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3rd Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2001
1 Corinthians 10:1-5
The Jewish scriptures tell many stories about the sins of ancient Hebrews. The absence of the celebrative emphasis, so common in national histories, is truly remarkable. It also provides occasion for warning the early Christians, and us who are readers of the same Bible, not to fall into the sins that were common in the old days.
The passage from I Corinthians contrasts the fact that all shared in common events and spiritual practices with the fact that most, nevertheless, sinned. For the Christians to whom Paul was writing, this meant that they should not rely on their baptism into the community or their participation in the life of the church. Unless they avoided sin and remained faithful, they would suffer the consequences of sin. This lesson has fairly direct application to us. A vast number of people suppose that their baptism and church membership in some way places them on the side of good even when their lives are little affected.
In Luke a somewhat different point is made. Whereas in much Jewish thought, often reflected in the New Testament, there is a fairly direct relation between sin and external punishment, Jesus here rejects that. No doubt those who are killed are sinners. But there is no reason to suppose that they are worse sinners than those who escape death. Yet the point is quite similar in the two texts. Paul is warning Christians against falling into sin by pointing out the punishment of sin. Jesus is warning people to repent by pointing out that apart from repentance all are destined to punishment.
For process theology, too, there is a connection between sin and punishment, but punishment is not conceived, primarily, as something that is externally imposed. Punishment is the immediate consequence of sin. That is, when we fail to respond to the call of God in each moment, we limit the richness of what we can become. We limit also the possibilities that God can offer us in the next moment.
Although this sin and punishment are usually subtle, the cumulative consequences can be enormous. When we persistently harden our hearts, the hardness becomes our character. The joy that comes from really loving others is lost to us. When we repeatedly allow ourselves to act out our anger, our violence is destructive both of others and of ourselves. When we ignore the call to embody other values, we find ourselves slaves to the pursuit of wealth.
Furthermore, although God does not cause us to suffer from falling towers--as Jesus indicated, that is matter of chance--our sinfulness leads to events that bring other forms of suffering to us. Our health is likely to suffer. When we harden ourselves toward others, we reduce the likelihood that we will receive their love. When we are violent toward others, it is likely that we will suffer violence at their hands. When we pursue only wealth, the response we elicit from others may be one of personal ndifference or resentment or envy. That response can have negative consequences for us.
This shift in the understanding of sin and punishment owes much to Jesus and Paul. Sin ceases to be so much the breaking of externally imposed laws and becomes much more the missing of the mark, the failure to heed God's call. It continues to be expressed in outward deeds and collectively in social evils, but it is, at bottom, a matter of deeply personal response to God. At that level, Jesus is right, we are all sinners. Unless we repent, we will suffer the consequences of our sin.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He currently serves as co-director for the Center for Process Studies and also teaches a course during the Summer Institute for Process & Faith at the Claremont School of Theology.