THE WORST SIN

No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. [Isaiah 58:6-7 (NLT)]

Canadian geese - goslingsLast week, a devotion I read asked, “What is the worst sin?” How would you answer it? While the “Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) are all wrong, I’m not sure they belong at the top of the list. Would it be idolatry, murder, stealing, or adultery? What about the heinous sins of mass murder, genocide, torture, or the abuse of children?

Of course, there’s “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” the unforgiveable sin mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 12 and Mark 3. While attributing the divine power of Jesus to Satan without repenting of it is unforgivable and was bad news for Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking, since it hurts only the sinner, I don’t think it seems to be the worst sin either.

I pondered this question over coffee while the news was airing on TV. Richard Engle gave a report from an orphanage in Ukraine that left me in tears. When Ukraine became an independent country in 1991, it inherited a broken system in which parents of disabled children were encouraged to commit their children to institutional care. Sadly, in the absence of community-based support, therapy services, or educational opportunities, families continued to abandon severely disabled children to institutions. As a result, before the war, Ukraine had the largest number of children in institutional care in Europe; 100,000 children lived in 700 institutions.

Around half of those institutionalized children had special needs or disabilities and others were separated from their families because of poverty, addiction, or poor health; only a few actually were orphans. As these “orphanages” in war-torn eastern Ukraine were evacuated, their caregivers abandoned the most severely disabled to other institutions and fled. The remaining facilities are so overrun that day and therapy rooms have been converted into dormitories. They are overcrowded, understaffed, unequipped, and unable to provide anything but basic medical attention; as a result, proper care, stimulation, rehabilitation, and therapy can’t be provided and the residents’ conditions continue to deteriorate.

Engles’ report was about visiting such an institution that was packed with 200 profoundly disabled youngsters, all of whom were abandoned by their families. Some of the children, refugees from eastern Ukrainian institutions, were little more than skin and bones. These children (and others like them) are innocent victims of a broken system, a horrifying war, and a world that looked the other way. Could the worst of all sins be one of omission—that of not loving enough to see or care?

The question about the worst sin, however, was misleading. There is no “worst” sin because every sin is an affront to God. No sin is so small that it isn’t offensive to Him and deserving of punishment nor is there any sin so great that He can’t forgive it. Nevertheless, there can be a great difference in the earthly impact of our sins. While both are sins, a drug company’s lie about the safety of its pain medication has a vastly different impact than a child’s lie about taking a cookie from the jar. Without a doubt, what has happened to those Ukrainian children is a sin with devastating consequences for those involved.

When Jesus was asked the most important commandment, He answered “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.” He continued with the second and equally important commandment of, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Unfortunately, we don’t have to go to Ukraine to find the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are hungry, homeless, sick, alone, exploited, abused, or abandoned. While there is little we can do for those Ukrainian “orphans,” there is much we can do to alleviate the suffering of others who are “the least of these” here and now. May we love God and our neighbor enough to notice and to care!

Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:37-40 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

REJECTION

The Lord told Samuel, “Listen to everything the people are saying to you. They haven’t rejected you; they’ve rejected me. They’re doing just what they’ve done since I took them out of Egypt—leaving me and serving other gods. Listen to them now, but be sure to warn them and tell them about the rights of a king.” [1 Samuel 8:7-9 (GW)]
hibiscus

Following Samson, the high priest Eli may have acted as a sort of judge. His sons, however, were scoundrel priests who treated God’s offering with contempt and slept with the women serving in the Tabernacle. When God’s judgment came down upon Eli and his sons, Samuel became the high priest and judge. While Samuel clearly was called by God to his role, his sons Joel and Abijah were not. Nevertheless, when Samuel grew old, he appointed his boys as judges. Like Eli’s sons, they were greedy rogues who took advantage of their position by accepting bribes and corrupting justice. Fed up with their wickedness, Israel’s elders met with Samuel. Wanting to be like the nations surrounding them and hoping to bring the tribes into a cohesive union, they demanded a king.

