For the past few months I have been looking ahead at the lectionary and early each week writing a post, “Frist Thoughts on the Lectionary.” This week I would like to include this post as part of the discussion Diana Trautwein has created, called “Living the Questions”. This week’s question is “What’s with all this talk about ‘sin?”
In my post last week on the Lectionary for February 2, I wrote about the famous Micah 6:8 text:
…and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I wrote that somehow in my later years I have become identified as the “justice” person at my church. Doing justice is sometimes very hard work and one gets one’s hands dirty. One makes enemies. At times I have been charged with arrogance and stubbornness.
I went on to say that I would rather be known as someone who loves kindness than as someone who does justice. My father was the most humble man I have even known and I have always tried to be like him.
Then I looked at the Lectionary for February 9, and this is the first thing I read:
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
I don’t get a break.
But in the context of Diana’s question “what’s with all this talk about sin?” I would like to discuss what kind of sins Isaiah is talking about here which is supposed to be announced to the house of Jacob. I want to talk about what I have learned about the difference between personal sin and systemic sin.
I grew up in the reformed tradition. In fact, Diana came to my church sometime in her Jr. High years. She wrote in her post:
“Then we moved and began attending a different church, one where I came to know Jesus in a much different way.”
That was my church. Diana and I sang in the same youth choir every Sunday night. I remember one anthem that I think we sang as a response at every Sunday Evening service. The text is from Psalms: 51
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence,
And take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
I have said that prayer (with full harmonization in my head) more than any prayer in my life, and it has always been restorative. I do understand the power of sin and I understand the Christian message that God has promised us that God will dwell within us and help us to have a clean heart and right spirit. This knowledge has been with me all of my life and I am so grateful for my home church for instilling that assurance in me.
In the past eighteen years I have become involved with a small Nicaraguan faith community that falls itself “the church of the por.” They were formed in the 1970’s as part of the Catholic Church’s pastoral strategy in response to Vatican II. Liberation Theology permeates their worship life, community life, and songs. Through their tradition I have come into awareness of the concept of “systemic sin.”
I think the prophet Isaiah, when he was told by God to announce to the house of Jacob their sins, was to tell the people that they had abandoned their whole tradition, their religion, their covenant with God and with each other. I think this also might be the kind of thing John the Baptist was preaching to the Priests and Pharisees when he called them a brood of vipers. They had abandoned their role of being the religious leaders of their people and had become the lackeys for the Roman government.
Another text from the lectionary for next week is from the fifth chapter of Mathew. It is from Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I believe that when Jesus talks about the law and the prophets, he is talking about all of the texts that describe how the people of Israel are to relate to each other and to God – how to be a covenantal community. I am not a theologian, but I believe that Jesus was calling people back to a vision of living as a community in right relationship with God.
Sometimes we have trouble looking at the judgmental texts of Jesus. If we take these texts as condemning individuals, they are harsh indeed. But if we understand that they are judgments against systemic sin, a general cultural abandonment of the values of their religion, we can pay more attention to them and learn from them.
I wonder about the general materialism of our culture. Might not this be such an example of “systemic sin?”