It is Hard to Say “Forgive me.”

To say “Forgive me” is difficult because we do not want to admit we have done something wrong or done something that is offensive to someone else. That is a basic trait of all humankind.  It began with the story of Adam and Eve in Eden: we want to be autonomous and run life the way we want to.

I can think of many examples where parents ask their child to apologize to someone for saying or doing something offensive, but the effort was far from being sincere.  We go through life saying “I’m sorry” without meaning it and  without thinking about why we should ask for forgiveness.

Asking for forgiveness is not asking someone to forget our offense.  Sometimes we hear people say, “Forget about it” or “Suck it up.” We don’t forget wrongs and carry them with us as excess baggage.

To say, “Forgive me,” is not asking the another person to excuse our behavior.  We are not asking for our offensive behavior to be tolerated.  We need to seek his or her forgiveness because what was said or done has not been excused or tolerated by them.

To say, “Forgive me,” is asking for reconciliation with another person.  It may not be possible for the other person to accept us.  It may not be possible for us to be friends or colleagues again.  Reconciliation may not happen, but we still need to ask for forgiveness for our sake.  We need to be assured that we have done everything possible for reconciliation to take place.

The biblical word  for “forgiveness” means “to dismiss” or “to let go.” This is what God does in his forgiveness of us.  As an example, we read in the newspaper of a judge who dismisses a charge against a defendant.  That person is then forgiven of any wrongdoing.  His or her record is clean.  When we ask God for his forgiveness, we  are asking for our record with him be made clean.  We are asking another person to give  us a  clean record with them and a fresh start in our relationship.

In his book “What’s so Amazing About Grace,” Philip Yancey tells a story about a man and wife who one night had an argument about how supper was cooked. It was so heated that night they slept in separate rooms. Neither has approached the other to say “I’m sorry” or to offer forgiveness, and they have remained in separate rooms years after the argument.  Each night they go to bed hoping that the other will approach them with an apology and forgiveness, but neither goes to the other.

Here are two people who desperately want reconciliation but cannot exercise the will necessary to bring it about.  One of them has to admit his or her part in the estrangement and ask for forgiveness.  When we ask for forgiveness we admit that we are wrong about something.  It might be a wrong belief, wrong attitude, or wrong behavior.

What if you think there is nothing about your relationship with God or another person that requires you to ask for forgiveness?  Once I had a very heated disagreement with a colleague and we were alienated.  I did not feel good about the distance the argument put between us, but I could not ask forgiveness for my position in the argument.  In thinking about it, I discovered I could ask forgiveness for saying something offensive, or for demonstrating a bad attitude toward him, without giving up what I thought was true.

My view was a deep conviction and I could not ask forgiveness for a basic principle of my life.   However, I asked forgiveness for anything I had said or done that caused him hurt or embarrassment.  I did not want our disagreement about an idea to break our friendship.  Unfortunately,  he wanted me to apologize for what I firmly believed to be true.

Sometimes asking forgiveness of another person is not effective.  However, asking God for his forgiveness is always effective.  In fact, when Jesus died on the cross, God gave forgiveness to all of humanity for all time.  We are forgiven, but we have to admit that God is right: we are all like sheep that have gone astray.  All of us have fallen short God’s being.  We are creatures and not the Creator.  We are fellow creatures with the rest of humanity in spite of our personal feelings of superiority.  Let’s admit our humanity and say, ”Please, forgive me!”

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Is Paying Taxes a Theological Issue?

In my home state of Missouri, voters will get the opportunity in November to decide whether to increase the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to help pay for road and bridge repairs and to fund the Missouri Highway Patrol. The tax would increase by two-and-a-half cents each year for four years.  Already there are individuals protesting this tax, and at least one protest group has been organized and filed a lawsuit to keep the proposal off the ballot.