Rather than depend on God in time of crisis, Israel wanted to depend on human wisdom, power, and strength. Samuel cautioned them about all that came with a king: conscription of their sons and requisitioning of their crops along with demands for their daughters’ labor and a ten percent tax. Although amply warned by Samuel that they would beg for relief from the king they wanted, the people refused to listen. Allowing Israel to make choices (and learn from their consequences), God had Samuel appoint Saul as their king. Less than 120 years later, Samuel’s warning was fulfilled when they implored King Rehoboam for relief from excessive work and taxes; shortly thereafter, the kingdom divided.

Saul was exactly what the people wanted; he came from a wealthy and influential family, was tall and handsome, and even courageous. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a good leader or knowledgeable in spiritual matters. He had an inferiority complex and issues with impulse control, godly obedience, jealousy, and selfishness.

If I’d been in God’s position at this point in Israel’s history, I might have responded to them with an ultimatum of “it’s my way or the highway!” When they encountered difficulties with their plan, my cold response might have been, “You reap what you sow,” or “You wanted him, now you’re stuck with him!” I may have turned away from those who’d turned from me and stopped listening to those who’d stopped listening to what I had to say.

Fortunately for Israel (and us), I’m not God and that’s not how God responded. He never gave up on his people after their disobedience and rebellion in Eden, during the Exodus, or during the time of the judges and He didn’t this time either. After all, a promise is a promise and God promised the Israelites that He never would leave or forsake them! Samuel continued to serve the Israelites as their prophet, priest, and judge and David, a much better man than Saul, eventually became king. In spite of Israel’s continued failure to follow the Lord during the time of the kings, He gave them prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah who continued to speak God’s word to his people. He gave them John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Messiah and then He offered His only son, Jesus, as payment for our sins.

Mercifully, God doesn’t hold a grudge or respond in a snit when we ignore or disobey him. He didn’t abandon the Israelites and he won’t abandon us. When we reject Him, He doesn’t reject us; when we ignore Him, He doesn’t ignore us. When we take the wrong path, He continues to give us opportunities to turn back or offers new and better paths along the way.

Thank you, God, for never giving up on your rebellious children.

The Lord is compassionate, merciful, patient, and always ready to forgive. He will not always accuse us of wrong or be angry with us forever. He has not treated us as we deserve for our sins or paid us back for our wrongs. As high as the heavens are above the earth—that is how vast his mercy is toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west—that is how far he has removed our rebellious acts from himself. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. [Psalm 103:8-13 (GW)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved

SINS OF OMISSION

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. [The Book of Common Prayer (1928)]

snowdrop - windflowerA sin of commission is the willful act of doing something that violates God’s commands in Scripture. With a little self-examination, our sins of commission are pretty easy for us to spot because they’re blatant and (more often than not) deliberate. While we may try to rationalize our actions, we know when we’ve lied, cheated, coveted, stolen or worse.

On the other hand, sins of omission are not doing what is right or failing to do as instructed. For example, adultery is a sin of commission but not respecting, honoring or loving our spouse is the more subtle sin of omission! [Ephesians 5:22-33] The things we’ve left undone that should have been done are as much a sin as the things we shouldn’t have done that we did!

Many of Jesus’ parables are as much about people not doing what is right as they are about people doing what is wrong. A priest and a Levite ignored the plight of a fellow Jew lying naked and half-dead in a ditch, the invited guests didn’t come to the great feast, the five bridesmaids didn’t bring enough oil, a servant didn’t invest his master’s money, the Pharisee didn’t humble himself, the son didn’t work in the vineyard, and the forgiven debtor didn’t forgive his fellow servant’s debt. All were sins of omission.

Take a moment to think of the things Scripture commands us to do that we frequently don’t. Chances are we frequently ignore at least one of the commands found in Ephesians—to always “be humble and gentle…patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults.” [4:2-3] Furthermore, we are to rid ourselves of “all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander” and be “kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” [4:31-32]. For that matter, do we always serve as the “salt of the earth” or the “light of the world”? [Matthew 5:13-14] How are we doing on the loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? [Matthew 5:44] Chances are we haven’t erased from our lives “all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech.” [1 Peter 2:1] We frequently pass by people in need [1 John 3:17]. Do we always love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and how are we doing on loving that obnoxious neighbor with the dog who poops on our lawn? In the forgiveness department, have we skipped over the adulterous ex-spouse, the friend who betrayed our trust, or the co-worker who maligned us and got the promotion that should have been ours?

