A couple of weeks ago in church we had a heard from a Psalm and an Old Testament lesson that were really interesting when paired together. The guiding text for that Sunday was the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan (for those of you whose congregations follow the lectionary, we’re on a one-year cycle which is why you probably didn’t hear the same lessons that week).
But the supporting texts were a story from 2 Chronicles 28 and Psalm 32.
Now, the story of the Good Samaritan, among other things, addresses the question “Who is my neighbor?” But these texts, in unison with it, address another question. Namely, “How should I regard my neighbor?” Particularly, “my wicked, repugnant, got-caught-in-his-own-sin neighbor,” or, whatever other derogatory assessment of them you want to make.
In the reading from 2 Chronicles, the northern kingdom of Israel had just thumped the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah had an idolatrous king at the time and so God permitted them to fall into Israel’s hand. Now these two kingdoms had, at one time, been one. And so when Israel thumped Judah, taking advantage of God permitting them to do so, then ended up dragging 200,000 of essentially their own relatives back with them to be captives, slaves, etc.
But a guy named Oded, a prophet, stands before these Israelites as they’re dragging home the spoil and puts a pretty heavy question to them: “Have you no sins of your own?”
You see, the thing was, they did. They had some pretty manifest ones, in fact. If Judah had one bad king now and a couple in its past, Israel had had a string of bad kings stretching all the way back to the split between the two kingdoms. Israel had been much more idolatrous for much longer than Judah. But the fact that Judah was the one being disciplined enabled Israel to ignore that fact for a while.
We do this same sort of thing all the time. It provides a lot of the fuel for our moral outrage. When we indulge in moral outrage, often lying behind it is our unwillingness to look at the fact that we, ourselves, are sinners. We don’t like to consider ourselves sinners, so any chance to avoid doing so suits us just fine; whether that means outright distraction, or balancing our supposedly lesser sins against someone else’s greater sins, or whatever. It’s a way for us to try to remove our own guilt.
Being paired with Psalm 32, then, drives the point home. In Psalm 32 David starts out “Blessed is the man whose sin is forgiven…” He then goes on to talk about his experience of trying to hide and ignore his sinfulness, to do anything but own it. He says his strength was dried up, that his bones wasted away. I expect you know something of what that’s like—when you’re trying to get rid of a guilty conscience, but nothing really seems to cut it. Often it seems like the best you can hope for is that a certain amount of numbness there would set in.
But that’s why David starts where he does. “Blessed is the man whose sin is forgiven.”
Not ignored, not lessened by balancing it against the sins of others, not sufficiently forgotten.
Forgiven. That’s why people ought to go to church, in fact. In church you hear a message that you won’t find anywhere else. Namely, that your sins, yes, even that one you think nobody knows about, are forgiven! That’s a message you need to hear, and that your most “stinking, rotten, wicked” neighbor needs to hear as well.
Now, does all that mean that you should disregard the evil of your neighbor? Not at all.
Israel was called to defeat Judah at that time, and we are called to oppose evil wherever we find it. But we ought to do so as forgiven sinners, extending grace even to our enemies, who are in just as desperate need of it as we are ourselves.
Written and submitted by the Rev. Scott Smith, of St. Matthew Lutheran Church.