seek reconciliation with those who they have sinned against. Of course there are provisions if a friend is unforgiving, but this practice lives out Jesus’ instructions to be reconciled before offering your gift at the altar.

This is something for us all to think about, isn’t it? Next time when we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” we should include the thought, “forgive us our sins as we have asked others for forgiveness.” Then we will have peace both with God and with others.

Photo: Rebecca Kennison