Choice and Hope
Sirach 15:15-20 | Matthew 5:21-26
A while back, and I’m not sure exactly how it happened, there was a conversation in our household that turns out to be relevant to our readings today. Somehow we ended up talking about the doctrine of original sin.
Now I expect that when you imagine life in the manse you assume that discussions of Christian beliefs occur at the drop of the proverbial hat, but please believe me when I say that if our dining room table could talk, it would report that discussions of shopping lists, meal plans, drum lessons, school and university assignments, and – most of all – whose turn it is to try to keep Bindi entertained so she won’t destroy the place, are far more common.
But I digress. The point is, there we were talking about original sin. And I realised I had two main problems with the doctrine. The first, and perhaps the most profound, is that I don’t really know what ‘original sin’ means, anyway. And the second is that as far as I do understand it, I don’t believe it.
I can’t see how justice allows that we be considered sinful before we have the power to act; how we can be held morally in the wrong simply by virtue of being part of the fallen human race. To say “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is easy – even obvious. You see it confirmed a thousand times a day. But to say “all are born tainted by the sin of Adam” – that makes no sense to me.
And worse – it seems to deny another central tenant of our faith: that what God creates, God creates good. We may mar the image of God in us every day, but that is not to deny that we are created in God’s image.
And so today I’ve chosen the alternative Old Testament lectionary reading, for Sirach (sometime known as Ecclesiasticus). This book isn’t found in most of our Bibles, but a Bible in any Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Christian tradition would contain it as part of the ‘deuterocanonical books’, a collection of Jewish writings from the four hundred years between the Old Testament and new.
These writing are part of the debate, the argument, that I quite often refer to, within the Jewish faith, in the time leading up to the ministry of Jesus, about what their faith was supposed to look like in a time and place that was very different to the promised land and the Kingdom of David and Solomon.
And the passage we heard read goes to the heart of the nature of sin – or at least, of one aspect of sin.
The writer of these words doesn’t get bogged down in discussions of the nature of sin, of human depravity, of nature v. nurture. For this author the matter is simple:
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
Problem is, it doesn’t always seem to be true. Week by week we come on Sunday, and each week we have a prayer of confession, and each week, if we are honest with ourselves, we know we need it. If acting faithfully is our choice, if keeping God’s commandments is our choice, then we seem to be very, very good and making bad choices.
And maybe that’s exactly it. Maybe that’s exactly why we do feel the need to come to God in confession. Because we feel that we do have a choice as to how we live, and that we are therefore responsible for our failings. If we had no choice, if keeping God’s commands was beyond us, it would make no sense to feel guilt, there would be no need to seek, no meaning in seeking, forgiveness.
But equally, if we did not have a choice, there would be no place for hope. For it is the sense that we can choose differently, the sense that we can change, that gives us hope that the future can be different, that we are not condemned by our genes, our character, our fundamental humanness, to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again and again…
There’s a passage in a children’s book – one of the Enid Blyton School Stories, I think, in which one of the characters says to the principal “I keep promising that I’m going to change, that I’m not going to lose my temper anymore, but I keep on doing it. You’re not going to believe me anymore.”. To which the principal replies “I will believe you and trust you every single time. And one day, you will find that you have kept your promise.”.
The fact that our wrong choices are our responsibility is not, by God’s grace, a cause for despair: in the end, it is the only source of hope.
And that is the context for us to read Jesus’ words; words about relationships, about guilt, confession, reconciliation – and true religion.
For Jesus starts by setting the bar incredibly, ridiculously high. Do not murder is a commandment that most of us would reckon to keep. But don’t get angry with your brother or sister? Don’t insult them, don’t call them a fool? I wonder how many times a day each one of us falls short of that ideal. And if ever there was a command that it seems we cannot choose to keep, don’t get angry must be it. How can I choose not to get angry? How can I choose my emotional response to a situation?
Perhaps you can’t. But read on, because the choice comes next. The choice is not ‘will you get angry, will you get hurt, will you get disappointed’: the choice is ‘what will you do about it?’
When you realise that something – something you’ve done, or something someone else has done – stands between two people; when a wrong unaddressed poisons a relationship – the choice before you is what to do about it.
And so, Jesus says: when you realise this has happened, choose. Even if you are on the point of bringing you offering to the altar of God (the high point of Jewish religious observance), don’t delay. Go, and seek to be reconciled.
That is the choice we have; to act faithfully or not, to seek reconciliation, or not. And of course, like all other choices that we make in our life, it is a choice that we often, so often, get wrong.
But by the grace of God our past poor choices do not condemn us to a future of repeating them. Because it is a choice that we make, and there is therefore hope for the future, the opportunity to do differently, the chance to choose again.
Here we find ourself back at the theme of these weeks before Lent (an unplanned theme, but one that seems to be forcing itself through) – that discipleship is a process of change.
We make genuine choices with real consequences, and so we inevitably get things wrong, choose badly, wrongly, at least some of the time.
But the gospel offers us two gifts in response. That there is always the offer of forgiveness and a new start: no choice we have made, however wrong, defines us out of the love of God.
And second, that as disciples of Jesus we are being incrementally changed: there is hope for a future in which we are different – better – than our past. That though we fail again and again, each time we promise before God that we will do better, God keeps on believing and trusting us. And one day, we will find that we have kept our promise, that we have chosen rightly.