Morality Police, Old and New

During the last few days, I’ve been reflecting a lot on this story from Jesus’ life. [For those who don’t follow the link to read the full story, here is the short version: some friends of a paralytic bring a man to Jesus to be healed. Jesus then pronounces the man’s sins forgiven – to the consternation of some religious rule-enforcers who happen to be on the scene – and heals him so that the can stand on his own.]

The thing about this story that has captivated me is the contrast between the people who think their job is to observe and critique everyone’s ability to follow the “rules,” and those who are concerned with helping those who are suffering. Jesus’ purpose here is to silence this man’s critics, and to affirm those who seek to accept and help him. He not only heals this man, but defends his right to live in community, free of criticism, with all of the “righteous” people.

I’ve heard wealthy, Westernized Christians characterize this as a story about two problems – a “spiritual” problem (hence, the need to have sins forgiven) and a “physical” problem (the need for healing). In this way of thinking, Jesus’ only real concern is the need for forgiveness – the physical healing is only done as “proof” of his spiritual authority. Thus, our real concern should be making sure that we get everyone’s sin issues properly labeled, and there isn’t really any urgency to deal with suffering in or near our community.

It strikes me, however, that such a perspective gets this story exactly wrong. When Jesus says to this man “Friend, your sins are forgiven,” he is not trying to deal with a more important “spiritual” problem. He is pronouncing that this man is fit to live in community with everyone else. He is putting the local branch of the morality police out of a job. Sin, he is saying, is not a barrier to community – thus, rather than being an object of disdain, this man has a right to stand, to be whole, and to take his place alongside everyone else (including his critics).

The religious elite of Jesus’ day assumed that identification of and separation of ones self from those who are sinful was an act of piety. But it isn’t. Its only an act of arrogance and pettiness.

For many faith communities, it is virtually unheard of for accepted members to do certain things or to appear certain ways, even things that have little to do with what scripture would characterize as “sin.” Smoking, tattoos and body piercings, long hair (for guys), use of alcohol, and “inappropriate” language and humor are often more than sufficient to make someone feel completely inadequate when they come into these communities. And judgmental gazes are usually more than sufficient to make sure the rules are enforced.

Yet ironically these same communities can be filled with all sorts of problems of their own; problems that are much more clearly forbidden in scripture and that are subject to little or no criticism: gossip, materialism, greed, insensitivity to the poor, and support of violent, oppressive political initiatives. Enforcement of the lines between “us” and “them” becomes more important than concern for those who are suffering, or even the consequences of true sin.

The morality police, it seems, are still alive and kicking. Yet the world-shaking message of the gospel still rings true: the barrier between “us” and “them” is gone. Sins are forgiven. And the day has come for everyone to co-exist in the same spiritual community.

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