It’s Nothing Personal: Systemic Sin in Ordinary Time

It’s Nothing Personal: Systemic Sin in Ordinary Time September 8, 2018
Image via Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons

We’re prone to take the healing stories of Jesus very personally.

We see the Gospel as Jesus coming to save one person (me), to forgive my sins (which I commit in a bubble), to send me to Heaven when I die.

But the Gospel is bigger than Jesus saving one individual at a time.

A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Mark 7:25-30
Gospel lectionary passage for September 9

I grew up reading the stories of Jesus as interactions between individuals.

Jesus preaches against Pharisee’s personal “hard hearts.” Jesus encourages people to make individual decisions to follow Him (no turning back! no turning back!). Jesus heals individuals who are, individually, sick.

I grew up learning that Jesus saves the whole world one person at a time.

I grew up with a Jesus who had nothing to say about systemic sin.

“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God….

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Old Testament lectionary passage for September 9

The lectionary placement today is adamant that Jesus’ healing isn’t a private event.

The lectionary insists that salvation is bigger than salvation our individual sins.

Jesus came as the world’s Messiah – not just “my” Messiah or “your” Messiah – because sin is inextricably woven into the fabric of the world. Jesus didn’t come to pluck us individually out of that fabric. Jesus came to weave a whole new tapestry.

The lectionary demands that we read Jesus’ miracles as sacred signs that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate;  for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Proverbs 22:8-9, 22-23

Last summer, I wrote my way through the book of Mark on my blog, and I wrote about this passage – how a woman and an outsider wrestles with God until God Himself changes His mind.

When we read this Gospel story with the other lectionary passage, we see just how important it is that someone from the very edge of society is wrestling with God.

God’s new Kingdom is happening on the margins.

Jesus is with the poor, the outsider, the refugee, the welfare mom, the people experiencing homelessness, the LGBTQ kids and the indigenous people walking the Trail of Tears.

And God is flipping it all upside-down, until the margins are at the center of the new thing God is doing in Christ.

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

James 2:5
Epistle lectionary passage for September 9

God isn’t just bringing people on the edges inside this old kingdom. God is building a whole new Kingdom where everything last is first.

God is not just plucking people out of the sin of the world. God is fixing the sin of the world.

God is deeply concerned with systemic sin.

Systemic sin is why Jesus came.

We want our salvation to be as personal as our walk with Jesus, and while intimacy with the Divine is deeply personal, dismantling the kingdoms of this world isn’t just making bad people good, or giving grace to wicked people, or healing one woman’s little girl.

Jesus is taking apart all the old kingdoms with their strongholds of wealth and fame and power and insiders and outsiders and oppression. Jesus is making everything new.

Thank God for that.

My sin is bigger than myself, so my salvation needs to be bigger than myself, too.

“Hurt people hurt people,” they told me when I was a chaplain, and I saw again and again how the cycle of oppression is bigger than one evil person. Every one of us is trapped in generational and systemic sin. It is pervasive. We have been trapped by the sins of our parents and the sins of our country, and we are perpetrators and victims in stories of sin that go back further than we’ve been alive.

Sin is so much bigger than what I do or do not do.

I don’t just need a Savior to forgive me of my sins.

I need a Savior to heal the broken world that creates sinners in the first place.

I need a Savior who will turn this world on its head.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.

The Magnificat

The miracle stories of Christ are signs of what the Messiah means for the world – that everything is being flipped, that up will be down and down will be up. Every miracle story of Christ – healing the sick, calming the waves, forgiving sins, multiplying bread – is part of Jesus proclaiming the day of the Lord’s favor. Every miracle story is Christ showing us a glimpse of a new upside-down Kingdom that will be for all people. Jesus came to heal, fix, and judge not just the individuals in the world, but the world itself.

And that, friends, is the Gospel.

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  • Markus R

    Certainly Christians act as light and salt, illuminating and preserving society. But on Judgement Day it will not be systems that face Jesus in judgement. It will not be systems that are called to account. It will not be systems that are separated into sheep and goats. And it will not be systems that are sent to hell or are welcomed into heaven.

  • Laura Jean Truman

    Hi Markus, thanks for weighing in. I think the apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament uses mostly language of kingdoms of this earth being overturned (especially in Isaiah) – powerful kingdoms being upturned in favor of the poor, the hungry, and the needy. This language is less about good people/bad people and not even about salvation, but about God coming into history to save the oppressed from oppressors.

    Also, the passage of the sheep and the goats is interesting, because not only just Jesus use language of the “nations” being gathered in, what separates the sheep and the goats is how nations treat the poor and needy, not if they accept Jesus or not. I’m not arguing that salvation and grace isn’t through Christ alone – but that the passage about the sheep and goats is more about justice for the oppressed than it is about going to heaven or not.

  • Markus R

    I’m not meaning to sound disrespectful. Forgive me if I seem so. It seems that you are interpreting the Bible in a way that not only is contrary to 2000 years if orthodox interpretation, but contrary to the scripture itself. Yes God punishes nations, but the ultimate judgement is clearly as individuals, according to their righteousness and no man is righteous, not one. Only the imputed righteousness of God has any worth.

    God did not judge nations in the Great Flood—he poured out his wrath on the entire world, to include the oppressed. Only Noah and his family were saved.

    Jesus made every effort to avoid any possibility that his kingdom would be seen as political, as was the case with many false messiahs of that period. This same non political nature of the kingdom is seen in the way the New Testament deals with slavery and the obedience of all Christians to rulers appointed over them.

    Perhaps the clearest description of the mission of the Church is the Great Commission.

    This does not mean that Christians have no social responsibility for their neighbor. But the thought that Christ came to save the oppressed is not consistent with the New Testament. Christ cane to make peace between rebellious sinners and a very angry God.

    Does God have people who sin by oppressing others, such as the poor, the widow and the orphan? Of course! Those actions are sinful as are the litany if other sins that he hates such as theft, lying, hating, lusting, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, gossip, covetousness, the dishonoring of parents, idolatry, etc.

    God is furious with sinners. Look at the manner that he judged the Canaanites when he commanded Israel to wipe them from the face of the earth. Or look at the judgement of Israel that was repeated. Finally we see his hatred of idolatry in the horrible destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.