Sin is not what you think it is. (*) Luke 15:20-24
The Bible is just not a user-friendly book. In fact, it is not a book at all, it is a library. It contains 66 books of a dizzying variety of kinds. There are different GENRES--letters, histories, legal compendiums, prophecies, sermons, visions, prayers and poetry. Moreover, each of the books has different ORIGINS, some having been generated out of oral culture, from legends and songs, others being patchwork quilts stitched together by editors, still others have been revised and “improved” for religious consumption. Then, too, within each book are VARIETIES of perspective and theology. It would be nice to know, of all the other books and versions available, who made the selections that resulted in our Bible?
We have not even scratched the surface on BOOKS, but the same is true of particular WORDS. One of the words, for instance, whose meanings are widely misunderstood right now is FEAR. There are two different senses in which it is used. “Fear not,” which appears 365 times in the Bible, means something different than the expression, “the fear of the Lord” which has 490 references. The same word has two completely different meanings. In the first case, fear means “dread,” which we are reassured there is no need to feel in life. In the other, it denotes “respect” as the appropriate attitude before God and has no punitive meanings. That’s one example when a word can confuse the reader of the Bible.
Yet another is the word “SIN.” The word “sin” doesn’t mean what you think it does. Generally, you take it to be a bad word, signifying something bad. Yes, it does signify something bad, but it is a GOOD word. How can that be?
The words used prior to the Israelite religion and Christian faith to designate human fault were words like defilement, stain, blemish, filth, impurity. People understood themselves to be defiled by some objective act which is prohibited. In pre-Israelite religion, purification rites had the physical purpose of cleansing when a prohibited act occurred--touching blood, for instance, through a murder or menses. But purification rites also functioned symbolically--our essential impurity is never really altered, nevertheless, the rite is intended to represent the NEED to purify. Failure to purify oneself entailed serious punishments. Even being UNINTENTIONALLY associated with evil incurs defilement, such as with death or disease. Anything SEXUALLY related was subject to prohibition due to contamination, but there were different levels of intensity associated with the gravity of the taboo.
The emotion associated with defilement is shame, an emotion arising from embarrassment at having something very basic and very personal exposed to view.
We today do not remotely understand the power of defilement over a society. It has no ethical import for us--to us, the prohibitions seem arbitrary. We live in a religious environment thoroughly influenced by Jewish and Christian worldviews. For us, the operative term for fault or wrongdoing is not defilement; it is not defilement but “sin.”
Sin connotes wrongful behavior. Contrary to pre-Israelite views, there is nothing wrong with you. In fact, according to Genesis, you are very much part of God’s good creation. In this way, Genesis was a protest against the doctrine of defilement. When you deviate from God’s law, you don’t cease being good in your essence. The new understanding became that human beings are prone to sin (fallible), hence you are a SINNER. But you are NOT a blemished product.
The emotion associated with sin is guilt. And it need only be a temporary emotion because, as we shall see in a moment, the wrong which we call sin has a remedy.
But, before long, Christianity corrupted itself when it began to teach the “total depravity” of human beings. It regressed to pre-Israelite faith. Even parents commit this error whenever we say, “Bad boy” or “bad girl.” And preachers err when they set out to convict you of sin, in the sense of being a faulty product. For that, their remedy lies in an imagined transaction in the sky between the Father (so-called) and the Son (so-called) brought about by the sacrifice of the Son. So the human being is left no role either in fault, because we are essentially faulty, or in the remedy, because Jesus took care of it. In that view, it is for us to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.
In fact, the actual remedy, the biblical remedy, for wrong-doing is confession, repentance, contrition, repair and reparation. The gospel proclaims that God’s forgiveness is perpetual. It is like the crystal clear water of a glacial lake. But you have to climb the Mountain of Humility and ask for a glass. All you have to do is ask--you won’t be refused. There is no transaction in the sky--it is an earthly transaction between me and someone I have wronged or hurt, made possible by Yahweh’s forgiveness that was ratified, revealed and celebrated by the Resurrection of Christ.
