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.