The Temptation, Hugo van der Goes, 1470
What is sin?
Man, what a complicated question that is!
Of course, there is no way to address such a question in a short time.
But it will be helpful to start with the English word itself and work backwards.
So let’s do some etymology of this modern English word sin.
It derives from the Middle English sinne from Old English sinn, which means injury, mischief, enmity, feud; sin, guilt, crime. In Proto-Germanic language it is truth and excuse. Put them together and it’s truly non-excusable.
Anyone feeling really, really guilty yet?
Okay, but of course, English is only one language and those words I just mentioned come from somewhere else. Let’s go a lot farther back in history. Let’s look at ancient Hebrew and Ancient Greek.
In Hebrew, the most common word used for the English word sin is chata’ah.
This means: to miss the mark, to be absent.
This is not the only word for sin, but it is the most commonly used.
In most Jewish thought, humans are said to have inclinations towards both good and evil. There is no concept of “original sin.”
I like this explanation from Rabbi Yalkut Shimoni, in the Midrash on Psalm 25:
He describes a sort of “panel discussion” in which the question “what is sin?” is asked to four different authorities — Wisdom, Prophecy, Torah and G-d.
According to Wisdom sin is a harmful deed.
According to Prophecy it is death.
Torah sees it as folly.
And G-d sees it as an opportunity.
Now. Let’s turn to the NT Koine Greek. The most common word for sin is:
It means basically the same thing as chata’ah–to miss the mark.
Of course, like in ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek has various words for what is translated “sin” in English, including: forgetting, making an unintentional mistake, being ignorant, or intentionally crossing a line/going too far.
Overall, in ancient Greek thought, sin was looked upon as a failure on the part of a person to achieve his/her true self-expression; a state of ignorance or an action that failed to preserve his/her relationship to the living beings all around.
So…no original sin quite yet.
In fact, you’ll have to wait until the end of the fourth century C.E.
The Original Sin Greatest Hits Compilation CD that you can buy for only $19.99 and receive a free half-eaten Eden apple—was made popular by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Ah, what would we do without the guilt soundtrack?
It is of course the idea that all humans have inherited the weakness and sinful, fallen nature of Adam [who apparently was dumber than Eve]. According to the concept of original sin, you and I are all doomed to follow the path of sin, personally condemned and guilty from birth.
And this, for Western Christians, became the reason why Jesus died on the cross.
If everyone is personally and corporately guilty, someone has to pay the price to make us all feel a little better. So enter the idea of atonement or substitution—that Jesus needed to suffer and die in order for sins to be forgiven.
Anyone feeling guilty yet?
Look, this is just the short, short version.
This brings us to 2014 and how we define sin.
For younger generations, the concept of sin is less relevant. But basically everyone is familiar with the term and for the most part, people equate sin with morality.
Each culture around the world determines what is “right” and what is “wrong” and the “wrong” thing becomes “sin.”
Lest you think that we are drifting into moral relativism, let me show you what I mean.
There have been countless surveys related to morality and what people think is acceptable in a particular society.
Ellison Research [Phoenix] found that 87% of U.S. adults believe in the existence of sin, which they define as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.”
The Pew Research Center has done various projects, studying what people think about morality around the world.
They began by asking: must people believe in God to be moral?
And then, should homosexuality be rejected or accepted?
Or what about issues like abortion or stem cell research?
And finally, look at this recent Gallup poll: U.S. Perceived Moral Acceptability of Behaviors and Social Policies.
And…not making an appearance in any of these polls:
invading a country
taking people’s land
eliminating a culture or language
getting as rich as possible by any means necessary
creating monocultures for growing food products
oppressing people for reasons of gender, sexual orientation, religious background, or ethnicity
Go ahead and add your missing sins…
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Is sin for real?
I mean, today sin is simply morality codes. Sin is completely tied to particular cultures and societies—what people determine is “right” or “acceptable” and what is not.
But I want to challenge you to dig deeper and to think deeply.
We’ve used our own moral rules in society to single out others based on their different behaviors.
We’ve even gone so far as to say that our moral rules come from God and are superior to other people’s moral rules.
