Sin-talk (Or Tautologically, Hamartiology)

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Who is this who even forgives sins?

Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.

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Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.

We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.

Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.

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Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?

In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.

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But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.

He says to us.

The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.

By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.

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Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.

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In Which the Book of Ruth Passes the Bechdel Test

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(A Sermon Essay on Ruth 1)

Only two books in the Tanakh bear women’s names: Ruth and Esther. I was in my thirties before I learned that my maternal grandmother, who I had always known as Maxine, was actually named Esther. But that’s another story for another time. We’re gathered here today to talk about the Book of Ruth.

There are two differing hermeneutical schools weighing in on Ruth; one holds that the book was written, possibly by Samuel, during the time of the monarchy. Using rough estimates and the assumption that while the monarchy technically begins with Saul, it really doesn’t start until the reign of David (although the author of the above link disagrees), that means that Ruth was written sometime between 1000 BCE-922 BCE. This argument holds that the purpose of the Book of Ruth is to show the transformation from barrenness, darkness, despair, and brokenness–set during the time of the shofet–into the fecundity, light, hope, and transformation of the monarchy.

I am not swayed by this scholarship for a few reasons (Hebrew usage; influence of Aramaic upon language structure; narrative components and theological composition), but mainly because the alternate theory makes more sense, at least for me as a pastoral theologian with substantial training in biblical exegesis.

This view, which is masterfully argued by Dr. Pieter Venter from the Department of Old Testament Studies at University of Pretoria, South Africa, holds that early Second Temple literature (that is, written after 515 BCE, when the Second Temple was consecrated) has certain hallmark features, and particularly thematic ones at that. And while this is essential in the development of Judaism, which is what must always be given primacy when considering texts from the Tanakh, it is seminal in the development of Christianity. In fact, one might argue that without Ruth Christianity would not exist.

Bible nerds probably chuckled at the last sentence of the paragraph. Or maybe not. It is a quotidian observation to note that Jesus would not exist without Ruth, as Ruth is the great-grandmother of David, who is listed as one of Jesus’ direct forebears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (Some Markan scholars, but not me, argue that Davidic lineage is present in the Gospel of Mark as well; but again, that’s for another discussion.) But my joke that’s not really much of a joke is pointing toward something else.

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The Book of Ruth, just like the ministry of Jesus, is about radical inclusivity. Naomi is like a female Job. Calamity has befallen her and she is questioning what she has done to deserve it. Not only has her husband died, but also her sons. In terms of social standing, she is going to fall through the net. She is not of child-bearing age. No one is gonna marry her.  The Levitical laws that seek to protect her–not my type of feminism, but on a historical level we have to acknowledge that the Hebrew law codes did try to provide some manner of cultural protection for women, even if we may find said attempts to be sorely insufficient–are not going to be of use. She encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their homelands, to find some manner of protection or social standing. Naomi is going to return home in bitterness, a fact that she makes plain at the end of the first chapter.

We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Although the Book of Ruth is only four chapters long, it contains one of the longest continuous stories recorded in the Hebrew Bible. And elements of the first chapter will even pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Here we have a woman, Ruth, who is a foreigner; in time of chaos and uncertainty, she pledges herself to Naomi in language that is similar to wedding vows. She takes on a new God; she is willing to go to a new land; she will renounce her people and take on a new identity. She forsakes everything that can identify her and protect her.

In many ways, what we see is similar to the covenant renewal ceremony preserved in Joshua 24. But this one is cast in terms of women.

Which is why I introduced you to the prevalent theories regarding when the Book of Ruth was authored; if we go with the latter theory, that is, authorship post-515 BCE, we know that there were ongoing battles regarding what religious observance consisted of. With the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple (often called Solomon’s Temple), religion began to shift away from being defined by possession of land, the existence of the Temple, and a Davidic king sitting upon the throne. In exile, the religion of the Hebrews morphed into Judaism, a religion of the book. Knowledge and adherence to the Torah, teaching, made one Jewish. The externals of religion must be matched by the internals of faith; circumcised penises matter less than circumcised hearts. With the return of the people under Cyrus the Persian, the most fundamentalist of Jews were living in Jerusalem. They wanted to make the rules. They argued that marriages to foreign spouses made the children illegitimate. A new Temple required around the clock sacrifices, but some argued that rites and rituals were empty if there was not a spirit of the Lord in the place.

And in the midst of that, in the middle of such an argument, about who is in and who is out, comes a story about a Hebrew woman and her Moabite, foreign daughter-in-law. This foreigner, this interloper, this woman sings a song matched only by Hannah and later Mary. She throws down the gauntlet and displays a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The radical nature of this story cannot escape our minds as we prepare to move to chapter two. We have two women, one who just made marriage-like vows to the other who has returned home only to say, “Y’all best not call me Naomi anymore. My name is Bitter, and you best not get it twisted.” Can you feel their strength? Their defiance? Their willingness to go up against the rules of men if it keeps them out of relationship? With God. With one another. With themselves. And while the rest of the story may bother us (or maybe not), let us remember them as they are now. Standing tall. Chin up. Chest out. Bodies not there for gazing but to be asserted. To announce their presence. Their power is written on the body.

Let us recognize that these two women are badasses.

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