Opposition to taxes is nothing new. There will always be taxes as long as we have government. There will always be attempts to modify or to eliminate taxes.  What is a Christian response to taxation?  Should we pay taxes that support programs and individuals with whom we disagree? . I have no easy answer.  In the past, Baptists in England protested having their tax money fund the Church of England

Some would advocate the actions of a man who was called Judas the Galilean.  He was a man who started an anti-tax campaign in the Roman province of Judea.  Most people have never heard of him, but he made quite an impression  back in his day.  The Romans had instituted a new tax policy in 6 BCE that required a census to implement.  This policy was something new.  Previously taxes were paid to whatever official (such as Herod and his sons) that the Romans placed in leadership over the Jews.  Caesar Augustus switched to direct rule by a Roman prefect who organized a census to prepare the mechanism for processing the new direct taxation.  The author of Luke uses the memory of this census as the reason for getting Joseph and Mary down to Bethlehem in chapter 2.

The tax was, as are taxes anywhere, widely unpopular, and taxation was  a constant point of contention between Rome and the Jews.  Judas the Galilean took his protest to a whole new level.  Proclaiming himself as the Messiah, he turned the question of paying taxes to a pagan emperor into a theological issue.  Judas further tried to leverage his call for “no new taxes” into a political and military coup to unseat the Romans.  But as Josephus tells us, this effort was swiftly and brutally suppressed by the Romans.  Judas’ idea survived him and would remain in circulation in the province for some sixty years until the fall of Jerusalem  in 70 CE.  Judas’ followers were called Zealots and one of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot.  Some scholars think Pilate may have associated Jesus with Judas the Galilean, or even thought Jesus was Judas.

This brings to mind a question Jesus was asked as reported in Matthew 22:15-22.In chapter 21 and the beginning of chapter 22, representatives from a number of Jewish leadership groups come to Jesus with questions: questions about his authority (21:23-27); questions about the resurrection (22:23-33); and questions about the Law (22:34-40). The question in Matthew 22:17 is brought by disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. If the Herodians represent the interests of Herod and the other clients of Rome within his circle, this is an unlikely group of partisans. Yet, representatives of both groups come in order to “trap” Jesus.

First, they use flattery by speaking of Jesus’ integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions of others (22:16). Then, according to Matthew, they laid a political trap for Jesus by asking him how he felt about tax policy: was it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (v. 17)?  As the introduction of the matter demonstrates, they are trying to get Jesus to come down on one side of the issue or the other.  Either he will have to side with the emperor against the people and look like a collaborator, or side with the people against the government and look like Judas the Galilean.  Either way, no good options.

Jesus, however, was aware of their evil plan, and so he said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin for paying the tax!”

They brought him the coin,  and he asked them, “Whose face and name are these?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered.  So, Jesus said to them, “Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:18-21).

The Pharisees avoided Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims him divine.[1] Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image!

Apodidomi, the word translated here as “pay,” has the idea of giving back to someone what is properly their own.  Their money was always Caesar’s.  His rule created it, maintained it, and secured and regulated the marketplace in which it was utilized.  People who had a denarius may have thought it was theirs, but as Jesus reminds them, the stamp of Caesar shows that not to be the case.

As  with many of Jesus’ sayings, it is not clear exactly the point he was trying to make. Whatever Jesus is getting at here, he is not describing a compromise that divides human loyalties neatly between YHWH and the emperor.

I think He is asking an unspoken question: whose image do you bear? What is your greatest loyalty?  The coin of our country bears the image of dead presidents, but each of us bears the image of God. We may divide our budget, but we must never divide our loyalty.  We must never forget to give God what is His: ourselves.

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[1] The inscription on the coin required for the tax reads: Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”).  Boring, Eugene, “Matthew – Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 420.

 

We Need to Redefine Sin

The word “sin” has been part of the English vocabulary for over one thousand years.  Our word form today comes from the Middle English word sinne, which is itself from the Old English word syn.” There is some probability that “sin” can be traced by to the Latin word sont, which means “guilty.”  The original meanings of “sin” were concerned mainly with religious matters, such as “an offense against religious or moral law,” or “breaking God’s laws,” or “a state of human nature that is estranged from God.”

