The Jewish Mishnah is a record of the oral teachings or traditions of notable Rabbis who attempted to amplify or explain God’s revelation as expressed in the Torah. The Mishnah lists thirty-six deadly sins that may result in the offender being cut off from the community. To be “cut off” (Hebrew: Kareth) had various interpretations, but the most serious application of the punishment meant that the offender would be put to death and would be denied entrance into a higher spiritual afterlife. It is interesting to note that the first fifteen of these thirty-six transgressions are sexual sins.
When I shared this with a friend, he quipped, “Well, the Rabbis must have had a pretty good imagination to list fifteen different sexual sins.”
Whether or not the Rabbis had a good imagination is debatable, but it is clear that they expressed in no uncertain terms their utter distaste for the sins of the flesh and the sinners who committed them.
It occurs to me, however, that some of the religious leaders in Israel accused the greatest Teacher who ever lived of mingling and eating with sinners. As it turns out, the accusation is true. From the very start of His public ministry, Jesus interacted and placed Himself in the company of sinners.
Even a Roman Centurion, in the presence of the Savior, makes a confession that becomes a part of God’s Divine Revelation for future generations: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 ESV).
This simple, powerful statement should come as no surprise, for when Jesus talks about His impending death He predicts, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 ESV).
Jesus did not mean that His death draws a crowd of curious bystanders eager to see a spectacle. Make no mistake, the casual onlookers are there, but this is not what Jesus means. In another teaching, Christ uses an analogy to help us understand. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 ESV).
Just as Moses fashions a bronze serpent to save Israel from a plague of fatal snake bites, so Jesus sets Himself up as the remedy to save His people from certain death. And who are His people? Jesus says, “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” This is joyous, good news! The gospel of Jesus Christ does not exclude anyone from eternal fellowship with the Savior!
Sometimes we completely ignore the truth of the gospel in favor of an entirely different calculation. Somehow, we are uncomfortable with a universal call to sinners to come to the foot of the cross for healing. Religious people on the far right of the political spectrum are eager to point out what they believe are the horrific sins that degrade society. Homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion top the list of perceived transgressions they believe God hates more than all other sins. With some creativity, a person might be able to add a few more items to the list of fifteen sexual sins found in the Mishnah.
In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey just signed a bill that restricts almost all abortions. While it will certainly be challenged in the courts, this legislative action demonstrably proves that Christian zealots seem more determined than ever to force society to comply with their religious beliefs. Some of us have detected a double standard when it comes to these matters. While the religious right decries any sexual misconduct that results in abortion, they are at the same time willing to completely ignore the blatant sexual misdeeds of political leaders who are sympathetic to their cause.
The debate over which sins are most offensive to God is as old as time itself. Early Christians struggle to know whether or not to welcome uncircumcised gentiles into their fledgling church. The apostle Paul spends an inordinate amount of time combating the intolerant and divisive thinking that emerges almost immediately after the ascension of Christ. The church argues over which foods to eat, what laws to keep, the practical definition of chastity, Christian dress, how worship services should be conducted, and pretty much everything in between.
Through it all, Paul forges ahead and finally concludes, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV).
The Apostle Paul resolves to exclusively point people to the cross of Christ. There is a sense of resignation in these words. Paul wearies of the struggle and just wants to rest and rejoice in the knowledge that Christ paid the ultimate ransom for His children. But sadly, human nature is alive and well. The Christian Church puts up barriers to control membership. Church doctrines provide a litmus test for who is in the faith, and a list of deadly sins serve to sort people into general categories. These seven deadly sins, as identified by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
It is generally understood that all sins emanate from these seven categories and yet the third category seems to attract the most attention. Much like the Rabbis of old, modern society seems to be preoccupied with sexual sins. Some of our modern television talk shows illustrate this phenomenon. DNA results translate into uncontrollable tears, anger, certain choice words, and broken furniture. It turns out that people love to talk about sin and sit in judgment of sinners. The audience laps up every morsel of degradation and begs for more.
The Christian Church often mirrors society at large. We love to highlight the failings of our brothers and sisters in the faith. The third deadly sin, once again, seems to get the most attention. The sins of the flesh cause the rumor mills to go full tilt, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. These sins produce enduring stigmas and seem to have no meaningful forgiveness or redemption. Christians sabotage the universal invitation to accept Divine healing and instead create a separate category of unpardonable sins. Jesus says, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself, and whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
The Church is not so sure about such a simplistic approach to the sinners who walk among us. We rob some of our brothers and sisters of the joy and peace that comes from knowing that Jesus is more than able to, “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We purposely grant favor and acceptance to some, while we ostracize and dish out condemnation to others. We pretend to know the heart, when nothing could be further from the truth. We are even willing to sentence certain sinners to a lifetime of ridicule and shame. If we truly believe that God can forgive and transform the human heart, then we should not hesitate to extend the grace we claim for ourselves to every believer.
I fully realize that some people will read these words and acknowledge that God offers salvation to any sinner who repents, but at the same time believe that certain sinners should not be fully trusted or accepted into the earthly fold. It seems strange, however, that this way of thinking is never associated with the sins of pride, greed, or wrath. I think we have a hard choice to make. Either we believe that Christ can heal any repentant heart, or we believe that there are certain people who are beyond God’s ability to restore. I recognize there are those who have demonstrated a complete unwillingness to accept God’s transformation, and have no interest in being accountable to others in the community of faith. The church does have mechanisms to deal with extreme cases of ongoing misconduct. But when a believer in the congregation makes a confession of wrongdoing and is willing to be accountable, then we should recognize God’s power to heal any sin.
A Samaritan woman, ostracized by the other women in the village, comes alone to draw water from the well. Even though societal norms may have been quite different than what we are accustomed to in our day, I doubt seriously that human nature has changed very much. The religious leaders treat this woman with scorn because of her choices and lifestyle. It is easy, after all, to target sexual sins that are open and obvious.
Just as it was in ancient times, those who operate from a moralistic point of view are often quick to judge the outward appearance. They are adept at bringing attention to the exterior symptoms of sin. Jesus does not fit that model when dealing with human frailty. Jesus sees the heart and is able to address the deeper roots or causes of sin. And when it comes to this Samaritan woman, Jesus knows her background inside and out. He doesn’t excuse her sin, but He does let her know that she has value in the eyes of heaven. He wants her to see and experience the love of God. After her brief encounter with Jesus, this woman becomes a mouthpiece to share the good news. She runs back to the village to let everyone know; come and see the Man who knows all about me.
Jesus knows how to treat real sinners. I’m not speaking about those who vow to spend an extra fifteen minutes in daily prayer. I’m not talking about those who say they are going to be kinder to their co-workers. I’m talking about real sinners. I’m talking about people who deny Jesus and stand at a distance, while the angry mob takes Him to the cross. I’m talking about thieves, adulterers, and murderers. I’m talking about people who society has completely cast aside. Jesus says, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all of them to myself, and whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Jesus teaches that there is not one single person He cannot forgive and heal. Down through the ages of time, His words lift the broken hearted from despair and offer hope to the downtrodden. Help us to genuinely accept and believe in the healing, transforming power of our Savior. As we lift up Christ, the glory and power of His Spirit will guide our attitudes and mold us into ambassadors of heaven. As we get closer to the foot of the cross and embrace the principles of forgiveness and compassion, we can at last be a vessel of God’s love for those who have stumbled and fallen.
Leroy Sykes lives and writes from Alabama.
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