“You can never leave…” (Let’s talk about sin)

The Bible has much to say about human choices, intentions and failures, but much of the language the Bible uses seems archaic to modern ears. Unfortunately, this makes many think that the Bible’s teachings are, therefore, also archaic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The most common of these in English Bibles is that familiar word “sin.” It has a bad press. Here’s Brennan Manning’s familiar critique:

“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.’

‘What are you complaining about?’ said God. ‘They won’t let Me in either.”

It’s a painful story because it highlights the familiar -but wholly erroneous- association between personal purity as the entry ticket to hallowed ground.

So what is sin?

“Sin” is translated from the word chata (Hebrew: חָטָא). Chata means “to fail” or “to miss [the mark/a goal].” It’s a metaphor derived from the context of archery, or something involving a target. For example, when the Tribe of Benjamin trained a battalion of sling-shotters, they could not “miss” – chata (Judges 20:16). 

Proverbs 19:2 talks about chata-ing (or “missing/losing”) your way. In the Old Testament (OT), sin is most basically a failure to fulfil a goal or to arrive.

That’s a very helpful starting point.

All sin boils down to a failure to love God the most and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). That’s why Jesus Christ said these were the greatest commandments, and it’s why half of the Ten Commandments cautioned the Israelites against failing to love God and the other half cautioned them against failing to love their neighbours. There is a deep connection between the failure to love God and the failure to love people, and when we sin against people, we sin against God.

So it does come down, as Terry Pratchett put it, to a very practical issue:

“And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things.”
― Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

Sin Is Deceptive

In the Bible, when people sin they often either don’t know it or they think they are somehow succeeding – like Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites or King Saul hunting David in the wilderness. This is significant because it portrays sin as deceptive. Sin is not just failing to do what is right. It is also about redefining what is right or wrong on our own terms over and against God’s.

Remember that proverb about “Woe to the one who moves boundary stones”?

And that deceptive quality is also addictive.

“No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.”
― George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

Where Does Sin Come From?

The first mention of sin in the Bible occurs in Genesis 4:7: “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

In the previous chapter, Cain and Abel’s parents, Adam and Eve, “missed the mark” by choosing to disobey God. This is presented as the Bible’s “origin story,” as a parable of every human facing the same choices and the same challenges. Sin, like a wild animal, is crouching at the door, eager to consume us.

Our tendencies toward failure and self-deception run deep. Even our urges and desires seem bent on pushing our own goals against God’s goals. And the battle continues. As Bonhoeffer put it:

“When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Sin in the New Testament

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word hamartia (ἁμαρτία) to describe sin as a power or force that rules humans and compels us to do things we don’t want to do (Romans 6:6; 7:15-16).

Sin is a failure to be human – and to be fully human is to be fully in love with God and others. It is our inability to rightly decide if we are succeeding or failing in God’s eyes. And it is a deep, selfish impulse that drives much of our behaviour.

It always strikes me that, truly, sin is that trapped feeling at the back of the Eagles’ song, Hotel California, rather than the glitzy “pink champagne” stuff in the foreground. Here’s the lyric :

“Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
‘Relax,’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave …”
― The Eagles, Hotel California

Talk About It

  1. What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
  2. When you think of “sin,” what first comes to mind? Why?
  3. Do you think it’s true that a lot of people these days dismiss the Bible because it seems archaic or out-of-touch? If so, how have you seen this to be the case?
  4. In what ways is sin a “failure” or a “miss”? Explain.
  5. In what ways is sin best represented by not loving God or other people? Explain.
  6. In what ways is sin “redefining right and wrong”? Explain.
  7. Read Romans 7:15. Sin appears very early in the Bible and runs deep. In what ways would you agree that sin runs deep in the world and in all of our lives?
  8. Read 1 Peter 2:22-24. How is Jesus Christ the answer to the problem of sin?
  9. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.
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Who are the “sinners”?

Jesus referred a lot to “sinners” but only -it would seem- with an ironic twist, whilst he was welcoming them to a party or something. The word is synonymous with “lost” in the story about Zaccheus, (Luke 19) that “The son of man has come to seek and to save the lost.” And in the sayings of Jesus, “sinner” sometimes translates as as “the sick” or the unclean, and, any kind of outsider.

There are cases where they rubbed his nose in the sinfulness of these sinners. Think of that “Cast the first stone” incident in John 8. Jesus is much more focused on the unfeeling crowd than the cornered woman. He does say “Go and sin no more” but it is within the context of grace, pardon and liberation, and not judgment.

Never judgement, in fact.

He targets the “unclean” lepers and moves closer. He challenges the half-baked theology that would suggest that sickness is God’s punishment for sin (Luke 13). He offers unconditional pardons to that paralysed guy lowered down from the roof (Mark 2), and to the thief on the cross dying alongside him (Luke 23). He notes that this woman has had a long string of failed relationships (John 4) but has no interest in putting her straight. He offers her refreshment and new life.