When a woman in the crowd called out, “God bless your mother!” Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” As His followers, we are to be doers of the Word. That’s all of the Word—both the dos and the don’ts and the shalts and shalt nots!

The omission of good is no less reprehensible than the commission of evil. [Plutarch]

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. [1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

PROFILING

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)]

We know that four of the disciples were fisherman and one was a despised tax collector but have no idea what careers the others left behind to follow Jesus. If Jesus wasn’t carpentering, the fishermen weren’t fishing, the tax collector wasn’t collecting, and others weren’t doing whatever it was they did, how did these men support themselves? For the most part, they probably depended on the hospitality of strangers or friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus but we also know that the disciples were in Sychar purchasing food when Jesus had a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. Like any ministry, the group needed money for everyday expenses and Scripture tells us that people like Joanna, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene provided for them out of their resources.

Accepting money, pooling resources, paying expenses, and giving to the poor necessitated the need for a common purse and someone to act as the group’s treasurer. At first, it would seem that the former publican, Matthew, with his bookkeeping experience, would have been the logical choice to carry the group’s moneybag, but it was Judas who carried the purse. It also was Judas who stole from it and betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver!

We don’t know if it was Jesus or the disciples who gave Judas the position as the group’s banker. I suspect Jesus let the disciples work it out among themselves—it seems the sort of thing He would do. That Jesus allowed a thief like Judas to handle the money appears to be a poor example of stewardship but Jesus’ relationship with Judas may have been an example of another kind. Judas certainly proves Jesus’ point that one can’t serve both God and money. Moreover, in His relationship with Judas, Jesus lived out His words that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us!

Jesus could look into Judas’ heart and see the deceit but the disciples looked at appearances and Judas didn’t come to them with a tarnished reputation as did Matthew. The disciples probably were cautious about a tax collector in their midst and unwilling to give their money to Matthew—a man once considered an unscrupulous thief. They may have been afraid that their supporters would hesitate to place their money in the hands of a man who once collected their taxes. People may not have trusted Matthew but they never suspected Judas. That last night, when Jesus said someone sitting at the table would betray Him, they asked one another who it possibly could be. They never even questioned Judas’ abrupt departure from the upper room because they thought he was leaving to pay for their food or give money to the poor.

The people of Nazareth weren’t much better at assessing people than were the disciples. In spite of Jesus’ wisdom and miracles, His fellow Nazarenes disparaged the man who was just the son of a carpenter and whose family still lived in their obscure little village. Before meeting the Lord, even Nathanael scoffed at Jesus’ hometown and asked Andrew if anything good could come from Nazareth.

One of my Lenten fasts was profiling—the underestimating of people, especially when I might be dismissing people who would be welcomed by Jesus. I can’t help but wonder if I’m as guilty as were Nathanael and the people of Nazareth of dismissing people because of their background, upbringing, or family. Am I as guilty as I suspect the disciples were of holding people’s past mistakes against them? Jesus loved and welcomed flawed people like Matthew, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and even Judas. Do I? Will you?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. … So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. [James 2:8-9, 12-13 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THROWING STONES

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity. [Luke 6:37-38 (MSG)]

mimosaYesterday, when writing about the adulterous woman, I wondered what became of the stones that had been gathered in anticipation of stoning her. We know the Pharisees were quick to condemn people for the smallest infraction of the Law. Did they drop those stones in the road or did they put them in the pockets of their robes for another time when they could catch someone else sinning?

My husband was at the Fed Ex store when the woman in front of him dropped several packages and papers. He stooped down and helped the flustered woman gather up her scattered papers and boxes. As she departed, the man behind my husband loudly asked, “Did she even thank you?” and then, without waiting for an answer, angrily continued, “I don’t think she did and she should have. People just don’t say thank you anymore!” I agree with him that good manners seem to be in short supply nowadays; nevertheless, I wondered why he got so angry and felt the need to point out the woman’s faux pas to all around him.