See, this sin thing is about separation. Many cultures around the world [including the Hebrew and Greek communities] understood this separation to be going missing, falling asleep, mistaking our true identity.
So we need to hear this story about a blind man, because it screams at us to just stop judging others in the way that we still do.
For just like in the story, we have used things like illness, oppression, poverty, gender, sexual orientation, language, nationality, skin color, religion—to be “sins” that separate us from our humanity.
In the 1st and 2nd Century in Israel and Palestine, many thought that illnesses were caused by sin. Those who were blind, deaf, disabled physically or mentally—were typically left on the edges of society and marginalized.
Reminds me of this powerful Frida Kahlo painting, Sin Esperanza.
Sin Esperanza, Frida Kahlo, 1945
This marginalizing of so-called “sick sinners” did not sit well with Jesus.
According to him, the blind man in the John story didn’t sin and neither did his parents. Jesus didn’t judge him but instead spit on the ground and made clay out of his saliva and then rubbed it on the blind man’s eyes. Then Jesus told the man to go to the pool of Siloam. Siloam means sent. The man went, washed the spit-clay from his eyes in the pool of Siloam, and he came back.
But he came back seeing.
Many love to take any healing in the Bible as literal, but before you jump to that conclusion, consider this:
Total blindness is the complete lack of form and visual light perception. Clinically, it is often written as NLP:
No Light Perception.
Not that’s curious, don’t you think?
No light perception?
Well, Jesus of Nazareth just happened to teach a LOT about light and perception of light, and just about everyone he healed experienced some sort of en-light-ening. This is one of those cases in which the meaning is very clear. Be reminded of John’s Gospel beginning in chapter 1:
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
If we choose to wake up and see the meaning of the story:
Healing does not have to be literal.
Healing does not fit into our categories.
Blindness or any kind of sickness is not about sin.
And when someone is healed, we ought to just celebrate and not judge.
In the story, the people who knew the former-blind man wanted to know HOW he was healed. What did he do to pay for his sin? None of his answers sufficed.
So they brought him to the Pharisees on the Sabbath day. Not supposed to work on the Sabbath, right? So Jesus messed up, right? But…how could Jesus be a sinner, if the blind man was healed? The ideology of sin equaling illness or punishment was falling apart. People started to doubt.
That’s what happens when you start asking questions about all these rules we make up;
that’s what happens when we question this concept of sin.
But in the story, the Pharisees [and others] just couldn’t accept a world in which they couldn’t point to certain people and say: Sinner!
Without that ability to judge others, what did they have left?
They might as well kick this guy out of the temple. And so they did.
But outside the temple, the now-seeing man met Jesus again. See last week’s [Leaving the Church to Find God]. Jesus asked him: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” This phrase was well-known. It’s an ancient phrase, Semitic in its origin. Jews, Greeks, Romans, others knew it. It does not mean Messiah or Savior. Son of man appears in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and 80+ times in the NT Gospels. Son of man means human.
Jesus said: “I am human—a person, just like you.”
And just in case we STILL don’t get it, Jesus continues:
I came into this world for judgment so that those who don’t see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
All those who claim to see and judge others as sinners or blind are actually the ones who don’t see.
Do we see?
Defining sin can limit what is possible; we can worship our rules & morals.
We want explanations, formulas, linear answers, concrete solutions, and strategic plans for life’s problems.
And yet, healing is not restrictive.
Our humanity is not restrictive.
Jesus of Nazareth did not see sin as many of us do. People were not blind, crippled, poor, hungry, or marginalized from society because of something bad they did. And the light and healing of God was not restricted to so-called “good” and “moral” people.
Light was and is available to all.
Healing is available to all.
Light can wake us up, make us more present, help us to recognize our humanity, help us to see.
Those who claim to “know” who is sinning and who is not are completely blind, asleep, missing the mark…absent from reality.
Friends, what would it be like if we stopped focusing on sin?
What if we stopped pointing fingers and embraced everyone’s humanity?
What if instead we focused on our true humanity: our ability to love, to heal, to help, to forgive, to be truly alive?
May we wake up, be present, and open our eyes to this.
 John 1:4,5,9, NRSV.