So when he uses the term “sinners,” as I said, there’s a bit of an ironic twist. He’s using the word that others use. More particularly, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were very clued up on what sin meant and who had committed it, and on the moral pecking order that enabled some men (and the gender is deliberate) to pronounce judgement and others to receive it.

And that is the attitude that harried Jesus to the cross.

And that is the hill he chose to die on – phoney religious oneupmanship wrapped up in ego and cultural norms. They could deny their own sin, or, better still, disguise it, but the effort only increased the hardhearted pride with which they managed to look down on everyone else. Especially on Jesus.

So what did Jesus think about sin? If it wasn’t just a poor standard of law-keeping, then what was it?

Which brings us to forgiveness

Which brings us to forgiveness. Forgiveness is central, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean that Jesus-followers let others get away with things, but more that they make a conscious effort to forgive and release the feelings that come with bearing a grudge against a person.

These feelings of anger and hatred can cause harm to the person feeling them, so Jesus taught people to try and let them go.There is no act more difficult than to forgive someone, especially when they may have caused harm or upset. To show forgiveness is an act of love.

Forgiveness also involves the person who has done wrong showing remorse.This could be done by praying to God to ask for forgiveness.

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

So here we have a few ideas running together. In the context of forgiveness, we’re not talking about “sin” as such, but referring to community breakdown, relational discord or family quarrels. But that basic human relationality has an immediate consequence upon our relationship with God. This sounds as if it’s too obvious to mention, but it’s part of the “Love your neighbour, love your Lord” scenario.

Often we make a Thing out of sin, instead of understanding it in relational terms. We seem to focus on Quantity of Error instead of Quality of Relationship.

So what IS sin, really?

“Sin” primarily describes a state of living outside of union, when the part poses as the Whole. It’s the loss of any experience of who you are in God, of what many call your soul. That “who” is nothing you can earn or obtain; that room is nothing you can build. Why? Because you already live within it.

According to Jesus, this is all about awakening, not accomplishing. (John 3) The spiritual journey is about realization, not perfection. You cannot get there, you can only be there. But for some reason, that foundational Being-in-God is too hard to believe, too good to be true. Only the humble can receive it because it affirms more about God than it does about us. The ego does not like that.

Only “sinners” get it! Only sinners need apply

The ego makes life all about achievement and attainment. As long as your egoic self acts as your primary guide, religion becomes a “Worthiness Contest” in which everybody loses or gives up. Many, if not most people, never even try the spiritual journey when they see that they can’t live up to today’s culturally created performance principles. I see this especially in the males of the human species. Rather than lose, they do not try at all.

Yet union with God is really about awareness and realignment. It is a Copernican revolution of the mind and heart—conversion. (Sixteenth-century Copernicus made the shocking claim that the Earth revolves around the sun, not vice-versa!) Following conversion, that deep and wondrous inner knowing, a whole new set of behaviours and lifestyle will surely emerge. It is not that if I am moral, then I will be loved by God; rather, I must first come to experience God’s love, and then I will—almost naturally—be moral.

Relationship first, last.

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What did Jesus say about sin?

Surprisingly little.

He had a lot to say, however, about sinners. (And to do, as well, of course).

Perhaps we might say he looked at sin in a qualitative way, rather than quantitative.The Old Testament and the Pharisees of his day had a lot to say about sin. They quantified it, and made up rules for avoidance. It became a worthiness contest.

So how does Jesus approach the topic of sin?

Setting the captives free

Jesus saw himself, like the guy in the picture, as one sent to rescue.

Look at Luke 4:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him (Luke 4:16-20).

The freedom Jesus promised for prisoners and captives was both specific and general. He went throughout the region, casting out demons and healing anyone who was brought to him (Matthew 4:23). In a very real way, he set people free of the things that held them hostage.

Paul says it this way, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13). When Jesus stood up in that synagogue, he was announcing God’s rescue plan.

Jesus and the sinners

Though he didn’t speak quantitatively, or in the abstract, he had a great deal to say and do about “sinners.” The religious perspective was this: if you kept the Jewish Law and all the rules associated with it, you remained pure. This included not associating with sinners. And a sinner was anyone who didn’t follow the Law correctly. One strike and you’re out.

The thing about Jesus was that he tended to go wherever he was welcomed. Sometimes that would mean dining in the home of a religious leader, but quite often, it meant hanging out with crowds of people that others didn’t want anything to do with.

This is one reason that the Pharisees and lawyers had such a difficult time with Jesus. Mark’s Gospel tells us, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?‘” (Mark 2:15-16).

And since guilt by association was the status quo, Jesus developed quite a reputation:

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (Matthew 11:18-19).

Jesus’s response to those who would separate themselves from others was simple, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

The religious leaders of the day saw sinners as a social problem that needed to be fixed. But Jesus saw them as people created in His image who needed to be liberated. He wasn’t as concerned that their badness would rub off on Him as He worried about His goodness influencing them.

