Spiders, Snakes, and Our Ranking of Sin

I've met lots of people who don't like spiders and snakes. Many of them proclaim they are deathly afraid of these creatures of God. If we talk about it, some will tell me they know deep down that snakes and spiders are not the dangerous beings of their inner fantasy life. Regardless, they are not willing to confront those fear or put their science to the test.

I served a church in which the former pastor had one of those irrational fears of snakes. He was not the only one, however, as there were plenty of his parishioners who shared his fears. He never would have survived 30 years in the parsonage if he had been as afraid of spiders as he was of snakes.

None of them ever attacked him. The wolf spiders so prevalent all over, under, around, and in the parsonage were never a danger. The black snakes constantly patrolling the woodshed and hay fields never harmed him or anyone else. The fear remained, however irrational it might be considered.

In many ways that is how we approach our rankings of sin. We look at those concerns we have been taught to consider sinful and make no regard for why this might or not be the case. Nor do we use any real depth of study to ponder how closely our concepts of sin are to what the Bible declares in regard to God's take on sin. More often than not, we allow our fears and fantasies to prevail, giving little effort at understanding.

As many evangelical Christians, I was raised on a diet of condemning the Pharisees of Jesus' day for misunderstanding sin. I was led to believe there was one Jewish notion regarding sin, and that was the notion that all Pharisees of Jesus' day adopted. Sin was breaking one of the 613 commandments of God appearing in the Torah. They counted commandments and determined it was necessary to keep at least half of them perfectly. As long as one fully kept at least half the commandments, they would be OK in God's eyes.

It was justified to laugh at such a ridiculous notion. It was justified to feel superior in our higher understanding that choosing which commands to follow and which to break was anything other than laughable and a disastrous theology. What we did not see was that we were enmeshed in the very same trap we caricatured as the doctrine of First Century Judaism.

The problem with that concept was not so much that it was held by many Jews in Jesus' day. The problem was not that they had a mathematical formula for guaranteeing justification in God's eyes. The problem was not that they zealously reflected on how to avoid falling into sin by some error or mistake. The problem was that they failed to understand what sin actually is, as well as grasping the larger picture of God's will for our lives.

Those are the issues Jesus confronted in individuals who held such notions. He told them to scrap their mathematical models regarding God's commandments. He told them to shift their understanding of those commands as not following some larger design and purpose. He reclassified them into two very specific commands: “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Instead of hanging onto this new approach to understanding sin and commandment, we just made new categories of sin and commandments. We developed new structures to avoid certain sins, while ignoring God's repeated commands in other aspects of our lives and relationships.

In all things economic, we redirected our attention to two concerns. Tithe regularly of all your income to the church and make special offerings for good causes like missions. If we followed those two specific applications, we could just simply ignore God's teaching regarding economic justice for the poor, generosity designed to end poverty, and the enslavement of others for personal advancement. After all, if the church was not in charge of designing economic policy for governments, we did not have any responsibility over such things. We could just substitute the American Dream or a Prosperity Gospel for what God had to say on those issues. We focused on issues of eternity and just ignored God's economic teachings as part of that pesky “Love your neighbor as yourself” thing.

We focused the attention of the church on issues that were a little more remote from our day-to-day living, considering things like playing cards, divorce, women preachers, rock music, homosexuality, tattoos, piercings, atheism, communism, and mowing grass on Sunday as the great evils we needed to counter. We could feel justified and righteous in casting shame over such things, especially as they were somewhat removed from life within the church. By contrast, Jesus taught that we needed to focus on our own issues rather than preaching against the evils of the society beyond our influence. Jesus did not address the great ills of Rome, but those issues that impacted the lives of his own disciples and the crowds who followed him.

While Jesus called us to introspection, determining how our actions evidence love for God and our fellow human beings, we just wanted to feel superior, right, and justified. It was a trap, and it is still a trap we live within.

Divorce was once something we considered the great evil of society. That was until we actually came to know people who were divorced. That was before we started to hear stories of abuse and neglect with which we could identify. That was before divorce became personal with children, parents, siblings, and friends finding themselves in desperate situations needing an escape valve. It is one thing to condemn people in a vacuum. It is quite another to recognize the value of a person beyond a definition of actions we were told to define as unacceptable.

The Hebrew Scriptures contained rules and regulations we class as purity laws. They were designed to create distance between the Hebrews and the fertility cult practices of the nations around them. As part of the emphasis on worshipping Yahweh alone, these regulations were designed to ward them off from falling into idolatry. The context of the nation had changed drastically by the time Jesus enters the scene and ignores the laws on ritual purity. Within those regulations were those commands about tattoos, piercings, contact with blood, ritual hand-washing, and touching people with leprosy.

In the original context, many of those commandments made sense in regard to worshipping only Yahweh, but do not really apply today. Tattoo art is not tied to fertility cult worship today. Eating pork has little to no association with stealing the life force of a pig to grant one greater virility and power. As such, those commands no longer function under the banner of reserving worship for Yahweh, loving Yahweh alone as God. Neither do they impact our relationships with others in regard to loving one another.

In practice, however, we still hang onto those misdirected conceptions of sin that divorce God's directions from teaching us what it means to love God and one another. We have developed phobias about certain categories of sin that directly impede any demonstration of God's love toward others.

Rather than acting redemptively toward others, we treat them like we treat spider and snakes. We frame our attitudes and responses along the lines of irrational fears that have no grounding in science, nor in an honest reading of the good news Jesus preached.

Contact with people who are transgender is not contagious any more than shaking the hand of someone with a tattoo will spread ink within our own skin. Loving someone who is an immigrant is no different than loving someone who is a missionary. Feeding someone who is a scientist or an artist is no different from feeding the child of a drug addict or a medical student. Being friends with an ex-convict, a school teacher, an engineer, or a pastor's spouse is no different than befriending a cancer patient or an organ donor.

It is more sinful for us to write people off because of our prejudices regarding condemnation for sin than it is to befriend them. That's because Jesus taught that the flip side of loving God is to love one another, regardless of which class or category we might use to describe them. We can be as disgusted as we want over someone whose lifestyle does not meet our standards. Until we move beyond that to embrace another as a child of God for whom Jesus died, we are living out of unwarranted fear rather than loving a neighbor as ourselves.

Oh, and the Bible has more to say about failing to love one another than it does about condemning others for living in their sin. When we fail in our love and acceptance of others, we are actually living in our own sin, aren't we?

©Copyright 2018, Christopher B. Harbin


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