What comes to mind when you hear the words ‘sin’ or ‘sinners’?
It might conjure to mind the image of a hypocrite passing judgement and pronouncing a sentence of disapproval over other people. It might conjure to mind a libertine, revelling in the very behaviours that would draw the disapproval of the hypocrites. It might conjure to mind the image of an allowance of certain treats within a dieting plan. It might not conjure to mind any image at all.
In the Gospels, one of the essential differences between Jesus and his critics is their views on how to respond to sin and sinners. Jesus’ view is extremely positive.
First, we need to note that within the understanding of both Jesus and his critics, sin is primarily concerned with being in debt; sinners, therefore, being those who are in debt. The old term ‘publicans and tax-collectors’ refers to public contractors, to speculators who invested in supplying the needs of the occupying Roman army or in the Roman ‘tax farming’ scheme. (Tax farming is a means by which governments can turn future and uncertain revenue into fixed rents over a certain period, by auctioning the rights to collect tax within a particular area. The money paid for those rights is seen as a loan to the government, which might be paid back with interest depending on the uncertain future going well. In addition, any tax collected in addition to the original bid for rights is counted as pure profit. In this system, the speculator carries almost all of the risk.)
The ‘sinners’ in the Gospels are those who are in debt. They are in social debt, traitors to the community, ritually defiled by their daily contact with Gentiles. They are likely in financial debt, having made a speculative outlay in the hope of a future return. They are in moral debt, resorting to extortion and other forms of corrupt practice in order to maximise their return on their investment. Prostitutes are also considered among the ‘sinners’, and they too are steeped in a debt system, sex slaves.
It seems to me that an understanding of sin and sinners describing a social system built on and sustained by speculative debt and holding one another in debt is absolutely current as a description of the society I live in and am bound-up in. But why would I state that Jesus’ view is extremely positive?
Jesus consistently associates with ‘sinners’. When he is challenged on this, by those who believe that it is God’s will that ‘sinners’ be punished and who punish them by ostracising them, Jesus’ response is that it is the sinners he has come to call. It is as if Jesus befriends those who have felt that they have no option but to go to a loan shark … but also befriends the loan sharks, who are just as caught up in the system … and the bankers – we, too, might want to challenge him on this!
In contrast to his critics, Jesus’ view of ‘sin’ is that it is something to be forgiven – that debts are to be written off, cancelled – that ‘sinners’ are to be shown mercy, not punishment (Matthew 9//Mark 2//Luke 5). Forgiveness breaks down the entire system – which is what makes Jesus so dangerous.
Where Jesus speaks ‘hard words’ about sin, he does so:
to convey the need to do whatever you can to not get into debt (if your eye or your hand causes you to sin – is leading you into debt – cut it out of your body, Matthew 5:29, 30);
to promise that one day God will remove all causes of debt (Matthew 13:41);
to starkly contrast the system of speculating for profit with an approach of giving where there is no hope of return (Luke 6);
to spell out that if the people will not listen to him they will die in their sins, enslaved by systemic debt, destroying themselves (John 8).
Jesus’ message in relation to sin is entirely one of setting sinners free. Nowhere does Jesus claim that sin is something for which God demands a punishment to be paid.
Nowhere? What about his parables? What about the parable of the king who writes off the ridiculously unpayable debt of a servant but then throws that servant in prison for refusing to write-off the small debt of another servant? Or the parable of the king who has a guest thrown out of the wedding banquet he is throwing for his son, because they are inappropriately dressed?
These are stories, and must be understood in the context of their telling. They are both stories of throwing the king’s generosity back in his face, in the one case by insisting on the restoration of a debt-system the king has just acted to dismantle, and in the other making an explicit political statement against the king (‘you cannot buy me with an invitation to your table!’) through deliberately dressing in a disrespectful and utterly inappropriate manner. These are stories that highlight the distance between God’s approach and ours. These are stories to encourage the hearer to respond to God’s mercy by stepping out of the system of indebtedness, of any outstanding debt other than a debt of love towards one another. I would suggest that the point of the stories is not to tell us that God will respond in the way that the king in the stories responds at the end; but, rather, to pose the question of us: ‘Would you rather that God respond in this way? Really?’
This is why Jesus is relentless in calling for forgiveness. If someone wrongs me, I place them in debt to me. By refusing to forgive them, I raise a compound interest that guarantees they will never get out of debt to me. By choosing to forgive, I dismiss any claim to repayment, but also any claim to hold them in debt (which is what the debt system really relies on).
There is one place where Jesus links his death with ‘sin’ and that is in offering his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).
This leads some to believe that God requires a punishment to be paid for sin – and, in Jesus, takes that punishment upon himself (Jesus being in very nature God). My problem with this view is that it is fundamentally opposed to anything Jesus has to say about sin or God’s intention towards sinners or how sin must be dealt with. Forgiveness does not require punishment. God certainly disciplines us, but that is not the same as punishment: when I require of my children that they keep their room tidy, it is not a punishment. Jesus certainly says, repent, change, go and sin no more; but that is not a punishment.
Some argue that the injustice of sin in all its forms calls for justice – and I agree: love and justice are certainly not opposed. However, there is more than one kind of justice. There is retributive or punitive justice, that imposes a penalty; and there is restorative justice, that brings enemies together, confronting them with the consequences of their actions, with the intention of making friends. I would suggest that satan, the accuser, always calls for retributive or punitive justice; and that Jesus, the one in whom God is perfectly revealed and in and through whom God is reconciling all things, always calls for restorative justice – as embodied in the response of the tax-collector Zacchaeus to make right what he had extorted.
Here is how debt works: it extends the promise of life, only to deliver death. It entices us in, only to demand a cost we cannot repay. Borrow more to consume more, and never be satisfied. And we are all caught up in the system of debt: every last one of us.
Through his death, Jesus fatally wounds the whole system of indentured slavery. He becomes, to all appearances, a ‘publican’ – a sinner – by taking on the liability for our debts, offered by the Prince of this World. Except that the debt-system knows it will never deliver … and Jesus knows that too: this is not speculation in the hope of profit, but a self-giving with no hope or expectation of return. This is not telling people not to gamble and then putting every penny on a horse because you are feeling lucky, or have some inside knowledge. Nor is it simply transferring our indebtedness from a satanic creditor to a divine one, leaving us still in debt. This is giving of yourself, because self-giving is the antithesis of the debt-system.
The ‘problem’ for the debt-system is this: forgiveness cancels debt, sets both the one who is forgiven and the one who forgives free from the debt-system. Life freely given for the forgiveness of sins – Life that refuses to hold anyone in its debt – puts an end to sin and death, and opens the door for life.
The parables still stand. I can conclude that God is merely attempting to buy me (in which case, integrity would demand that I rebel, by any and every means). I can insist on rebuilding a system that continues to hurt everyone. Or I can claim that I am a sinner who has been forgiven, and instructed to do the same for others.
I can recognise the extent to which I am complicit, can seek forgiveness, can extend forgiveness, and call on others to do likewise. And in so doing, I participate in the ongoing restorative justice executed at the cross …