Social Sins in Lent
By Timothy George
The season of Lent is a time of meditation and self-denial, as Christians join with Jesus in his journey toward the cross. Most often, the penitential disciplines of Lent focus on personal sins of greed and indulgence, with an emphasis on abstaining from some private luxuries and exercising a certain moderation in how we eat and drink.
Now let the body fast awhile,
the shelf and board grow lean,
and man lift up his hungry heart
to find a world unseen.
But as Jesus traveled with his disciples on that last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, his focus was on something else, what we might call social sins, breaches of communion that vitiate and scatter “the little flock.” Luke 9:46-56 records three events that happened as Jesus and the disciples were walking along the way. Each of these incidents reveals a primary social sin, a roadblock for the disciples on the way to the cross: inhospitality, insularity, and inhumanity. Significantly, these three sins arose not from the enemies of Christ without but rather from fissures within the close-knit circle of Jesus’s own followers.
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest” (Luke 9:46). Controversy among Jesus’s followers is nothing new. His disciples have been fussing for a long time! It started with this band of disciples who began to argue and fight among themselves. What were they fighting about? Was it some deep theological conundrum like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, or the hypostatic union of Christ, or free will and predestination? No, they were arguing “as to which among them would be the greatest.” They had tussled over this issue before. On one occasion, James and John came to Jesus and said, “Lord, when you come into your kingdom, which one of us will be on your right and which on your left?” (Mark 10:37). Who will be the Secretary of the State, and who the Attorney General in the new administration?
This argument took place in the olive groves outside of the earshot of Jesus. But Jesus is a mind-reading Savior. He knew their thoughts. With radar sensitivity he pierces right through the exterior into their hearts. In response to their childish bickering, Jesus takes a real child, and places that little child beside him. He then says, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Luke 9:48).
Jesus identifies himself with this little child. “If you welcome me, you will welcome this one.” And the opposite is also true: If you refuse to welcome this little one, then you will not welcome me. Jesus spells it out in another passage in the New Testament when he describes the last judgment. On that great day, everyone will say, “Lord, we did many things in your name. We cast out demons, we had great religious conferences, and we did a lot of wonderful things.” But Jesus will say, “I was in prison and you never came to see me. I was down there in the gutter and you never helped me out. Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:34-40).
I once preached an Easter sermon from Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man in hell speaks to Father Abraham. He says, “Father Abraham, I wish you would send somebody to warn my brothers so they won’t come to this horrible place.” Father Abraham replies, “Well, they have Moses and the prophets. Even if somebody rose from the dead, they wouldn’t believe it.” (That is why this is a proper Easter text: Somebody did rise from the dead!) What was the sin of that rich man in hell? Inhospitality. During his life on earth, God gave him a good chunk of bread, he “fared sumptuously” (KJV) every day, but he wouldn’t pass the bread. Crumbs fell from his table for the beggars at his gate, but he ended up in hell because of the sin of inhospitality.
At the root of the word “hospitable” is the Latin word for host, hospes. Isn’t it interesting how eating together is such a sensitive thing? When the Civil Rights Movement really got started, it was at lunch counters. Jesus was tolerated as long as he was merely doing miracles and teaching the Sermon on the Mount. But when he began to eat with the wrong kinds of people, his enemies sneered: “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2).
In the ministry of Jesus there is this remarkable turn-about, this reversal, when outsiders become insiders. A Roman centurion, an enemy soldier, exclaimed, “Lord . . . just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8). And Jesus said, “I have not seen faith like this in all the land of Israel!” (Matt. 8:10). Again, he is having dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s house. All the dignitaries in town are there, and in comes this prostitute, a woman of the street. She begins to weep and to anoint the feet of Jesus with her tears and to kiss his feet. Everybody is shocked, but Jesus says, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47).
Inhospitality is closely related to a second obstacle the disciples of Jesus stumbled over on the road to the cross: the sin of insularity. Insul is the Latin word for island, and insularity is the state of being cut off from everyone else and made into a little self-contained island, floating alone in the ocean of humanity. “‘Master,’ said John, ‘we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.’ ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said, ‘for whoever is not against you is for you’” (Luke 9:49-50).
