Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5: 12-19, Matthew 4: 1-11
Does it matter to Sin?
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Ps. 32:1)
Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and
So death spread all because all have sinned—sin was indeed in the world before the
Law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. (Romans 5:12)
On the first Sunday in Lent we begin our worship service with the opening words of the Great Litany:
“Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers; neither reward us according to our sins.” And then we petition to God: “Spare us, good Lord,
Spare thy people” (BCP p.148).
Also the psalmist in Psalm 32 reflects back on the strain of life lived under the sway of sin (Vv.3-4). This painful recollection gives this psalm a penitential tone, which fits well with the Lenten mood realizing the power of sin. The word sin has strong negative connotations. In our popular culture there is a widespread, almost universal, loss of any sense of sin. We are a generation which is into self-esteem building and empowerment and self-gratification. When we speak of God, we want to know him as the God of grace. Does sin really matter or is it a religious fancy? After all, don’t we try to lead good lives?
Language such as sinners and miserable offenders immediately dredges up negative feelings of low self-esteem. We notice that some of these old words simply have become fossils and do not work anymore especially among the young people. In Harper’s Magazine Lewis Lapham proposes that instead of using negative images about sin, he suggests the merger of the seven deadly sins with the seven cardinal virtues. The intention of this satirical solution is to downsize the virtues by recognizing the practical virtues of sin. He is of the opinion that heaven and heaven’s values have become redundant to North Americans who have created their own heavens on earth. Virtues do not meet the requirement of the global market, Lapham explains, while, on the contrary, sins sustain the stock market, keep employment rates high, excite speculation, and satisfy the public appetite for sexual and political intrigue. “Trim out the fat of the seven virtues,” he says, “and nothing bad happens to the price of real estate or the Dow Jones industrial average; take away the seven deadly sins, and the country goes promptly broke.
Let me give you briefly the list of seven deadly sins Lapham is talking about. They are pride (superbia), envy (invidia), wrath (ira), sloth (acedia), avarice (avaritia), gluttony (gula) and lechery (luxuria). This heptalog has been a Christian way of naming the nature of sin. The first thing that strikes one about the Seven is that they don’t seem so “deadly.” Why worry about gluttony when murder is so prevalent among us? The Seven are the stock and trade of daytime soap opera TV, but they are hardly the most terrible things of which human beings are capable. Do we not realize that there are more spectacular sins e.g. political tyranny in Libya, ethnic hatred in Sudan, religious persecution in Pakistan, Egypt and Iran and racial violence which fail to make the list? One may argue that they are so ordinary that we may fail to see how terrible they warp our humanity. One may say, “Why my inner thoughts about Angelina Jolie could be harmful”? Let me give you an example that the lust of a couple of schoolboys, sneaking a look at the playmate of the month in Playboy, is fairly innocent stuff. And yet those same boys, surfing the web at forty, in the depths of pornography, betraying their marriage vows for an exercise of lust, seems to me different altogether, Nearly all of the Seven look fairly harmless as they appear among adolescents but repulsive, ugly when exercised in middle age. Regarded thus they remind us that sin is not so much the popular “doing what you know you are not supposed to do” but rather a perverted being who we are.
We also hear the echo in our culture that the church’s language of Sin and Salvation is part of the old colonial power for keeping control over people’s lives. Traditional religious language is being replaced by the language of spirituality which uses gentler words such as “stress-reduction,” “empowerment,” and “harmony.” In my own theological study in the last thirty years I have been introduced to the language of depth psychology from Freud and Erickson to become familiar with the language of sickness and health of the human soul. And, more recently as a Priest in the church, I have had to become more familiar with the language of the law and criminal justice to secure malpractice insurance for my parish so that we can stay in full compliance.
I am in fact grateful that I have learned these other languages since these are dominant in our culture today. But let me say, that I am not ready to quit and abandon the Church’s language, which offers a different paradigm for human failure. When we lose the Christian theological language and replace it with psychology, law and business we also lose the power to proclaim the good news of the gospel for the redemption and release of the sinful human soul. In my understanding there are no adequate substitutes for theological words like “Sin,” “Grace,” and “Salvation”. These words are not meant to be traded or given up for other words. Barbra Brown, an Episcopal priest says, “Replacing sin with “pathology” and repentance with “recovery” may make us feel better, but it will be hard for us to find this vocabulary in the Scripture.” Paul Tillich, a theologian, fifty years ago said that the great words of our religious tradition and heritage cannot be replaced, and that if we try to replace them, or talk around them, we find that our speech, religious or otherwise, is diminished.
As Christians we come to God with a penitent heart to confess our sins. The good news is that Jesus came to save sinners. We do not see God with a club standing to beat us down because we have failed him as miserable offenders. But as the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 reminds us, when the younger son comes to his senses he recognizes how he has hurt others in his human relationships. Accepting all this and holding himself accountable for his actions was the first act of “stress reduction” and a return to “harmony” with his family again. We call this the act of repentance. We may notice here that the father goes out to meet the returning wrongdoer and offers forgiveness before his son speaks any words of penitence. The father of the prodigal son is rejoicing for his son returning home as he says, “he is alive again! ... was lost, and is found!” The father, then, threw the biggest party on the block for his son.
During the Lenten season our emphasis is that we are never entirely free from sin; we still have moments of weakness, and we are always surrounded by temptations. Overcoming sin is a lifelong effort. To paraphrase Martin Luther, we are at the same time saved by God’s grace and still subject to sin; to use the parlance of addiction, we are always recovering sinners. Psalm 32 describes the dual reality that he joyfully embraces the joy of forgiveness but remains painfully aware of the power of sin.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
Shout for joy, all who are true of heart.
 Lewis H. Lapham, “Notebook: Asset Mangement,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1999), 12.
 William H. Willimon, Sinning like a Christian, Abingdon Press, 2005,Pp. 17-30
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word. 2010, Pp.32-37.