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Critiquing leadership (Proverbs 28)

This chapter has a number of references to poor-quality leadership.

First, there’s a criticism of an over- complicated leadership structure. In v2 we read:

“When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers,
    but a ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order.

The term ‘rulers’ here is the usual Hebrew word for “prince,”used first as a plural, and then followed by the singular. It’s an interesting perception of government. To have many “princes” – rulers, officials – is not seen as a blessing. This speaks of how a large, complex, and multi-layered government can be oppressive. But which came first, the rebellion or the bureaucracy? Or do they feed off each other?

It recalls a moment in the Mel Gibson film, The Patriot:

Peter Howard: We are citizens of an American nation! And our rights are being threatened by a tyrant three thousand miles away!
Benjamin Martin: Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?”

There’s an ancient Arabic curse that runs: ‘May God make your sheiks many.’

The alternative, godly position is characterised as “a ruler with discernment and knowledge. [who] maintains order.” This speaks of unity, humility, clarity and simplicity.

The second criticism is made of overbearing leadership:

A ruler[a] who oppresses the poor
    is like a driving rain that leaves no crops.

This is the NIV translation. It has to be noted that the word translated ruler here is רָ֭שׁ which is the usual word for “poor.” Hence, the older versions read something like this: “A poor man who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain which leaves no food.” One might think that a poor man would have great sympathy for others who are poor, but this is not always the case. There are the poor who oppress the poor. Think of the parable that Jesus told in Matthew 18, of two debtors. Someone forgiven of a massive debt showed no mercy to someone indebted to him.

So the point here is really question of control. Anyone -poor or not- who is control may use that position to be oppressive to others further down the food chain. One can be overbearing – like a driving rain destroying the harvest- no matter the status.

The theme is reiterated in v 15:

15 “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a helpless people.

The third criticism is levelled at ignorant leadership:

5 Evildoers do not understand what is right,
    but those who seek the Lord understand it fully.

There are those who are fundamentally evil or wicked, and simply do not understand justice. They do not understand the principles of justice and how they apply to themselves. There are always those who believe justice is that which benefits them—otherwise it is not justice.

We may become blinded by our own prejudices and agendas. But “those who seek the Lord understand it fully.” The godly understand justice because they have a bigger picture, a larger framing for their understanding.

Ignorance feeds the ego. Many things, dark to human reason, are simplified by humility. Arrogance and self-conceit always cripples compassion and a wide, intelligent vision of the future.

The fourth criticism targets greedy leaders. This is a common theme in Proverbs, where corruption, money, control and power are brought into focus as the epitome of ungodly leadership:

Better the poor whose walk is blameless
    than the rich whose ways are perverse.

Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor
    amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.
..

There’s an echo of this later in the chapter: 16 A tyrannical ruler practices extortion,
    but one who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long reign.
…”

This is connected with the need for wise discernment and insight:

11 The rich are wise in their own eyes;
    one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.

Finally, there are important consequences of poor leadership:

12 When the righteous triumph, there is great elation;
    but when the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding.

 “Thus the man Moses fled and hid himself from Pharaoh, David from Saul, Elijah from Ahab, Obadiah’s clients from Jezebel, Jeremiah from Jehoiakim, Joseph and the child Jesus from Herod.” (Trapp)

Once again, there’s a reprise later in the chapter:

28 “When the wicked rise to power, people go into hiding;
    but when the wicked perish, the righteous thrive.

Eugene Peterson offers this paraphrase:

“When corruption takes over, good people go underground,
    but when the crooks are thrown out, it’s safe to come out.”

Proverbs 29:2 has yet another iteration: “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”

“The state of that nation is so shameful and dangerous, that wise and good men, who only are worthy of the name of men, withdraw themselves, or run into corners and obscure places; partly out of grief and shame to behold the wickedness which is publicly and impudently committed; and partly to avoid the rage and injuries of wicked oppressors.” (Poole)

Leadership carries with it enormous responsibility. When ungodly choices are made by leadership, it affects the destiny of entire nations and even the world at large. That is why the Bible enjoins us to pray for those in authority. This a spiritual responsibility that must not be taken lightly because the repercussions of ungodly leadership can be enormously destructive.

The classic prophetic critique comes in Jeremiah 23:1-4:

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.

Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.

I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.

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Holding Space (Learning from the Psalms)

“The Psalms are, in a sense, God’s way of holding space for us. They invite us to rejoice, wrestle, cry, complain, offer thanks, and shout obscenities before our Maker without self-consciousness and without fear. Life is full of the sort of joys and sorrows that don’t resolve neatly in a major key. God knows that. The Bible knows that. Why don’t we?” –Rachel Held Evans, Inspired, p. 111

That’s a very useful beginning point. Life is messy, and that’s exactly where God meets us.Things don’t have to be cut and dried. They don’t even have to be certain. From the rich history of Jewish interpretation, I have learned that the mysteries and contradictions of Scripture weren’t meant to be fought against, but courageously engaged, and that the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine and debate.

