Friday, February 14, 2014
February 16, Sixth after Epiphany: A Series on Sin #1: Choosing Death
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
The Gospel of Matthew is considered the driest of the four gospels. It doesn’t have the emotion of Mark, or the music of Luke, or the drama of John. It’s considered the most rabbinic, because it emphasizes teaching and it frequently quotes the Torah and the Prophets. It emphasizes righteousness and piety. Matthew is a strict teacher who is no fun in class and grades low but still you learn a lot.
Two months ago I was scanning through Matthew and our future scripture lessons in order to plan my preaching, and I was inspired, let’s say, to do a series on Sin. Yes, Sin, your favorite topic. Every week I hear you tell God that you "have sinned against him in thought, word, and deed, by what you have done and by what you left undone," and I believe you when you say it and I’m sure God does too. So I checked with the consistory, and they all agreed that a series of sermons on Sin was a good idea, especially as we get into the penitential season of Lent: Just what is it that you keep saying you are sorry for?
So from now through April 6th, I will ask the same question of the scripture lessons every week: What can this next set of lessons tell us about sin? We will gradually develop a picture, maybe sharp, maybe fuzzy, some insight, some wisdom, a challenge, conviction, and we will believe that through our considering these scriptures God will be talking to us and Jesus will be teaching us.
First off, from Deuteronomy, we see that to sin is to make the wrong choice, to choose for death instead of life, and to choose to not observe God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. Which tells us that sin is a consequence of having freedom. If there is no freedom there is no choice, but only compulsion.
We humans have a measure of freedom unique among the animals. Eagles always act like eagles, and never like blue herons. Loons never choose not to act like loons. They never choose for their death and adversity against their life and prosperity. But we humans have the freedom to make this choice.
It is obvious from history that we frequently use our freedom to choose for death and adversity. Animals work by instinct, whatever that is, but their instincts always serve their life and prosperity, whereas we humans have this strange instinct to choose the bad instead of the good. And we would choose the bad even more than we do if not for the limiting sanctions of God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances.
So from Deuteronomy you could define sin in two complementary ways: You could say that your sin is your failure to choose the good, when the good is offered to you in terms of God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances. You could also say that your sin is your strange instinct to misuse your freedom, an instinct so strong it’s a compulsion. You have freedom, but you fail your freedom.
Listen again to this quotation from last week: "Freedom is responsibility for your every step and gesture, freedom is for choosing to act honestly and honorably or dishonestly or dishonorably, freedom as in life."
That quotation was from Masha Alyokhina of the Russian punk band Pussy Right. She said, "Freedom as in life." And Deuteronomy says, "Choose life."
The choice for death is Sin. Death is a penalty for sin, but not as if God were a traffic cop or a hockey referee handing out penalties. It’s more like sin is extremely unhealthy. Death and adversity are the inevitable and cumulative consequence of sin. Like poor health from a poor diet. God has made the world to be a certain way, with consequences over time, despite however free you think that you can be. On the whole and over time, there are two roads, with divergent ends, and the road you take makes all the difference.
From First Corinthians you could define sin as immaturity, a failure to grow up. You know, like an infant who is nursing needs to have a natural selfishness, but it’s wrong for an adult to act with that same selfishness. A twelve-year-old should act like a twelve-year-old, but it’s wrong for a thirty-year old to act like a twelve-year-old.
Your immaturity --- because you are given freedom --- your immaturity will descend to immorality, however harmless or harmful your immorality may be. You are responsible --- because you are given freedom --- to rise to spirituality, the true arena for which your freedom is designed. You are given freedom in order to be spiritual, truly spiritual, that is, to live in communion with the Holy Spirit of God, and to get your cues and signals for your choices from God’s direction instead of from your appetites and your compulsions and your fears.
Over time, your choices develop into your character. Every choice you make, for good or ill, does not stand on its own, but is influenced by an earlier choice and sets conditions for your next choice. Choosing X today instead of Y makes it just that little bit more likely for you to choose X again tomorrow. Your failure to develop your character towards God’s direction, then, is sin.
Sin is not so much the discrete bad thing you do, but your general direction, your inclination, your inertia, your momentum, your habit, your condition, your nature. So choose your character, choose your life, choose what you hear me pray every week at the communion table — choose to "grow up in all things into him who is the head, even Christ our Lord."
Now from Matthew. We get some sins according to the Ten Commandments as interpreted by the rabbis and then as intensified by Jesus. The rabbis considered it possible to make your way along the straight-and-narrow of obedience and blessing and life. But Jesus makes everybody guilty. You’re all on the way to death, you’re going to be tossed into that smoldering garbage dump called the Gehenna, which is his metaphor for a shameful death. Or at least a piece of you, like your eye or your hand, tossed into the garbage in order to save the rest of you.
This lesson caused the church to consider divorce a sin more negative than it is in Judaism and Islam. Right. But think about it. Jesus was speaking to a context in which women had no choice in their marriage or divorce. A marriage was a contract between a bridegroom and the bride’s father. The bride never said, I do. Nor did she have anything to say in the case of her divorce. Her husband could end the contract at will, and just give her his certificate. He could marry someone else and not be guilty of adultery.
Jesus says, "Uh-uh, not so fast, big boy. No matter your new legal status, you’re still committing adultery against your ex. And if she gets caught in adultery, it’s your fault." So Jesus makes the man responsible for any and all of the woman’s guilt. Because the man has the freedom. That’s the force of what Jesus is saying here — not to prevent remarriage after divorce, but to challenge the man’s responsibility that comes with the power and the freedom that he has.
Or this: both orthodox Judaism and Islam make the women responsible for whether they are attractive to men. If someone other than your husband looks on you to desire you, it is your fault, you did not suitably cover yourself. The Holy Koran is explicit that women must cover their attractiveness in public in order to spare the weakness of men.
But Jesus lays it on the male! (It would be anachronistic to call the Lord Jesus a Feminist, but he is remarkably pro-women in terms of his context.) Jesus is saying that if you as a man look at a woman to desire her, it is your problem, not hers. If you need relief, don’t make her cover herself, but you cut out your own eye. You deal with your instinct when it’s descended to compulsion. You deal with your own character.
It’s about character and rising to spiritual maturity. It’s about being able to just say Yes for Yes, and No for No, without making all kinds of guarantees or promises or vows or corroboration or excuses. Just Yes or No. When someone does wrong, you don’t need to hate him or insult him. Just make your Yes, Yes, and your No, No. If someone is foolish, you don’t have to mock him or knock him down. Just make your Yes, Yes, and your No, No. Character is about how you use your freedom, and how you take full responsibility for yourself, in God’s direction. To do that is to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And to not do that, is what we call Sin.
It’s about character and it’s about life and about freedom and so once again it’s about love. For you to look at each other with pleasure but not lust, with delight and not desire, and with honor, as each one of you is living your own life in your own way but all in God’s direction, that is to look at each other in love.
(PS: Particular thanks to the commentary by Marcia Riggs in Feasting on the Word.)
Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.