Sin is the violation of a personal bond (“covenant”) between me and God, and only a personal accounting removes the offense, if not the hurt itself. At some point, our personal relation to God was intensified exponentially by the man Jesus of Nazareth whom we therefore call the Son of God. Jesus became the bridge to a God too far.
Finally, instead of the retributive justice of our legal system, we have been given a new lease on life called restorative justice. Sin, the cause of a relationship broken off, has been conquered, and a relationship can be recovered.
It is a loss to our public life that we don’t think of crimes also as sins. On TV, in politics--crimes are prosecuted. We see people convicted which we call justice, but it is really a kind of societal vengeance--punitive justice. Shouldn’t we also be thinking about the relationships ruptured in a crime which need repairing. Thinking of crimes as sins would point us in this direction. Then worse, by not regarding crimes as sins, convicted criminals are treated by society as defiled in perpetuity--marked for life. Meantime, nothing is done to repair ruptured relationships.
St. Paul illustrates this change when he bemoans the fact he does what he knows he shouldn't, and doesn’t do what he should. He is identifying wrong with actions, with behavior, not with self. And our gospel parable of the Prodigal Son makes it clear, the offended party and God are reconciled to the offending party.
Jesus is the heart at the center of human hurt. He makes possible the repair of sin, which you now realize is actually a good word.
(*) For further reading: the classic source on this subject is Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967). A recent, very accessible analysis can be found in Stephen Finlan, Ph.D., Salvation Not Purchased (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020). Finlan is the Sr. Minister of First Church, W. Bridgewater, MA, and teaches at Boston University.
Our Independence was declared July fourth in 1776. It declared us free from British rule. And a war ensued.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass declined the invitation to give the annual Independence Day speech in Rochester NY because the enslaved were not free from white rule, south or north. On the next day, he did give the speech, a blistering one that received a rousing standing ovation from an all-white audience.
The emancipation of the American slaves 10 years later also necessitated a war. Ultimately, the Union victory brought about the creation of Juneteenth as a national holiday last month, making the Black Independence Day official.
The fourth of July commemorates our political freedom from Great Britain, but that was a long time ago now. It seems rather quaint to think of our troubles with King George III 250 years ago after a year in which this nation quaked through the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.
Don’t Americans need to be asking ourselves on this Independence Day of 2021, in what ways are we not free yet? Didn’t last year show us (once again) that the United States continues to have serious independence gaps since 1776, and 1865--?
Of course, your answer will differ depending on if you are female, Black in America, gay, or a non-Christian. However, white people are not free either, not as much as whites imagine--as long as we deny freedom to others, we are not free. Heather McGhee, in her book The Sum of Us, shows how American whites shortchange ourselves with every restriction we place on people of color--government benefits, housing access, student loans, voting rights--. In sum, whites are a perfect illustration of the old phrase: cutting off our nose to spite our faces, because racism costs white people enormous losses in economic prosperity, community health and national strength.
So far we have been talking about political freedom. But you know, political freedom in the West has its roots in the spiritual freedom proclaimed in the Bible. Even Gandhi acknowledged the importance of Biblical freedom to his own demand for India’s independence from England.
The human yearning for freedom found its expression and inspiration in the Biblical stories of the exodus from Egypt, the return from the Babylonian captivity, the end of servitude to idols, and release from the imprisonment by sin. Whether one is white or black, male or female, gay or straight, Greek or Jew, the Bible proclaims that spiritual freedom is everyone’s birthright that translated over time into the public domain. The question we have to be asking is, in what way am I myself, are we, not free? Have I discovered the plank in my own eye--the respect in which my wrongdoing is my own captivity?
You may recoil at St. Paul’s denunciation of the evil of sin. He uses a dichotomy between spirit and flesh that we have since graduated from. But with a little thought you should be able to identify with his own frustration about the manhole cover he lives under called sin. The good he would do, Paul says, he finds he does not do. Instead, he finds himself doing what he outright wishes he would not do! He is so tied up, he equates it with death itself.
