"Sin" is a wide and varied concept. "It's a sin to tell a lie," said the song, as though sins are discreet acts. But Paul the apostle spoke of people's "ungodliness and wickedness" which we identify as "sinning" and then said "because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions." Romans 1:25-26. Here, it is as though the sin is not living rightly and what we popularly call "sins" are the result. He saw God 'giving them up ' to those passions. Sin in this view is about going our own way in life, rather than God's way. Serving the creature rather than the Creator. In language not quite so dependent on the imagery of the biblical age one might say there are ways to live that are more human and humanising, and there are ways to live which are de-humanising. These ways move us further in the direction of de-humanising. What we commonly call individual "sins" are more like the symptoms of sin.
The notion of what is sinful changes through biblical history. Not keeping the rules of worship was seen as very sinful in Jesus time. This is wider than simple Sabbath worship. It was about observing the rules of ritual cleanliness, and keeping the food rules, and so on. Being a good Israelite involved keeping those rules on a daily basis. Jesus was noted for not keeping many of the rules.
Earlier in history the Old Testament demanded people should look after "strangers, widows and orphans." Psalm 149 says "The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin." "Strangers" were the non-Israelites, including of course, refugees.
In Deuteronomy, beginning at chapter 10:17 it says
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
In this laying down of the Law God is clearly shown as loving the stranger and executing justice for them, and the followers of God are told they are to do the same. The occupancy of the land was dependent on this! For example in Deuteronomy 16:20 "Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you."
The sinfulness which Jesus complained of was that people kept the ritualistic side of the Law and showed no compassion, or to use the old word, no mercy. There are some classic passages where he clashes with the Pharisees who par excellence believed that piety and not sinning involved keeping the all details of the law. In Matthew 23:23 he says:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
And in Matthew 9:13 "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
This clearly refers back to the book of Amos chapter 5 beginning at verse 21.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
In our own time, sin is also a very fluid concept. The notion of "honour among thieves" illustrates this. Or the story of how the visiting Dutch churchmen were so scandalised by American church women's makeup that they nearly choked on their cigars! Less frivolously, where I worked in another culture I found goods were being given away from the local store. "Sin," erupted some of the white folk. "No," we were told. "The sin is not to give available food to your hungry relative."
I can only conclude that "Sin" is a strongly culturally influenced concept.
December 15 2001
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