Friday, April 18, 2008

Sin and Punishment, Exile, Exodus


My friend, David, offered some interesting comments to which I’d like to respond. First of all, let me give you the full text:


A couple of your comments caught my attention.

While I can agree in general with your view of the Bible and its place in Christian faith and order, I would wish to add that the problem with many folk is that they see the Scripture as something akin to the Criminal Code of Canada--or other legal documents.

When a lawyer (and the police, in the case of crime) are rightly required to make reference to the legal authority in their case, the same does not apply those who seek to interpret the Bible. I am always a little uneasy about reading (or hearing) someone make a statement then quote a biblical reference (book, chapter and verse) to back up their view--as if it puts the proponent's view above contradiction. I feel our use of Scripture should be inductive instead deductive.

My second point is on judging others. Both Jesus and Saint Paul are explicit in their denunciation of human judgement. I have long given up judging another person's actions. I can be saddened by them, even regret them--but I cannot judge them. Why not? Simply because my judgement of other is, at best, impaired by my own sinfulness--and at worst, impossible.

But I can--and do--judge myself and my actions in the light of Scripture (here I part company with Saint Paul). I do have some idea of my own motivations and short-comings and although my self-judgement is imperfect and subject to correction, it is necessary if I am to change my mind and by God's grace conform more fully to God's holiness.

And another thing (sorry for this irruption) I think is unfair to cast aspersions on those of us who may appear to be obsessed with sin and punishment. Surely sin and punishment is what the Gospel is all about. Because of Jesus' death (he was both the scapegoat and the slaughtered goat) our sins are done away with. But in order to receive God full and complete forgiveness, we do need to recognize sin and to repent of it. I am always grateful to those who are loving enough to point out the possibility that in a given action (or, more usually, inaction) I am sinning.


With regard to the comments concerning interpreting the Bible I couldn’t agree more. Scripture is not a law-code, even if parts of it read like one. Most laws of Scripture are as barbaric to us today as they were progressive for the ancient society for which they were written. At best, Scripture offers us a glimpse of a people’s (or person’s) evolving relationship with the divine. Only by entering into Scriptures with the recognition of its very human origins can we hope to appreciate the real experiences of the divine which inspired their writing. This inductive approach offers us the opportunity to encounter truths which still hold meaning for us today. Otherwise, one is stuck using deductive reasoning to apply Leviticus 19:27 - You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard - to our modern lives!!!

I believe the points made about judgement and sin come from the same root - a traditional (qua Medieval) interpretation of ‘sin.’

The idea of sin in today’s church is almost tangibly ‘objective’ by which I mean we see sin as a ‘thing.’ Sins ‘stand in our way’; sins ‘weigh us down’; sins can be counted, categorized and even put in order of significance. This is the perception of sin I am reacting against.

Sin (for those of you without an ancient Greek language background) is translated in our New Testament from the word ‘amartia’ - which simply means ‘to fall short’ or ‘miss the mark.’ It is not a thing, but rather a state of being, most significantly not being in a right place (relationship) with God. This amartia can be due to things we have done, not done, ignored or even done our best to do!

The opposite of amartia is dikaios - righteousness - literally, to be in right relationship with God...but, as Paul reminds us (sorry David), “There is no one who is righteous, not even one;” (Romans 3:10). This brings me back to judgement.

Judgement about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ is always possible, and necessary, but judgements about right and wrong are not the same as judgments of sin or righteousness. Human hudgment of ‘sin’ or ‘righteousness’ is completely impossible. How can one honestly judge another’s relationship with God? We can’t even judge our own righteousness. Even if we feel ‘out of sorts’ with God, God may feel hunky-dory with us!

All this is very academic, but significant, especially in light of the one statement David made with which I do (humbly) disagree...“Surely sin and punishment is what the Gospel is about.”

Actually, Jesus spends few words discussing sin and even less on punishment, but when he does it is usually to highlight the power of forgiveness and the need for repentance - a change of heart - in order to recognize the kingdom of God in our midst.

I am currently leading a book study on Marcus Borg’s “Reading The Bible Again For The First Time” and he makes a point in one of the DVD interviews that two themes of our salvation history have been eclipsed by the theme of Sin and Punishment though much of Christendom - Exodus and Exile.

Exile is the recognition that we often dwell at a distance from God, driven there by a variety of reasons, sin (for one), but also fear, doubts, circumstance and even the influence of others. The Gospel (Good News) is that God seeks to lead us home from our exile.

Exodus in the recognition that we often find ourselves in a “bad place” even with God in our midst. The Gospel (Good News) is that God seeks to lead us out of bondage and into freedom.

Could the Cross of Christ - the centrepiece of the Gospels - teach us as much about Exile and Exodus as it does about Sin?

I leave that question with you, faithful reader.

Thanks again, David.

Every Blessing.

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