The way of the synagogue is conversation. What would the Christian community of faith be like if we adopted this open-ended approach?

Maybe that’s how we should read the book of Psalms, as an ongoing corporate conversation. Many were designed for use in worship services, and they’ve been used that way  in Christian churches, as well as in Jewish temples and synagogues, for centuries. The Psalms have shaped both the language used in Christian worship and the very idea of what worship is. 

Perhaps we’ve just forgotten the buzz and energy of that innate messiness, whilst paying too much attention to slick performance and sanitised emotions. When we read the book of Psalms, our real task is to learn about the Community of Faith at worship, and to extrapolate from the Psalms lessons in practical theological/ ecclesiological/ missional living. As a whole, the Book of Psalms may be regarded as a kind of epitome of the entire range of the Hebrews’ spiritual life. It has been said that if all the rest of the Old Testament were lost, the essential faith of the Israelite people could be recovered from this single book. We are reaching, then, for the “essential faith,” as expressed in their communal worship.

And that happens in both joy and misery, triumph and failure, bold confidence and depressing doubt, and -in a phrase- “every high and every low…” The table is spread “in the presence of my enemies.” It’s both/and.

So how do we respond to this ourselves, as today’s community of faith?

Our hearts and feelings are summoned under his rule. The great variety of psalms permit us first to admit the entire array of emotions that are ours as human beings and then express them before God: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy” (Ps. 126:3); “Be merciful, O Lord, for I have sinned” (Ps. 51:3); “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:2); “Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul thirsts for you” (Ps. 42:2); “I am afflicted and in pain; let your saving help, O God, protect me” (Ps. 69:30); “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty” (Ps. 131:1); “How great is your name, O Lord, our God, through all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1).

Jesus, who shared fully in our humanity, shared likewise all our emotions. Yet his feelings and the expression of them were free from sin—that is, they were kept within the sphere of his loving, obedient relationship to God. It is precisely our expressing of these emotions in prayer that transforms them into Christian affections. Our surrender of anger, frustration, sinfulness, fear, hope, joy, or wonder to God is itself an act of faith. I can pray, “I hate them with a perfect hate and they are foes to me” (Ps. 139:22), and I can pray, “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children in a happy Jerusalem!” (Ps. 128:5–6) with equal honesty because, in prayer, my desire for either revenge or blessing is surrendered to God; in prayer, it is transformed into praise. Think about that.

Our bodies and senses are not excluded; they are caught up together with mind and heart in the surrender of praise: “Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, even my body shall rest in safety” (Ps. 16:9); “Let my prayer arise before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening oblation” (Ps. 141:2); “All peoples, clap your hands … ” (Ps. 47:1); “Come in, let us bow and bend low, let us bend the knee before him” (Ps. 95:6); “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music with timbrel and harp” (Ps. 149:3); “Look towards him and be radiant, let your faces not be abashed” (Ps. 34:6); “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 34:9); “Your robes are fragrant with aloes and myrrh” (Ps. 45:9); “O that today you would hear his voice!” (Ps. 95:7).

Even our ability to pray must be handed over. The Psalms dispose us to move beyond cognitive, affective, and physical activity to contemplation: the absolute stillness of being, awaiting God’s self-manifestation. Merton writes:

“The psalms are theology. That means that they place us in direct contact with God, through the assent of faith to His Revelation. It is because of this theological and dynamic effect that the psalms are steps to contemplation. This theological effect depends ultimately on a free gift of God.… If we chant the psalms with faith, God will manifest himself to us; and that is contemplation.” (Bread in the Wilderness)

The Psalms “rehearse” us in the attitude of absolute faith, openness to God’s will, total surrender to God’s presence: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want … he leads me near restful waters to revive my drooping spirit” (Ps. 23:1–2); “I have set my soul in silence and peace; a weaned child on its mother’s breast” (Ps. 131:2); “Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar” (Ps. 139:1–2); “What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth” (Ps. 73:25); “You do not ask for sacrifice and offering, but an open ear … not holocaust and victim, instead here am I” (Ps. 40:7–8).

God gives us the ability to pray; we respond in prayer.

God enables us to surrender even our response; we find God waiting there for us. And this is where praise becomes authentic and the community finds its home.

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Pearls and Swine (Matthew 7:6)

Here’s the NIV: ‘Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

Offering feedback

Some treat this as a stand-alone verse and perhaps it was. But it is not free-floating. It follows Matthew 7:5 urging to humble, self-aware correction of another by addressing how the other responds. As we know from workplace evaluations, giving and receiving feedback can be perilous. Self-examination and self-correction cannot guarantee that another will receive correction. The feedback or correction (holy; pearls) can be rejected and trampled underfoot (dogs; swine). Counter-attacks can result. Correction is not to be pressed when it is not received (Matthew 7:6).

So how does this contribute to our community walk of faith?

