Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘sinner’

Is Sin for Real?

John 9:1-41

 adam.eve.serpent.jpegThe 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.

Chata’ah

 חֲטָאָה

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:

ἁμαρτία, hamartia

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?

guilty girl comic

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.[1]
They began by asking: must people believe in God to be moral?

pew1.jpeg
And then, should homosexuality be rejected or accepted?
peworientation.jpeg

 Or what about issues like abortion or stem cell research?
pewmoralassessments.jpeg

And finally, look at this recent Gallup poll: U.S. Perceived Moral Acceptability of Behaviors and Social Policies.
gallupmorality.jpeg

And…not making an appearance in any of these polls:
killing people
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.
sinesperenzaFrida.jpeg 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.[2]

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.

[1] http://www.pewglobal.org

[2] John 1:4,5,9, NRSV.

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Small? So You Say…

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

nelsonandcoHave you ever been bullied?
I bet most people would answer yes.

Bullies can find any little thing to pick on, am I right? You wear glasses. You’re too skinny. You’re too chubby. Your feet are big. Your clothes are weird. You talk funny. Apparently, in Jesus’ time–the 1st century–bullying was like it is now. People got picked on just like they do today.

Zacchaeus was short. Zacchaeus was a tax collector; Zacchaeus was rich.

Three strikes and you’re out!

Tax collectors for the Roman Empire—yeah, they were pretty much disliked by everyone. Think about it. People did not like to pay taxes to the Romans. And they especially didn’t like someone who was not Roman coming to their house to collect taxes. People like Zacchaeus most likely had Roman soldiers for bodyguards just so they wouldn’t get beaten up. Add to this that many tax collectors skimmed off the top. They collected taxes for Rome, but kept some of the money for themselves.

It’s like the Beatles sing:
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.

Don’t ask me what I want it for
If you don’t want to pay some more
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

But in spite of this, the taxman Zacchaeus really wanted to see this Jesus of Nazareth character. But there were a lot of people surrounding Jesus. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see him, on account of the important detail that he was short in stature. Our perception of this story makes us think that he climbed a tree just because he was short. Maybe. But don’t forget: Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he was rich. He ran ahead of the crowds because he did not want to get beaten up. Maybe he climbed the tree so that no one in the crowds would see him.
zaqueoBeing “short in stature” does not necessarily mean that he was 3 feet tall. Perhaps he could not see Jesus because the crowds wouldn’t let him. You see, people already assumed that Zacchaeus was a bad person just because of his title.

But for some reason, Jesus did not.
He saw Zacchaeus in that sycamore tree and talked to him.

Come down. Hurry. I must stay at your house today.

Really? With all the crowds watching? Zaccheus was so excited, he forgot about all this and welcomed Jesus’ request with open arms.
But the crowds grumbled:
Jesus will be the guest of a sinner. Humph.

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus is eager to tell Jesus about himself.
Look, half of my material possessions I give to the poor. If I’ve cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times what I owe them.

Let’s pause here for a moment because there is something interesting to explore. The verb form of give to the poor in the original Greek language is in the present tense. But most of our English translations render it as will give. This makes a huge difference. If Zacchaeus will give to the poor, as our version says, then this is a conversion story. He was a bad guy and now he’s not. But if it is the present tense, then we’ve misinterpreted the story.

What if Zacchaeus was already giving to the poor and making sure that he didn’t cheat people? What if he never really was a bad dude to begin with? Was he generous? What if his title of tax collector and sinner was the only thing that stained his reputation!?!

I’m going with the present tense, because I think our Bible translations have tried to turn the Zacchaeus story into a conversion story when it is actually a last-first, small-tall story. What I mean is that just earlier in Luke, Jesus said that another tax collector who called himself a sinner in his own prayers was on his way home to find God’s mercy and that he was justified more than any religious leader who supposedly knew how to pray elegantly in public. And here we have another tax collector in Zacchaeus who is called a sinner by the crowds who have judged him without a reason to, other than his marginalized status in society.

Zacchaeus was not the bully.

He was being bullied! He was a generous man who was already doing the right thing. But nobody cared. He was a tax collector and therefore, according to the people, he was an awful sinner. Even though the name Zacchaeus means pure and righteous one, he’s painted as a cruel, selfish, greedy, businessman who must undergo a miraculous conversion in order to be saved.

I just don’t think that this is the point of the story.

Jesus already knew about Zacchaeus. This is consistent with Jesus’ movements in many Gospel stories. He saw him up in that tree and called him down because he wanted to show the people just how judgmental they really were. I mean, come on. Jesus knew exactly which tree Zacchaeus would climb and when he would be there. This is all a setup for a major teaching moment. Jesus was once again flipping over the assumptions of the crowds and calling out their prejudice.

And so the story should be for us.

Two perspectives jump out at me:

One: the crowds are full of prejudice. They have become bullies, even though they think that Zacchaeus is the bully.

Two: Zacchaeus, in his suffering, doesn’t give up; Jesus knows where he is, looks at him, calls him down from the tree, and goes to his house.

The story is a warning to all of us that we can become bullies. We cannot assume that certain people are lesser or undeserving of God’s grace. We just cannot do that. Ever. We should never bully someone—even if others do it and it seems popular. No matter what label or category exists for a person—we should never judge them.

Each person deserves our empathy.

We ought to accept people as they are without assuming things about them. Oh, how that is needed in our world!

Friends, Jesus chooses to hold up characters like Zacchaeus as shining examples, even though they have been despised and bullied for a long time. Zacchaeus is another unlikely hero, but exactly the kind of hero that Jesus lifts up. So this is good news.

This encourages us to keep doing the right thing, to keep spreading love and compassion to others, in spite of all the bullies out there who will try to tell us that we’re not worth it. Somehow, Zacchaeus still had hope even before he met Jesus.

He did not despair, even though people tried to push him down. That is why he ran ahead and climbed the tree. That is why he jumped down from the tree and had Jesus over to his house.

Zacchaeus, a wee little man? So we say…but not so much. Zacchaeus was not small, but tall.

He was bullied but did not despair.
He didn’t hesitate to show compassion and generosity even when no one noticed.
And he found out—as we can—that God doesn’t ignore our suffering. God knows about all the bullying going on. God sees us as we are. God calls us out of the tree, down into the world, and God meets us at our homes.

So don’t let the bullies discourage you from being generous and compassionate. God sees and accepts you as you are.

Now do the same for others. Amen.

 

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