The weight of sin by Rev. Thomas Kleinert

Sin is an old-fashioned word for a powerful reality. I did a word search online with a news filter to see how the word is used these days in our public discourse outside of church and synagogue. The results were slim, very slim; I wasn’t surprised. Sin is a powerful reality, but we’re losing the language that allows us to name it.

In Jesus’ day, people spoke confidently of sin. The story of the woman who crashed Simon’s party is a good example. She’s introduced to us as a woman in the city, who was a sinner – apparently that was all that needed to be said. She was a sinner – what had she done, we wonder. And what about the rest, the dinner guests who had been invited and the host? What were they, who were they? Sin is a powerful reality, but when we begin to identify and label sinners, we wander into dangerous territory. When we talk about sinners without including ourselves, we deceive ourselves. When we think of sin as other people’s problem, we see specks in everybody’s eye, blinded by the log in our own.

The prophet Isaiah knew about sin and spoke words of accusation, confession, and lament, saying,

We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.

Isaiah spoke of our sins as a thing-like reality that hides God’s face from us, a barrier between us and God.[1] In the Old Testament, sin is known as a weight the community and individuals must bear; it is a burden that cannot be thrown off or placed on another’s shoulder – unless the shoulder belongs to the scapegoat and the one who places the burden of the community’s sin on it is the highpriest who has been instructed in the demands of holiness and the proper cultic responses whenever those demands have been violated.[2]

In the Old Testament, sin is also known as a stain that must be wiped away or something emerging from the ground like a weed that must be trampled down, but by far the most common way to speak of sin is in words recognizing it’s oppressive weight.

Another metaphor for sin that emerged after the Babylonian exile was debt. When the community or an individual violates the demands of God’s holiness and God’s righteousness, we are withholding what we owe as creatures and covenant partners of God; and unless we repent and pay what we owe, our debt only grows. The debt metaphor came from the world of moneylending. After a dry year, a farmer may have had to use his seed corn to provide food for his family. Then he borrowed money to buy seed, hoping that the next harvest would be bountiful so he could feed his family and repay the debt. If he was unable to repay the loan, he and often his wife and children, were forced to work as debt-slaves for the creditor until the loan was paid off. Debt was suddenly not a simple matter of borrowing and following a payment plan, but once again an oppressive experience of being crushed.

Sin is a powerful reality; it is the name we give to that which disrupts the shalom of God’s creation. Sin weighs us down and keeps us from growing to the full stature of creatures made in the image of God. Sin keeps us from knowing ourselves and each other as God’s beloved.

The word “sin” didn’t make the news this week, but much of this week’s news reflected sin’s destructive reality. One night in January of last year, two Stanford students biking across campus saw a man thrusting his body on top of an unconscious, half-naked woman behind a dumpster. In March of this year, a jury found 20-year-old Brock Turner guilty of three counts of sexual assault. He faced a maximum of 14 years in prison. On Thursday, he was sentenced to six months in county jails and probation. The judge said he feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on the former student and athlete. Do you feel the weight? Can you imagine the massive weight the young woman is bearing and the verdict’s “severe impact” on her? Can you imagine the weight young women on college campuses are bearing, the weight women everywhere are bearing?

Cory Batey is a former Vanderbilt student and athlete on a football scholarship; in April a jury here in Nashville found him guilty of aggravated rape in the assault of an unconscious woman in a Vanderbilt dorm room. His sentencing has been postponed until July; he’s facing 15-25 years in prison. Batey is black. Turner is white. Do you feel the weight?

The young California woman whom Turner assaulted, addressed him directly in court on Thursday. And she gave voice to the weight, but also to her rage and her hope that her words might wake us up. “You took away my worth,” she told Turner.

[You took away] my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today. (…) You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was “unconscious intoxicated woman”, ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All­ American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, my life was put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if I was worth something.[3]

Sin weighs us down and keeps us from growing to the full stature of creatures made in the image of God. Sin keeps us from knowing ourselves and each other as God’s beloved. Sin disrupts the peace of God’s creation, in a single violent act as well as in patterns of violence hidden in school policies, court procedures, and everyday cultural assumptions. Sin is a powerful reality, but we’re losing the language that allows us to name it. We may be tempted to place the burden on the shoulders of the young man or worse, of the young woman or of the judge, but we can’t pretend that the weight isn’t ours to bear.

Vice President Biden responded to the young woman’s statement in an open letter.

I am in awe of your courage for speaking out—for so clearly naming the wrongs that were done to you and so passionately asserting your equal claim to human dignity. And I am filled with furious anger—both that this happened to you and that our culture is still so broken that you were ever put in the position of defending your own worth.

(…) I do not know your name—but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed. Anyone at that party who saw that you were incapacitated yet looked the other way and did not offer assistance. Anyone who dismissed what happened to you as “just another crazy night.” Anyone who asked “what did you expect would happen when you drank that much?” or thought you must have brought it on yourself. You were failed by a culture on our college campuses where one in five women is sexually assaulted—year after year after year. A culture that promotes passivity. That encourages young men and women on campuses to simply turn a blind eye.

(…) [You were failed by] a culture that continues to ask the wrong questions: What were you wearing? Why were you there? What did you say? How much did you drink? Instead of asking: Why did he think he had license to rape?[4]

We don’t know the young woman’s name. She remains anonymous to protect her identity, but she is not a nameless victim, she is not “unconscious intoxicated woman.” She is a human being made in the image of God. She is a person with a dignity far beyond any of the labels we slap on each other.

In Luke’s story we meet a Pharisee and we’re quick to think of him as a self-righteous man, obsessed with his own holiness and the impurity of others and who touches whom or what. We meet a woman, introduced as a woman in the city, who was a sinner – as though that was all that needed to be said and everybody already knew who she was. Jesus calls the man by name, Simon, but in our minds he’s still the nameless Pharisee, not really a person, but a stick figure just big enough to make our labels stick.

But then Jesus tells his story about a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed what a worker earns in about two years, the other the equivalent of two months’ wages. And when they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. What a crazy story. Who’s ever heard of a creditor forgiving a debt simply because the debtor wasn’t able to repay? Simon hasn’t, but the woman clearly has. She has heard of Jesus, the friend of sinners, and she has come to offer her love and gratitude in an outpouring of tears, kisses, and fragrant ointment. Confident that God has welcomed her in love, she trespasses boldly to enter the males-only gathering and claim her true name as a person made in the image of God and redeemed by God.

The final word of the story is peace. That is the promise here, that in the end she and Simon and the rest of us can go in peace. The gospel promise is that God looks at us not as keepers or breakers of the law, but as beloved creatures, carrying a heavy burden, stumbling under the weight of sin, unable to free ourselves. God in Christ brings peace to creation, because God’s compassion is the heartbeat of God’s justice.

What do you think became of Simon? How did his life change after that memorable night? What became of the woman who reclaimed her true name as a beloved child of God? And what will become of you now that you’ve seen the face of God in Jesus, the friend of sinners?

[1] See Isaiah 59:1-14

[2] See Leviticus 16:21-22

[3] https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.iwogKN0Rr#.utdw9zj0g

[4] Ibid.

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