Trivializing mystery

Eugene Peterson paraphrased v6 thus: “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.” I find this very helpful and interesting -in a general sense- but I don’t think it quite hits the point (on this occasion).

A few verses earlier, Jesus warned us against judgmental attitudes and self-blind criticism, and now he reminds us that He did not mean to imply that the people of His Kingdom suspend all discernment. Indeed, one must discern what is appropriate. We must discern that there are some good, precious things that should not be given to those who will receive them with contempt. We should not trivialize mystery.

But the key meaning, I think is to adopt

An appropriate discernment

We might say that Jesus means, “Don’t be judgmental, but don’t throw out all discernment either.”

The dogs and swine here are often understood as those who are hostile to the Kingdom of God and the message that announces it. Our love for others must not blind us to their rejection of the good news of the kingdom. Yet we may also see this in the context of the previous words against hypocrites. It may be that in Jesus’ mind, the dogs and swine represent hypocritical, judgmental believers. These sinning hypocrites should not be offered the pearls that belong to the community of the saints- the ‘insiders.’

Normally, of course, in a Jewish setting, “dogs” and “swine” represent covenant outsiders. In Jewish literature heathens were often compared to dogs, and the unclean pig was a Jewish symbol for the Roman Empire.

Next, let’s consider

Unworthy participation

The Didache, which probably dates back to 100 AD quotes this verse in an interestingly liturgical context: “Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized into the name of the Lord; for as regards this, the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy unto dogs.’

This might seem to be a niche interpretation, but it works with some of the points made already. That is to say, we have good things to share -precious truth – but it will only confuse those who do not believe, who are blinded to the truth by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4) and may only expose the gospel to their ridicule. Communion is one of those truths.

Last, let’s consider the sharing of Gospel truth. Isn’t that the same? The passage suggests some

Evangelistic limitations

We might consider two verses together. First, “The gospel is to be preached to every creature, (Mark 16:15). Second, when “the Jews grew stubborn, and spoke evil of that way before the multitude,” (Acts 19:9) the apostles moved on. The verses can be read together as setting reasonable limit on evangelism. If a population or individual is not open to Christianity, leave and find a more receptive audience. Jesus was silent before Herod and Paul abandoned Corinth. One should not condemn, but there comes a point at which any reasonable person will realize that those they are dealing with are dogs and swine.

Of course, Jesus did not say this to discourage us from sharing the gospel. In the previous chapter. Jesus told us to let our lights shine before the world (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus said this to call us to discernment, and to encourage us to look for those that are ready to receive. When we find such open hearts, we can trust that God has already been working upon them.

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Judging the “Judge not” bit (Matthew 7:1)

A popular verse

Judge not...” It’s apparently the most well-known Bible verse these days. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, among those who seem to know little of the Bible, this is the verse that is be most popular. Yet many who quote this verse don’t get what Jesus meant. it’s as if they think that Jesus commanded a universal acceptance of any lifestyle or teaching. or a kind of prohibition against any kind of criticism whatsoever.

But that “Judge not” translation is neither accurate nor helpful. As we all must acknowledge, we make judgments everyday despite disclaimers such as , “it’s not for me to judge” or “to each to their own.” In fact, we would be in trouble, – even danger – if we did not make discernments about people, situations, and actions. We assess, we sift, we weigh up evidence… That’s what the verb means, after all.

In the face of this daily experience, the translation “Do not judge” perpetuates a sense that the Bible is well out of touch with everyday life and remote from daily living. It suggests that the Gospel offers an impossible ethic.

A call for attention

The chapter starts out with a five-fold repetition of words that sound like judge – even though the word for judgment is technically a different word from the verb “judge.” The word for judgment seems to have more of the sense of legal judgment, or sentence, than it does of discernment, even though the verb judge can have either sense – the sense of separating or preferring, as well as the sense of condemning. But since Jesus is later going to stress the need to pay attention, to differentiate between bad and good fruit and between sheep and wolves, the context suggests that Jesus definitely means here to forgo condemning people.

Several other factors speak against the “Do not judge” translation. For a starts, commanding people not to judge violates the command! Much of the Sermon on the Mount trains people to make judgments or discernments about how they live in relation to God’s purposes. In the previous chapter, Jesus has judged synagogue practices (Matthew 6:2, 5), Gentile prayer (Matthew 6:7), and lives focused on material goods (Matthew 6:25-34).

Matthew 7:1 actually recognizes we make judgments daily by excluding a certain kind of judgment. The verb employed here commonly designates eschatological judgment or condemning someone to hell. This use indicates a translation of “condemn,” with the present tense form suggesting a translation of “Do not go on condemning to hell” (Matthew 7:1).