Why did they do this? Could it have been jealousy? Earlier in Luke 9, we read about a person who was filled with demons and was brought to the disciples for help, but they were not able to do a thing about it (9:40). They could not even cast out one puny demon. And now this freelancer who lacks credentials, this maverick preacher who is not properly ordained, this interloper is able to do what Jesus’s own disciples could not do. And they tried to stop him. Why? Not because his theology was heretical, or his life immoral, but simply because he was not “one of us.”
In this catena of events Luke has brought together, inhospitality and insularity lead inevitably to a third great obstacle on the road to Good Friday: the sin of inhumanity. As Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, he sends messengers on ahead into a Samaritan village to get things ready for his arrival. But the people there did not welcome James and John, the sons of Zebedee, whom Jesus nicknamed “Boanerges”—sons of thunder. When the thunderstorm boys were rebuffed, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54).
This event identifies the kind of mutual suspicion that takes root in our lives and our communities whenever prejudice reigns. This was a Samaritan village. Half-breeds, a people of mixed race—they were part Jew and part Gentile. They had been living in Samaria for hundreds of years. They had developed their own temple and their own culture. They even had their own version of the Bible, the Samaritan Pentateuch. They had their own way of doing things, they were segregated from the rest of the country, and they were despised by the Jews. And the Samaritans felt the same way about the Jews too. The hostility was mutual.
What is prejudice? Prejudice literally means to judge in advance. It means not to deal with a person as a person, but to put on that person all kinds of labels. All Jews are stingy. All blacks are lazy. All whites are racists. All men are chauvinists. All women are devious. All fundamentalists are ignorant. All liberals are looney. This is prejudice.
How quickly prejudice can erupt into violence. “Let’s call fire down from heaven and burn ’em to a crisp! Just say the word, Lord, and we’ll nuke ’em!” Where does fighting and violence come from? James asks that question and he gives the answer: It comes from inside your heart. It comes from not being right with God (James 4:1-3).
Remember, these were the disciples of Jesus. This was John, the apostle of love. But here he wanted to call fire down from heaven and wipe these people off the face of the earth. The disciples had not gone to Samaria to start a race war or to cause rioting in the streets. They had gone there to preach the gospel. This was a missionary endeavor, an evangelistic campaign. But somewhere along the way, something went wrong. And so Jesus had to step in and say to them, “We are not going to do it that way! Let’s go on to another town.”
Jesus, however, did not give up on Samaria. Remember John 4, the woman at the well? Through Jesus’s loving encounter with that outcast woman, an entire Samaritan village—it might have been this same town as far as we know—received the living water of eternal life. But here in Luke 9, Jesus rebuked the sin of inhumanity among his own disciples.
Jesus was teaching the disciples an important lesson that we too still need to learn: If you are going to come out where God comes out, you have to take God’s way to get there. Do you see the progression here? You start with the inhospitality, which leads to insularity—“you are not one of us”—and, before long, you have descended to inhumanity. Three steps down into the pit.
In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about the temptation to use ungodly methods to achieve worthy ends:
Christ’s disciples have no rights of their own or standards of right and wrong which they could enforce with other people; they have received nothing but Christ’s fellowship. . . .What are the disciples to do when they encounter opposition and cannot penetrate the hearts of men? They must admit that in no circumstances do they possess any rights or powers over others, and that they have no direct access to them. The only way to reach others is through him in whose hands they are themselves like all other men . . . . Every attempt to impose the Gospel by force, to run after people and proselytize them, to use our own resources to arrange the salvation of other people is both futile and dangerous.
It is not just “them” out there, those racists, those Kluxers, those extremists. It’s also “us” in here. If we are going to follow Jesus on his way to the cross, then the devotion we have for him must be reflected in our attitude toward others—all the others.
Published at First Things, 3.10.16
is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture