Among the law in Leviticus - actually, very early into the law in Leviticus - is provision for the sinner who has sinned and doesn't know it.
Our initial reaction might be, how does one sin and not know it? We are so very concerned about right and wrong, about good and bad, that we figure that if you've done wrong or bad, you probably know you've done wrong or bad. But that's just not the case. In God's law, it is possible to break it without even realizing. And so, God has laid out what should happen when this occurs.
There are a couple of different notions here to consider. First, there is the possibility that a man may break the law without realizing he has broken the law and only finds out he is a sinner when someone else tells him about it. This is an important call to accountability, not for the community, but for the man.
The man must be willing to hear from someone else that he's done something wrong, something he doesn't even realize he's done.
And we all need to have this kind of humility in our lives. We all need to have the kind of spirit that is willing to hear even what we don't think is possible, particularly when we have wounded someone unintentionally. We have to be willing to hear the truth and act on it, making amends for our wrongdoing and atoning for our actions. In this case, the man who finds out he has done something wrong brings his offering to the priest as soon as he hears about it, and he is relieved of the guilt of his sin.
But he has to be willing to hear about it first. So must we.
A second possibility is that a man does something wrong and nobody really realizes it, except that the ripple effects of sin spread through the community in an undeniable way. Something is amiss, and no one can quite put their finger on it, but everyone knows that something is wrong. It doesn't take long for a God-fearing community to realize that someone has sinned.
In this case, the community must bring an offering before the Lord for its atonement. They must sacrifice an offering pleasing to the Lord and declare that they are aware that they are unaware of the sin, but do not deny its reality. In this way, they make peace with God for all of them, the community and the sinner included.
This one is a bit more difficult, perhaps, but it is extremely important in our contemporary world. We are living in a community of sin, a community wounded by the actions of others. It's not our sin, not necessarily. Sometimes, we don't even know what the sin was. But we see the marks of it all around us. We see the hurting souls all around us. Something is wrong, something is amiss. And we know it.
So we, the people of God, must be a community who atones for sin where we see it without knowing it. We must be a people who come before the Lord on our knees, seeking forgiveness for the error of human ways.
And it's tough. We look at the problems of the world and we think, that's not my problem. I didn't do that. I don't think that way. I don't act that way. That's not my problem.
Think about racism, for example. Overwhelmingly, most of us are not racists. We wouldn't consider ourselves racist. We don't do racist things. And yet, America has historically had a problem with racism. It's easy to think it's not our problem, since we aren't contributing to it, but it is our community. And that makes it our problem.
Or sexual abuse/assault/trafficking. Most of us aren't perpetrators, and we aren't in the habit of soliciting prostitutes. This isn't our problem. We're sorry it happens, but what can we do about it besides what we're already doing - not contributing to the problem? But again, it is our community, and that makes it our problem.
And so we need a measure of what Israel had, that sense of communal responsibility for the way that we live together before the Lord. We need the humility to accept that our community's sins are our sins, our problems are our problems, and we need to be a people who come before the Lord on our knees, bringing our offerings of atonement, seeking forgiveness, and longing to restore our community to its wholeness.
Interestingly enough, it starts by being a people of the first vein, a people who can humbly hear that we've sinned without knowing it. For we have.
Every one of us.