Lesson 7: Sin in the Gospels

Jesus like the prophets sees sin as injustice. The similarity is obvious when he describes the Last and Ultimate Judgment based on giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned (Matthew 25: 31-46). Or again when he insists the greatest commandment, loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul, necessarily includes loving your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 34-40). And again when he almost always places his sayings in the context of the rich/poor contrast.

Yet Jesus is far more radical. He tells a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor (Mark 10: 17-27). He gives blessings to the poor and woes to the rich (Luke 6: 20- 26). He says give the poor the coat off your back, while John the Baptizer, who represents the prophets, says do this if you have another one (Luke 3: 10, 6: 29). He interprets the law as forbidding anger as well as killing, lust as well as adultery, love of enemy as well as neighbor, and forgiveness as well as fairness,. (Matthew 5: 21-47).

Clearly, following Jesus goes beyond doing good deeds to becoming a good person who hungers for justice and willingly suffers to attain it. The dynamic forgiveness that Jesus proclaims does not simply absolve isolated acts but changes the complete person, granting a new mind, heart, and soul. This new person is not anxious about tomorrow. She trusts God to provide food and clothing each day (Matthew 6: 25-34). She serves as salt and light for the rest of the world.

Jesus also changes how the injustice is corrected. In the law we do this by observing the Sabbath and the Jubilee when debts are forgiven, slaves freed, and lands returned. In the prophets God himself promises to make all right on the future Day of the Lord. Now Jesus describes himself bringing the Jubilee when he announces good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4: 16-21). He spends his time with sinners and tax collectors, the poor and foreigners, the outcasts and lepers who need him. He speaks of God’s Kingdom being something like a father who forgives a prodigal son (Luke 15: 11- 32), a shepherd obsessed with finding one lost sheep from a large flock (Luke 15: 3-7), or householder inviting the poor, lame, crippled, and blind from the alleys to his party (Luke 14: 15- 24). After the Cross and Resurrection, Christians proclaim Jesus plays God for us even as he suffers for our sin.

His roughest attacks on sin slam the hypocrisy which performs pious acts like tithing but neglects “weightier matters” such as justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23: 1-12, 23, 24). These are sins of omission where people simply ignore the needs of others. For instance, the Rich Man does not even notice the poor man at his door (Luke 16: 19-30).

We have seen sin consistently defined as not caring for the needy in the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel. We have also pretty consistently heard our commentators question how we can overcome this in a consumer based society that breeds economic inequality and turns the care of the needy over to institutions that Bob observes do not share our common story or vision. Ivan Illich suggests we had best stop trying to influence these, because they can not do what they claim or we expect from them. I sometimes feel this goes for most of the organized church which pretty much insists on seeing herself as just another self-serving institution. When I am in this mood, I wonder if we should not simply take Jesus at his word, having faith that God will deliver us in the future and in the meantime gather in small groups inside or outside the organized church to witness by the way we live to what God’s peaceable kingdom will be like. Do you ever feel that way? What restores your hope in the Church?

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