How ready we are to criticize the failures of others while overlooking ours! We all set standards for others and, like that man, get peeved when they’re not met. Yet, when our hearts are filled with criticism and judgment rather than mercy, we’ll go through life picking up stones and looking for opportunities to throw them. Although the critical man cast only a pebble at the woman, it wasn’t necessary. I’m not much different than he and I suspect neither are you. In fact, I might have tossed a small stone at the man in the Fed Ex store! After all, we easily see the failings of others while being blind to ours.

Granted, common courtesy isn’t common anymore and we frequently encounter people who clearly haven’t heard of Emily Post or Miss Manners. But, if Jesus could show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, wash the feet of the men who would betray, deny, or abandon Him, and manage to ask forgiveness for the people who crucified Him, we should be able to cut a little slack for those who commit the petty offenses of everyday life! We certainly don’t need to keep stones in our pockets in case someone offends our sensibilities or look for opportunities to throw them! Maybe people would be nicer if we simply smiled more and grumbled less!

I don’t know why the woman was so frazzled that day or what really was upsetting that man. There’s wise advice in the old proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Another old proverb reminds people who live in glass houses not to throw stones—and all of us live in glass houses of some kind or another. If we want God’s mercy, grace, and understanding, we must offer those same things to others.

Our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart instead of a piece of our mind. [Anonymous bit of Internet wisdom]

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor. [Matthew 7:1-5 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NIV)]

Rocky Mountain National ParkThe Torah made it abundantly clear that adultery was punishable by death and, since adultery involves more than one party, laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy required the condemnation of both parties involved. Jesus was speaking to a crowd when some scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Him. Insisting that the law required her to be stoned, they asked Jesus what to do.

Rather than being concerned about a sin, this was another attempt to trap Jesus into saying something for which they could condemn Him. If He said to let her go, that would be a clear violation of Mosaic law. On the other hand, if He said to stone her, Jesus could be reported to the Romans for violating their law prohibiting Jews from carrying out their own executions. Moreover, if He condemned her, Jesus lay Himself open to accusations of hypocrisy since He spoke so often of forgiveness and mercy.

Before answering, Jesus stooped down and wrote something in the dust with His finger. He then stood and told them, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” He stooped again and wrote some more in the dust. Although He’d upheld the law, not one of the men could claim to be sinless and the woman’s accusers slowly slunk away. The condemned woman remained with the only sinless man who could, but wouldn’t, cast a stone.

All who read this story wonder what Jesus wrote in the dust. He may have been writing the exact words from the Torah that imposed the death penalty for adultery—words that demanded death for both the man and woman! If this woman actually was caught in the act, where was the man with whom she supposedly committed adultery? It was the scribes and Pharisees who sinned by only condemning her. Moreover, Mosaic law required a trial in which at least two witnesses testified before anyone could be put to death by stoning. There doesn’t seem to have been a trial and where were the witnesses? They were supposed to be the first ones to throw their stones! When Jesus asked for the first stone to be cast, was He asking for the witnesses to step forward? Perhaps there were none or the witnesses knew they were as guilty of sin as was the woman.

Perhaps Jesus was writing the names and secret sins of those present. Even though He walked in human flesh, Jesus also was God and knew what was in people’s hearts. Perhaps, seeing their names written in the dust, these scribes and Pharisees were reminded of the words of Jeremiah that, “all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” [17:13] Had they forsaken God by their abysmal behavior? Let us remember that the finger writing in the dust that day was the same finger that wrote the law on Moses’ stone tablets. Whatever they said, those words in the dust were powerful ones written by the hand of God!

In the end, while the only one without sin did not condemn the woman, He did not condone her sin either. In fact, we know that Jesus had a far narrower definition of adultery that did the scribes and Pharisees. While Jesus is gracious and merciful, He also is holy and calls us to a life of obedience and righteousness. Although He did not condemn her, He did tell her, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus tells us the same thing every time He forgives us; may we go and sin no more!

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? [Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)]

Copyright ©2022 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.