A rebuke of condemnation

This translation addresses various situations involving other people: conflict, fear of outsiders, intolerance of difference, prejudice, disdain, anger, etc. In such situations, people can write others off as beyond redemption, outside God’s grace, and consign them to hell. The command forbids the arrogance of denying mercy, even dignity, to another. Followers of Jesus have no right to declare someone is beyond God’s mercy.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase is very helpful. It anchors the concept in the way we live, pointing out the very religious gamesmanship that such a posture engenders:

“Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.” (Matt 7)

An example of unjust judgment was the disciples’ condemnation of the woman who came to anoint the feet of Jesus with oil (Matthew 26:6-13). They thought she was wasting something; Jesus said she had done a good work that would always be remembered. They were making an unjust judgment.

A few discussion starters

So what’s our takeaway here?

· We break this command when we think the worst of others.

· We break this command when we only speak to others of their faults.

· We break this command when we judge an entire life only by its worst moments.

· We break this command when we judge the hidden motives of others.

· We break this command when we judge others without considering ourselves in their same circumstances.

· We break this command when we judge others without being mindful that we ourselves will be judged.

Etty Hillesum gave a useful conclusion: “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself what he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”

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The lifelong surrender (Matthew 7:14)

Elisabeth Elliot said: “One does not surrender life in an instant. That which is lifelong can only be surrendered in a lifetime.”

This is a challenging thought to me, because I belong to a particular strand of Christian belief and praxis which sometimes emphasises the milestones almost to the point of misunderstanding the journey. We celebrate conversions -especially dramatic conversions- rather than discipleship programmes. It’s like focusing on the wedding day, and paying no attention at all to the process of living in partnership.

Further, this emphasis informs our hermeneutic. We tend to read Scripture in a certain way, invariably highlighting crisis rather than process.

The truth is, of course, that both belong together.

The narrow gate

Jesus taught, for example, that “Narrow is the gate that leads to life and few there are who enter it.”(Matthew 7:14). The conversation around this verse has reduced it to a very specific, dogmatic list of “do’s and dont’s.”

“Walking through the narrow gate means exactly this:…”

While there definitely are some defining characteristics of walking the “narrow way,” it can’t be contained in a limited list of behaviours and achievements.

I’ve also heard people use this verse to back up the idea that being a Christian is really, really hard. The hardest kind of life you can live. But is it really? I can think of many things that would make my life much harder to bear, and being a Christian isn’t one of them.

But one of the hardest things to go through in life is, in fact, change and transformation. Moving house -take it from me- is a major cause of stress. Often, trauma is the result of sudden and unexpected dramatic change in situation, world view, security, family and more. Sometimes we do all we can to put off change, skirt around it… avoid it. And while “new beginnings” can sometimes sound appealing, they seldom come about easily and without discomfort.

Our addiction to pain medication, fad diets, money making schemes, anything promising fast results, should tell us that transformation is not something we go through willingly.

Transformation usually happens when something old falls apart. We’re forced into it, in a way, primarily because we would never enter into it purely of our own accord. If I were to ask you what events have significantly shaped your life and world view, you’re probably not going to come back to me with a nice anecdotal story about the last time you were on holiday. For me, it’s been the “edge-of-life” experiences and circumstances that have deeply transformed and shaped me. The hard stuff.

Transformation is a narrow, difficult, hard journey to take. It’s one that we can choose to embrace or ignore. It’s one where we can surrender our need for control and security, or where we can white-knuckle on to the old until it is torn from our fingers painfully and at great cost. It’s one that we can choose to embrace or ignore.

Maybe we emphasise ‘conversion’ because we are a culture of efficiency and speed, impatient with gradual and incremental growth. Interior work often takes time, contemplation, and vulnerability. Pain, any kind of deconstruction and change invites us to listen on a deeper level and to participate in the transformation happening within us and around us. It’s a kind of chaos that also has a real beauty despite all the difficulty.

It’s a life long “finding,” of surrendering to the process of God at work in us. It’s the lifelong choice of adopting a posture of surrender. We choose to open the gate and walk upon the narrow road. This is what Jesus invites us into. The verse goes on: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” The gate leads to a path, a way. The Greek word hodos was actually used to describe the first followers of Jesus. Followers of the Way.

And what other choice is there to make?

Bu tit’s an ongoing choice.

The gate of heaven

There’s an illustration of this in the life of Jacob. Do you remember that moment in his long (and difficult) journey when he recognises the presence of God in almost the same terms? “This is the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Truly, God is in this place and I, I did not know.” He was afraid and said, “How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than a house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”

Rising early in the morning, Jacob took the stone he had used for his pillow, and set it up as a monument, pouring oil over the top of it. He named the place Bethel.” —Genesis 28:10-19

Truly, God is in this place. It took a crisis in Jacob’s life for the reality to hit him. He’d run for his life, and lost everything he’d held dear. It was all gone now. Life had pulled the carpet from under him. He felt sick and alone. And suddenly his dream had changed everything. Maybe that’s why Peter wanted to build booths on the Mount of Transfiguration. He wanted to encapsulate the moment. He tried to rebuke Jesus for talking about the cross and suffering. But this glory was something else! “This is special! This is epiphany, revelation…. I’m suddenly seeing Jesus for real!”