Now, there is no argument that those phrases define the Christian view of sin theologically, for sin is primarily a theological term.  However, what do those phrases say to people in a post-Christian world?  Not much, I am afraid. Most people we know are decent people.  They love their children, they are employed, they do not commit murder, and all the other heinous things that we say is wrong.  They are good people, and surely their good lives and deeds should ensure them a place in God’s heaven.  The idea of being offensive to God because of wrong doing is far from contemporary minds.

What does the Bible call sin?  In the Old Testament we have three main words, two of which have the same root:

  • Chata’ah – an offense and its punishment
  • Chata – miss the mark
  • Ashma – guilty of doing wrong

The New Testament has five major words:

  • Hamartia – missing the target – failure to be what we might have been.
  • Parabasis – stepping across – crossing the line from good to bad.
  • Paraptoma – slipping across – slipping on ice – not as deliberate as parabas; “wrong words slip out.”
  • Anomia – lawlessness – the human instinct to do what we please and defy both human laws and God’s laws.
  • Opheilema – failure to pay what’s due – a failure in duty – this word used in the Model Prayer: failure to perfectly fulfill our duty to our fellow humans.

None of the words define a behavior; they define thought and attitude. We err in thinking of sin as primarily a behavior. There is behavioral sin, but before we behave we think and feel.  Sin starts within us in our thinking and feeling selves.  This is from the New Testament Letter of James:

But we are tempted when we are drawn away and trapped by our own evil desires.  Then our evil desires conceive and give birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15).

We think with what I call Mind-Talk. This is our inner conversation, the voice we hear when we think.  It is where our emotions start and grow.  Our Mind-Talk shapes our attitudes, our feelings, and our beliefs. Our Mind-Talk shapes the way we behave toward others.  Whether we have anger, hurt, depression, guilt, worry, happiness, well-being, or contentment, etc., they are homegrown in our Mind-Talk. Our feelings start in our minds, and they grow in our minds. Then, as James notes, our thoughts give birth to behavior that is either good or bad.

The most frequent word in both Testaments that is translated as “sin” is the one that means “missing the mark.”  It is the picture of shooting at a target with bow and arrow and missing the target. We miss the target when we fail to live up to our own moral code, when we love things and use people, when we fail to love and support family.  For most of us, our Mind-Talk keeps reminding us that we are failures in so many ways. We feel estranged from other people, estranged from God, and even estranged from myself.  Have you ever thought, “I just don’t feel like myself today.”?

Not everyone has behaviors that the Church has listed as “sinful.”  Yet, these folk will feel at times they have failed morally or ethically.  They have not been responsible when they were to have been responsible.  Our failures have eternal consequences for we influence our families, our neighbors, our nation, our world.

If sin begins with our Mind-Talk, then an element of salvation (which can also mean healing) is to change our Mind-Talk.  In his letter to the church at Phillip’, the apostle Paul wrote: “The attitude [i.e. mindset] you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had: . .” (2:5). Then in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote:

Your hearts and minds must be made completely new, and you must put on the new self, which is created in God’s likeness and reveals itself in the true life that is upright and holy (Ephesians 4:23-24).

What would happen if we began to define sin in terms of personal failure, whether morally, ethically, or professionally?  What would it say about a personal relationship with God through the Christ?  What would happen if we could change our Mind-Talk and think of ourselves as flawed people whom God loves?  What would we be able to tell others about knowing the Christ.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews gives a long list of people of faith that includes a prostitute, a cheat, a murderer, and an adulterer, among others.  At the end of the list, the writer says, “And so God is not ashamed for them to call him their God, because he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16b).  This is a list of flawed people who trusted God and saw themselves as accepted by God, though they knew they were unacceptable.  That is the Mind-Talk we all need.