Monday, June 18, 2012

Look Again: Wages of Sin

GROSS KREUTZ, GERMANY - JANUARY 27: A merino lamb only a few days old stands in a pen at the Educational and Reserach Station for Animal Breeding (Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt fuer Tierzucht und Tierhaltung, or LVAT) in Brandenburg state on January 27, 2012 in Gross Kreutz, Germany. Hundreds of lambs have been born at the LVAT in recent weeks in the midst of the station's lambing season. Many of the lambs will be sold just before Easter, when they will have grown to a weight of over 40kg, as lamb is the traditional German Easter meal. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
I don't think it means what you think it means... 

Romans 6:23

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I've noticed that there is a perception that this means that people have earned death, as in their own death, as in death is cost of their actions. But it is framed as a payment, not a cost. Perhaps someone familiar with the language of the original manuscripts can speak to that. I don't claim it is an obviously flawed or indefensible way of reading it. But there is another way to look at it which may be serendipitous even if it isn't supported by such a linguistic analysis.

I read somewhere not too long ago that the meaning of the sacrifices in Judaism is sometimes misunderstood. The article was written by a Rabbi, and given that Christianity grew out of Judaism it made me think of the verse quoted above. I can't recall the name of the Rabbi, but her take on it was that the sacrifices at the temple were not about bribing God to overlook our sins but to remind us what the outcome of sin really looks like.

That is, here you have some innocent, unblemished young animal that is slaughtered and its blood spread around. It's a horror show. Just as Abraham killing his son Isaac would have been a gruesome and terrible thing. The idea then is to ask, "So was it worth it? All of the cruel, selfish, thoughtless things you did--were they worth this? The bloody slaughter of defenseless innocents?"

Look at the quote from Paul's Letter to the Romans again. Now imagine that someone came to your door and showed you pictures of slave labor by children, their raped and beaten mothers and sisters, and the polluted rivers from which they drink and said that this was your payoff for your indifference to economic and political systems from which you benefit. Not the cost, but the reward. Here you are, you've earned it!

I think there is a good reason for using a term like wages instead of "bill", "debt", "cost" or something else. If it is a bill, then it is something you worry about paying and makes you think about your own problems, which fits into those who see the crucifixion strictly in terms of substitutionary atonement. But as something you've earned, a perk or a bonus, it becomes more disturbing. There is no celebrating the crucifixion or gushing over being bathed in the blood of the innocent. Bloody sacrifice instead speaks to shame, to the terrible consequences to others of our own actions. That makes forgiveness much more uncomfortable and much more powerful.

There is speculation that animal sacrifice among the ancient Israelites was a replacement for the practice of human sacrifice thought to be common in the region. Bloody and gruesome indeed. And those who think Jesus was a lamb sacrificed in that tradition need to wonder why he wasn't killed on Yom Kippur, the actual day of atonement, rather than the Passover. But we don't need the theological spin. A good man, a holy man, who supposedly had realized his oneness with the source of all things, was killed for speaking truth to power. And not just any power, but religious collaboration with a militaristic police state that favored the wealthy over the poor. A death that has been replayed millions of times since in state sanctioned torture and murder over millenia.

And rumor has it, that holy man forgave. And many others who have faced such inhumane treatment have forgiven. Even those who your own actions and inactions have consigned to such a fate. Congratulations. Enjoy your reward. Now doesn't that serves as more motivation for repentance than horridly giddy hymns about the triumph of the cross and being covered in blood? Look again. I think some of you have missed something.
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