The Worst Sin?
What do you think is the worst sin?
That’s a question I have asked many Christians over several years, with largely predictable results. Even among those rare folk who give the (quote unquote) “right answer,” most of us never allow that truth to sink from our brains and lips into our hearts.
Most of the time, when I ask what the worst sin is, folks say things like: murder, rape, adultery, and the like. Maybe they mention some sort of sexuality they term deviant. Maybe they reference drugs. Often, folks name the sin they believe has hurt them the most or that they were taught is the most appalling.
There are two things that are interesting to me about this. The first is that we tend to condemn public sins more vehemently than private ones. Sins like lying, gluttony, gossip, and jealousy get more of a pass, since they are not as regularly visible as sexual sins or “arrest-able offenses.” But this only shows that we have forgotten what Jesus taught in Luke 12:2-3 and other places:
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (NIV11)
In God’s eyes, public and private have absolutely nothing to do with sin’s severity.
The second thing that is interesting to me is that our evaluations are deeply disconnected from the Bible.
There are topics the Bible spends hundreds and thousands of verses talking about and there are topics that appear in only a handful.
There are words of condemnation about offenses that may be found in nearly every book of the Bible, and there are those found only in one.
And far and away, there is one sin that is spoken against most vehemently, most frequently, and most absolutely. It is: injustice against the poor and needy. As we read in our scripture lesson, it is one sin God swears to never forget.
Human life matters to God, and those whose lives are most at risk of being extinguished are of primary concern to the God who imbued each of us with the Divine image.
God expresses concern for human life before the first folks ever leave Eden. The consequence of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—according to God in Genesis 2:17—is that “you will certainly die” (VOICE). The Hebrew conveys a much greater sense of immediacy to their death; the sense is “On the very day that you eat from it, you will absolutely, certainly, and completely die” (my own paraphrase). But God is (as Psalm 145 reads) “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psalms 145:8 NIV11); so God allows them to live, albeit with other consequences.
This concern for human life continues as a dominant theme throughout the Bible—concern not only for those who do right (like Abraham), but also for those who do terrible wrongs (like Cain). God is concerned not only for those through whom God seeks to make his name known (Israel), but also through the many aliens, sojourners, orphans, widows, poor, and marginalized of the day (think Rahab, Naomi & Ruth, Blind Bartemaeus, the Syrophoenician woman of Matthew 15, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, and so many more).
Over and over we hear God calling God’s people back to justice, such as in Jeremiah 7:5–7:
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. (NIV11)
Over and over we see God repelled by our worship because we sin against these at-risk bearers of God’s image, such as in these verses of Isaiah 58:5–7:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (NIV11)
With such obviously clear instructions, we too often blatantly ignore or manipulate biblical texts, so as to make them about other people instead of ourselves. Genesis 19 is one of these, a chapter that tells the all-too-familiar tale of Sodom and Gemorrah, which we make about other people by claiming the sin of Sodom was sexual in nature. That interpretation has even entered the English language through particular vocabulary we have developed.
But the Bible tells a different tale. The Bible reminds us that the sin of Sodom is one that we all commit when we commit injustice toward one another. Look in your Bibles—Ezekiel 16:49—and read the real reason for Sodom’s destruction: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (NIV11). It’s right there—in black and white—the sin of Sodom is that “they did not help the poor and needy”—they were instead self-centered, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed.
Pastor and scholar Christopher Wright has observed:
“Ironically, the one thing for which Sodom is famous in traditional Christian interpretations, the attempted violent homosexual rape in Genesis 19, is the one thing Ezekiel does not mention explicitly… Rather, he lists four things which all fall into the category of social and economic wickedness. The people of Sodom and its whole surrounding culture and society were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Sodom, then, was a culture of great pride, of affluent gluttony, and of complacent ease. It sounds familiar” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel, in “The Bible Speaks Today,” pp. 147-148).
Theologians Glenn Stassen and David Gushee note in their book Kingdom Ethics that
“By a conservative count, the four words for justice (two in Hebrew, and two in Greek) appear 1,060 times in the Bible. Hardly any concept appears so often. By contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear about 90 times. Yet we skip over the huge biblical emphasis on justice as central in God’s will” (p.345).
This is exacerbated by our translations, which do not clearly convey the Bible’s insistence on justice. The primary words for justice in Hebrew get translated as “righteousness” or “judgment,” which communicate something very different. In actually, these words mean a “delivering, community-restoring justice, and…judgment that vindicates the right of especially the poor or powerless” (Stassen & Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p.345).
Jesus & the Powerless
This primary concern for justice for the poor and powerless is the cornerstone on which Jesus’ entire ministry rests. Three gospels relate the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. All three tell us that the Holy Spirit descended and God spoke: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 NIV11).
God’s words at Jesus’ baptism are universally understood to be a reference to the Servant Song in Isaiah 42. Listen to the symbolism and (more importantly) the mission that is communicated herein:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope…
I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon
those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:14, 6-7 NIV11)
That last part should sound particularly familiar. The reason? Because it reads very similarly to verses found in Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus chose to read from for his inaugural sermon. As Luke tells the story in chapter 4, Jesus seeks out a particular place in the scroll, and reads these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18–19 NIV11)
As he begins to teach them, Jesus proclaims: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 NIV11).
Jesus did not only teach about God’s deep concern for the poor and powerless, he embodied it. He incarnated it. He fed the poor and hungry. He touched and healed those no one would even look at. He taught his disciples to share with those in need, to bring healing and wholeness to those who were broken. The Kingdom began in Jesus (cf. Kingdom Ethics, p.359).
Back to the Present
Why do you think so many Christians through the ages and in our world today choose to gloss over the more than 1000 verses that speak of God’s concern for this kind of justice?
I wonder if a primary reason is that most of us do not routinely suffer injustice. When this is the case, it is easy to become complacent and eventually deny that others suffer at all.
There is a battle raging in our nation right now—a battle that is fueled our failure to acknowledge that others’ experience of the world may be different than our own. It is pride to a ludicrous dimension. But peace can only be achieved by genuinely listening to one another—especially to those with vastly different experiences.
Our world is going to keep on fighting—the devil will continue sowing seeds of dissension in order to tear God’s good creation apart. But:
Perhaps we Christians can find the courage to follow the path of our Savior.
Perhaps we Christians can renew our commitment to God’s pursuit of justice for those on the margins of society.
Perhaps we Christians can”shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79).
And perhaps in doing so—in avoiding this “worst sin” of injustice and in living out God’s heart for true justice—God will indeed “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79b).