The word “sin,” as it relates to biblical scripture, comes from a word that means to miss the mark, fault, or moral failure (Strong 266). It is often where the conversation of Christian faith begins, in our failings before God. But what is that failure? What is the mark we miss? To listen to the American Church1, the goal is an unobtainable perfection, and to sin is to break some prescribed code. Failing to keep the code–whatever the fuck that looks like–drives us from perfection. Each wrong step takes us deeper and deeper into spiritual debt. But what if this understanding of sin is wrong? What if the goal is something else entirely? What if the goal is not perfection, but love?
The author of the Gospel of Matthew writes of a confrontation between Jesus and a young lawyer.
36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”(Mt 22.36-40)
The young lawyer challenges the disruptive teacher, Jesus, asking of all the commandments which is the most important. Jesus gives not one, but two commandments upon which “hang all the Law and Prophets.” God’s Anointed tells the audience that every law and every word of the prophets is founded upon loving God with all they are and loving their neighbors as they love ought to love themselves. He doesn’t say “don’t be gay,” “don’t have an abortion,” or “don’t vote for the Roman occupying forces,” he says that loving God and loving one’s neighbor encompasses the entire will of God2.
However, some in the church will remind us that Jesus had not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” and this is true, but Jesus also says: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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” (Mt. 5.17-19). This implies that the Law stands until it has been fulfilled. And the Law has been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul, the writer of several New Testament letters affirms this, saying:
For [Jesus Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, abolishing the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.(Eph 2.15-18)
Paul tells his audience that the “law with its commandments and ordinances” has been abolished, superseded by the work of Christ on the cross. The law has been fulfilled and in Christ a new humanity is created3. This, of course, is not to suggest that we are now free to live in a state of lawlessness wherein humanity may act according to selfishness.
If sin is not missing the mark or goal of perfection, what is it? I believe sin is failing to love God and our fellow human beings. To love God, I argue, is to first love the humans around us, the same who bear the imago dei–the image of God (Gen 1.26-28). Throughout the Gospels and the epistles (letters) we are given example after example of love crossing the boundaries and borders erected by the old Law. More convincing is the final judgement Jesus describes in an apocalyptic warning given in the Gospel of Matthew concerning the least of these:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.”(Mt 25.31-46)
Loving one another is the divine edict of the new kingdom. The “least of these” are not identified as those who share in our beliefs, customs, or traditions, but our fellow human beings–our neighbors. Jesus makes it clear that this is the standard by which we are judged.
If love is the mark for which we are to strive in faith, what hope is there in an American Christianity known for its cruelty, hatred, and pride? What hope is found in the christofascists railing against the fair and just treatment of the culturally and traditionally marginalized? What hope is to be found in those who repeat the same failures as the religious elite whom Jesus condemns in the Gospels? There is none.
What is sin? I believe it is a failure to love not just in words but in action. If faith without works is dead, this means faith is demonstrated by our works–and that work is love (Jas 2.14-26). And this love is made possible in following the Way of Jesus, that is, the way of love.
Again, what is sin? Failure to love God and failure to love our neighbor.
1 The “American Church” is a reference to the traditional mainline evangelical, fundamentalist, and charismatic protestant churches, as well as the protestant influenced Catholic Church in the U.S.
2 Note that Jesus does not put conditions on loving the people around us. It is not “love your neighbor as long as they fit your expectation of an acceptable person,” but to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Period.
3 See also: Acts 15.1-9; Rom 3.21-31, 7.6, 10.11-13; Gal 2; Phil 3.1-11; Col 2.6-19