And he anoints the rock. Did you see that? He identified the place, the rock, as holy, sacred, special. He christens it. The verb means “anointed.” God’s here, but I didn’t see it.

I believe the Scriptures say that reality was christened or anointed from the very beginning, from the first moment of its inception. We just don’t see it. That’s why the New Testament talk about Christ and creation in the same breath. That’s why “Christ” means.

But Jacob was startled by a new awareness of sacredness: “This is the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Throughout the Bible we see a growing recognition of God’s all- pervasive, ever-invading Presence. Reality is soaked with Presence from the first meeting of Spirit and matter in the first line of the Bible (Genesis 1:1). The anointing oil doesn’t make anything sacred as such; it simply reminds both the anointer and the anointed of what was already the case. Oh I see! The penny has dropped! Now I understand.

We have this split between “sacred” and “secular.” It runs deep. Priesthood is described as “taking holy orders” and priests are “ordained” in a special ceremony which often includes anointing with oil. But the Bible says “The earth is the Lord’s…” Every bit of it. We just don’t see it. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” “The invisible qualities of God are evident in what he has made.” This is a holy, anointed place. We just didn’t see it.

Deciding what is anointed and what is not, is not our call to make. This entire world is soaked through and through with Christ, with divinity, like an electron planted in every atom. As Paul writes, “Creation retains the hope of being freed . . . to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God. . . . We are all groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:21-22). We thought we could torture animals, pollute the earth, kill people who we deemed not Christ-soaked because we thought it was up to us to decide: “She’s got the anointing and he doesn’t.” Only God decides what to anoint—which, thank God, is all of creation and all of humanity from the beginning. No exceptions.

Our Christian word for all anointed reality is “Christ.” The lifelong surrender to which we are called is to see God in every place, in every person, in every encounter. Truly God in is in this place.

Including – and here’s the climactic centre of our faith – Golgotha.

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“Among you, it will be different…” A Jesus-oriented pattern of leadership

Matthew’s Gospel contains a lot of information about leadership within the new community of faith gathering around Jesus. More specifically, the pattern of life that Jesus modelled becomes in itself the model of how to lead. It is a form of what has been called ‘servant leadership, based upon such texts as this: “But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:26)

But what does “servant leadership” really look like? Much theological training is training to be in a position of power – for example, proclamation has become about ‘you listening to me’. How well does this posture resonate when the church is on the margins? And how true is it to the spirit of Jesus?

Margaret Wheatley is a researcher of organisational behaviour. She writes: “I’m sad to report that in the past few years, ever since uncertainty became our insistent 21st century companion, leadership has taken a great leap backwards to the familiar territory of command and control.” 

There are a number of points to underline here. First comes the word “sad” which provides its own challenge. Are we truly “sad” when we lose our grip? The idea lies at the back of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) and requires some unpacking and self-analysis. Second is the idea of “insistent uncertainty.” And third, finally, there is a ringing condemnation of “the familiar territory of command and control.” 

In Matthew 24, Jesus tells a story which, broadly, is about living in readiness for the “return of the king.” But how do we live together? The story acknowledges the need for structure, organisation and leadership. So what do servant-leaders look like? Jesus is explicit: “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns.

In a modern workplace context, the slave would be equivalent to a manager with a duty to the owners while managing other workers. The owner’s interests are met only when the workers’ needs are met. The manager has responsibilities to both those above and below him in authority. Jesus says that it is the servant leader’s duty to look to the needs of those under him as well as those above him. He cannot excuse himself for mistreating those under his authority by claiming it is somehow for the benefit of his superiors. He depicts this reality dramatically in the punishment meted out to the worker who cares only for his own interests (Matt. 24:48-51).

There’s a duty of pastoral care here, and a useful picture of leadership as stewardship, rather than control. And there can be no greater training for true leadership than living in the daily humility of serving, giving, sharing, considering, noticing… It’s what Richard Rohr called “the naked now,” where we continually pray “Give us this day our bread for today,” knowing that we ourselves become the bread, blessed, broken and given.

And here, we can set aside our own mental constructs, receive input and ideas from all directions, and lead even more creatively and imaginatively—with the clearer vision of one who lives beyond himself or herself. This is surely why some of Christianity’s great mystics, such as Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), and Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), were also first-rate leaders, motivators of others, and creative reformers of institutions.

Here are some insights into what every good, servant-hearted, non-dual leader knows and practices, whether in community, in the workplace, or in the classroom. Creative leaders:

  • are seers of alternatives.
  • move forward by influencing events and inspiring people more than by ordering or demanding.
  • know that every one-sided solution is doomed to failure. It is never a lasting solution but only a postponement of the problem.
  • learn to study, discern, and search together with others for solutions.
  • know that total dilemmas are very few. We create many dilemmas because we are internally stuck, attached, fearful, over-identified with our position, needy of winning the case, or unable to entertain even the partial truth that the other opinion might be offering.
  • know that wisdom is “the art of the possible.” The key question is no longer “How can I problem solve now and get this off my plate?” It is “How can this situation achieve good for the largest number and for future generations?”
  • continue finding and sharing new data and possibilities until they can work toward consensus from all sides.
  • want to increase both freedom and ownership among the group—not subservience, which will ultimately sabotage the work anyway.
  • emphasize the why of a decision and show how it is consistent with the group’s values.

