There is a new entry at the bottom of the ‘About’ page if you want to know more about me.
Sin is such an interesting topic. It has captured the attention of the greatest of Christian writers down through the centuries. Who can forget St. Augustine of Hippo’s “Lord grant me chastity – but not yet”. The first century expert on sin is St. Paul. It’s difficult to talk about sin without involving St. Paul either as a protagonist or antagonist. St. Paul’s famous quote is “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) . My impression of Jesus and the topic of sin shows him forgiving sin. I’m glad to have my sins forgiven. Jesus didn’t usually stop with forgiving sins. He usually continued with an admonition to “go and sin no more”.
It seems unfair to look at sin without looking at the context in which a particular sin exists. The context for sin most people are familiar with is a context of human frailty. Christian fundamentalists address the subject of sin with what they call the plan of salvation. The plan of salvation is a set of scripture verses (mostly taken out of context) that form the talking points for the conversion of a non-believer. The first scripture verse in the plan of salvation is “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
This statement on sin from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is completely true but taken out of context, it is designed to crush someone whose only context for sin is human frailty. I don’t see Jesus crushing anyone in the gospels, except for the moneychangers in the temple. In each situation where Jesus is one-on-one with sinners he’s healing infirmities and forgiving sins. There’s no crushing.
There are some very large Christian institutions built around the concepts of Sin, Sinners and Sinning. I don’t think this is Christian. I think it comes from a desire to control the behavior of other people. If you can convince someone they are a miserable sinner, the control of their behavior is assured.
St. Paul gets a lot of criticism for changing the focus of Christianity. It’s probably more accurate to say that the force of world events changed the focus of Christianity. In the year 70 BCE, the Roman general Vespasian began the process of putting down a Jewish rebellion that ended up with sacking Jerusalem and destroying the temple. Jerusalem was the center of the new Christian faith at that time. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the focus of the Christian faith moved to the Christian churches in the Greco-Roman world. St. Paul was the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles. The kind of Christianity that St. Paul preached and lived eventually became the dominant expression of the new religion. What St. Paul has to say about sin becomes very important.
St. Paul’s converts lived in a society that was very promiscuous. St. Paul was brought up as a Pharisee and studied in Jerusalem in the school of Gamaliel (Acts 23). The large difference between the morals of a Pharisee and the morals of an ordinary member of the Roman Empire is the context for St. Paul’s writing about sin. St. Paul is trying to save his converts from what would be normal Roman practice so that he can bring them to the love of God present in Jesus. St. Paul is waging a war of words against sexual immorality. Considering the social context his converts existed in, this makes perfect sense.
The social context for Jesus was different from both St. Paul’s situation and our own modern one. One very interesting quote from the scripture about Jesus and sin is “We know this man is a sinner.” (John 9:24). The ‘We’ in this sentence is a group of Jewish authorities. The ‘man’ is Jesus. The reason they know Jesus is a sinner is he wasn’t one of the small group of Jewish men who ‘kept the law’. It was very difficult to keep the law as that process was interpreted by these same Jewish authorities. Basically, a person had to be independently wealthy to have the time and resources needed to keep the law. The independently wealthy constituted about one percent of first century society. The Jewish authorities considered the rest of the Jewish population to be sinners.
The gospel record shows Jesus forgiving sins. There is some disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish authorities about the fact that Jesus forgives sins. However, since the first century theory of sickness blamed the debilitating illnesses Jesus healed as being the result of sin, it was very hard for his contemporaries to deny that he was forgiving sins.
The larger question here is ‘why was Jesus forgiving sins’. In my many years of Bible study I’ve never heard that question asked. For the people who are sick, Jesus is obviously freeing them from their sickness. For the rest of us who are ordinary sinners, Jesus wants us to be free from the constraints of our past sinful behavior. The catch, the price of this extraordinary freedom is that Jesus wants us to live up to the total capability of our human potential. We are, each and every one of us, supposed to be ‘full of grace and truth’.
The social context for sin and the forgiveness of sin in the Kingdom of God isn’t about human frailty. Neither is it about the problems St. Paul was having with his promiscuous converts. It’s certainly not about controlling the behavior of other people through guilt and shame. When Jesus looks at a sinner, the sin is incidental. Jesus is looking a the totality of that person’s potential, should that person be freed from every kind of hindrance.
The Kingdom of God, the new social order Jesus gave his life to create, isn’t about sin, sinners or sinning. It’s about the human potential for love. Jesus loves us in an unrestrained, uncomplicated, unlimited fashion. He wants us to love the people who come into our lives in the same way.