Yesterday, I was walking through Dolores Park and heard a street preacher, saying "If you've ever stolen a stick of gum, then you are guilty of sin! If you've ever looked at Facebook at work, then you've stolen from your employer, and that's sin!"
Of course we all know where he was headed: If we have sinned—even with a trivial infraction like a stick of gum—then God who is holy must punish us for all eternity in Hell unless we accept Jesus right now.
I mean, seriously, gum? Why can't God just get over it? Is God less moral than all of us are? This is not a picture of holiness, it is a picture of a petty tyrant. Aside from the horrible picture of God that this gives us (and honestly, who could ever love, trust, and feel safe around a God like that?), what this ultimately does is trivialize sin. It makes sin into a petty infraction of little consequence.
We live in a world with real hurt. All you need to do to see this is read the headlines, and you will see story after story of terrible injustice, violence, and suffering throughout the world. So much so it can overwhelming. If you spend the time to really listen to those around you, and will hear stories of deep hurt, broken families, broken people. We do not need to make up fake problems about chewing gum. There are plenty of real problems and hurt.
Jesus does not focus on gum, or even going too far with your girl friend in junior high, or dropping an F-bomb when you stub your toe. His overwhelming focus was on things that have deep and devastating effects on people's lives—the alienation and estrangement that can come from poverty, sickness, and injustice. That's what Jesus spent the majority of his time focusing on. They matter more because they have more profound consequences. If you feel worthless, condemned, cut off, this is devastating in a way that affects the whole course of your life.
And here's the thing: Jesus did not tell people that this was a sin. He did not tell them to repent of this. Instead, he demonstrated the care and nearness of God to them. He healed the wounded and embraced the untouchable. The biggest problem, as Jesus saw it, was not that we had done things that were wrong and needed to seek forgiveness from an angry God. Our biggest problem was that people felt cut off from God, forsaken.
This, I would propose, is the No. 1 struggle that people have with God today. What drives so many people to atheism is not selfishness or hedonism, but the experience of abandonment in the face of suffering, grief, and injustice. In fact, it is a problem that touches us whether we are people of faith or completely secular. In the face of debilitating illness or tragedy we can feel isolated and alone. Similarly, those who have experienced violence know as well that this can make you feel helpless and abandoned.
Now, of course where there is hurt and injustice, there are not only victims, but also those who have hurt others. Surely it is right to call people on their hurtfulness, but the focus needs to be on helping these people to develop empathy, and all the more, our main focus really needs to be on caring for those who have been hurt.
This was the clear focus of Jesus. Yes, he confronted those who hurt others (especially those who did so in the name of religion). Yes, he taught us all to walk in the way of compassion and empathy (which he referred to as "love of enemies"). But the majority of his time Jesus spent caring for those who had been shut out and wounded; his focus was on victims. In focusing on defining ourselves as "sinners" we have placed the focus on redeeming those who harm others (which includes us), often ignoring the needs of those who have been harmed (which includes us, too). It is good to seek to redeem those who harm, but this cannot mean that we neglect to care for those who have been harmed. To do so would be to completely miss the clear focus of Jesus. That's why he cared about issues of poverty, sickness, and a host of other social issues tied to self-worth that we as the church have so often overlooked.
David wrote in Psalm 51 "Lord, against you, and you only have I sinned." This is often interpreted to mean that sin is ultimately directed towards God. God is the one who has been offended, and so we need to deal with God's anger. But that interpretation completely misses what David was saying here. David was a king, and kings had unchecked power. So David had secretly slept with another man's wife (which is really a euphemism for saying that he raped her, since women really had very little choice back then when a king told you to do something), and then when she became pregnant he had her husband killed by putting him at the front of a battle. It's the kind of thing kings did all the time, because they could treat people like subjects. Those people were just inconsequential pawns to them. But David has realized that when he had harmed these "inconsequential" people, what he had really done was harm God. In harming those who he had valued so little, he had really dishonored his own king (and one can't help but note here that in calling God a "king," God's values are nothing like those of earthly kings!)
Properly understood then, this is an early version of Jesus' statement, "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me."
The point is not that God is saying that all the focus should be on him, that God is a petty legalist who is angry about every stick of chewing gum. It's just the opposite: God wants us to care for the other. God wants us to care for those whom we value the least. If God cares about sin, it's because God cares about you and me. God cares because God loves us, and wants us to stop hurting each other.
The focus therefore is not about how "good" you need to be in order to make it into heaven, or on whether God can overlook that bad thing you did. That ultimately leads to self-focus, and we need to instead be relationally-focused. We need to care about hurting each other, we need to be active in making things right. Because, to paraphrase Jesus on the sermon on the mount: You are worth much more to God than chewing gum.
Derek Flood (TheRebelGod.com) holds a master’s in systematic theology and is a featured blogger on the Huffington Post.
Man blowing bubbles photo, olly / Shutterstock.com