In short, good leaders must have a certain capacity for thinking beyond polarities and tapping into full, embodied knowing (prayer). They have a tolerance for ambiguity (faith), an ability to hold creative tensions (hope), and an ability to care (love) beyond their own personal advantage.

Because “among you it will be different.” Jesus taught his disciples not to emulate the rulers of the Gentiles who exercised authority over them. Instead, He taught that in order for us to be leaders, we must become servants first. We must not conform to the status quo especially if it entails ruling through coercion and control over those we lead.

The Jesus Way is much lower down the food-chain, as Paul pointed out: “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) Leaders are humble and do not boast. They are also encouraging of others, and do not belittle anyone just because of their lack of capacity in some area They see potential in the uniqueness of their people.

Among you, it will be different. Let’s reflect on leadership in our world, leadership as modelled by our Christ, and the reality to which we are summoned.

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When hearing becomes doing (James1:22)

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

James began with an encouragement to those undergoing hard times. They shouldn’t think, he says, that God is behind their sufferings, for God gives only good gifts.

This theme — the goodness of what God gives — becomes the starting place for the present section (beginning in verse 17). By the way, the phrase “shadow of turning,” familiar to many from the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” comes from the end of verse 17. The goodness of God is substantial, consistent and unwavering. So human beings, brought forth by this good God are to reflect God’s goodness in the world. It’s very Jesus, isn’t it? Charles Dickens made the same, wonderful point: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it to anyone else.” Mother Teresa: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”

So where does this trajectory begin?

First, quick to listen

Then the author urges his readers to “Know this!”, and we stiffen, ready for the main point. What follows, then, may surprise us: we are to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (v 19). Is this our purpose as Christians? Not going out and preaching? Not teaching and baptizing? We are fso task-oriented that we tend to think speaking beats listening, so this command is unexpected,. It forces us to…uh…listen. So pay attention.

From this unexpected starting place James develops an argument that may make us uncomfortable. He creates a set of connections and oppositions that links “mere” hearing to quick, angry, and unprofitable speech, and ultimately to self-deception. On the other side are “doing” and meekness (and no mention of speech at all!), which lead to blessedness. Those of us whose work for God consists largely in crafting theological language and speaking it are beginning to squirm.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like playing religious games. Churchianity.

One of the notable features of James is the author’s use of vivid, concrete images that, parable-like, both illustrate the author’s points and leave enough ambiguity to tease our minds into active thought (like the parables of Jesus). Presumably the point of looking into a mirror (verses 23-24) is to tell us something about ourselves — our hair needs combing, our lipstick is on crooked — that we remember at least long enough to address the issue. Who checks her hair in a mirror and then forgets to comb it? But the one who hears without doing, James implies, has what one of my students called “moral Alzheimer’s,” a kind of deep forgetfulness that leaves the religious self unable to function fully.

So this is what James tells us: that we are to be quick to “hear,” because not hearing enough leads us, apparently inevitably, to speech that is angry and unproductive. But hearing alone is not sufficient. We must also “do,” because failing to act is evidence of a fundamental failure to function as God’s goodness in the world.

Second, just do it

In what, then, does our religion consist? Perhaps the second startling turn in this passage is not so unexpected, after all, to those who have followed the argument leading up to it. Authentic religion, according to James, is this:

  • caring for orphans and widows in their distress
  • keeping oneself unstained from the world

That’s it. The care of “orphans and widows” means working on behalf of the less fortunate, since in the ancient world widows and orphans were the most vulnerable members of society, singled out for special consideration also in biblical law and prophetic pronouncements. And since such work would necessarily bring one into contact with unbelievers and with the seamier side of human existence, believers are supposed to be careful to avoid participation in practices contrary to their Christian ethic.

Certainly these are important facets of most Christians’ understanding of their religion. They would likely make many Christians’ “top ten.” But James challenges us to imagine a Christianity in which these are vital. What would such a faith and practice look like?

A little less conversation…

Perhaps, if we as Christians were to follow James’s precepts, we would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening. We would forswear anger and self-deception. We would measure our faith by our personal relationships, both in our habits of speech and our relationships with others in the community. Our primary expression of our religion would be in outreach to the poor and neglected. By such attitudes and actions, James tells us, we fulfil the divine purpose and become first fruits of all God’s creatures.

According to the gospel of St Elvis:

A little less conversation, a little more action, please
All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me
A little more bite and a little less bark
A little less fight and a little more spark…

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