When you think about it, if you think about it, don’t we feel the anchor we are dragging about? Don’t we pick up a signal that we haven’t nearly realized the spiritual freedom that the gospel promises?
Let us meditate a moment--how are you not free--let us count the ways:
You are bound, of course, by gravity--otherwise you would be flying. In that way you are not free. This is not meant to be a joke.
You are bound, too, by your body--it must be fed and sheltered, adorned and entertained. It must be nursed through infancy until independent enough to manage itself, and nursed through old age until our end. In that way you are not free.
The perplexities of your own personality have you tied up, wondering why you aren’t rich or famous. How on earth did your life turn out this particular way? In that way you are not free.
You have many emotions, some of which are not fully grown up, I venture to guess. In that way, you are not free.
Then too, some dependencies of yours still tie you up. Alcoholics in recovery understand this very well. But you do not remotely see the dependencies you’ve adopted and accustomed yourselves to. In this you are not free.
People have other crutches, too, religion itself, for instance, the escapist wishful thinking wrapped up in gospel garb.
More fundamentally even, and we have to go to an even deeper level to expose these weights on our souls, how do your life choices contradict the purposes for which God made you? In that way, you are not free either.
Not to examine ourselves this way personally keeps us tangled up in our own shoelaces. And the failure of white people to examine ourselves this way diminishes the vigor with which we would fight for the political freedoms of others, as we say we want to, but don’t.
Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher and mystic, wrote, “No Elder, however advanced in the spiritual life, could be of any help to me [in my crisis]. The whole problem lies here, in the very fact that I must discover for myself that which God has hidden from me. God expects from me a free creative act.”
What are the revelations waiting for you and hidden in the Bible? Freedom is hidden in the Bible. It is through creative engagement with God’s Word in the sacred text that we find our way to ultimate freedom. In the Bible you will encounter the radical news that the world can change, that people can change, that YOU can change. Because, the sins that you do not intend to commit, and the sins that you willfully commit, are forgiven when you ask. Thus you are freed to live and make your way again with your head held up high.
If it weren’t for forgiveness, we would never be able to own up to our wrongdoing--it would be crushing. We would much prefer to cling to our self-righteousness or deny outright that anything is wrong. No--! Belief in the forgiveness of sins enables you to face the hurt you cause others because you know you are not destined to repeat those wrongs forever. There is a door out of your prison, and its name is forgiveness. As Paul made existentially clear, if I know what is right (which it is the function of the law to teach), and I don’t do it anyway, I live a half-life suspended in self-hatred, cynicism, and hopelessness. That is what Paul meant when he said in one of the most vivid expressions in the entire Bible, “Will anybody deliver me from the body of this death?”
Because of Christ, you can live, truly live--Jesus’ story and the stories he read make up the Bible that’s in your hands. True independence awaits you. The day you see Christ this way is your personal Independence Day.
You may still shrink away, because you know it means making different choices and facing the world differently. But how long will you postpone?
Repentance, repair and resurrection on a national political level is obviously not very simple, to say the least, as we are seeing thrashed out in this country where so many people are at sixes and sevens in the effort to attain independence in their way, especially given the threats of violence.
Similarly, institutional self-appraisal is also not very tidy, but there are good examples, like higher education where institutions are examining their history for their indebtedness to slavery. And some corporations, too, have made re-appraisals that led to responding to the restrictive voting laws imposed in Georgia.
Religious institutions, ironically, have the hardest time. Are we one?--can Eliot Church come to terms with our indigenous history, and can we pause to explore what an anti-colonial endowment policy might look like? If Eliot Church wonders how much more our church could be doing to address the injustices of this country, we must get to the next level by asking and answering the question--how are we not free? What is missing in our collective picture? Because charity is not an acceptable relationship to the world.
True freedom, if we learn this first lesson, is seeking the freedom of others, which is the second lesson. The Bible is a parable of the spiritual life taken from real life with implications ultimately for public life. The Bible shall set you free indeed, and the whole world, too.
Do you ever wonder, where is the joy in your life, where did it go anyway? You can get it back, once you see the light.