No, Not All Sins Are Equally Bad, But Just Which Ones Are Worse?
Aug 31, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 5 Comments
“But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23b).
I hear the comment so often, in one form or another. It boils down to the question: “How can I judge someone else for what I think is their sin, when I commit plenty of sins myself?” There are numerous ways the Christian should respond. One answer is because Jesus told us to do so—see Matthew 18:15-18. A second involves definitions. If by “judge,” someone means being unnecessarily harsh or “judgmental,” then no, I shouldn’t act that way. That was Jesus’ point in Matthew 7:1. But Christ and the apostles regularly “judged” in the sense of analyzing what was right and wrong and declaring what fell into which category.
But in this blog I’m more interested in the issue behind this question which seems to suggest that all sins are somehow equal. One person commits adultery, but probably all of us lust, so how can we criticize the adulterer or engage in church discipline with them? After all doesn’t Jesus equate lust and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount? No, not exactly. He says that both bring us in danger of judgment. Every sin separates us from God, and every sin requires forgiveness. So in the sense that every sin creates a problem that needs to be dealt with, yes one can say that the Bible equates various sins.
But that hardly makes all of them equally bad! I would vastly prefer that my wife harbor inappropriate thoughts about another man but never act on them than that she commit adultery! I would even more prefer that people who dislike me think hateful things about me but not act on them than that they murder me! In terms of the severity of consequences for oneself and for others, especially in this life, there is a huge difference as to how bad different sins are.
And that is no doubt a big part of what Jesus meant when he criticized the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23 for scrupulously tithing, even down to the tiniest garden herb, but neglecting what he calls the “weightier” or “more important” matters of the Law. He immediately adds that they should have done the one without neglecting the other, thereby showing that he is not challenging any of the Law, at least not before his crucifixion, resurrection and sending of the Spirit at Pentecost would fulfill and thereby do away with the need for his followers literally to obey the civil and ceremonial laws of Israel. But even while the whole Law of Moses was still in force, there were issues that were much more important than others. Echoing the language of Micah 6:8, Jesus could sum these up with the terms “justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
An older fundamentalism often seemed obsessed with railing against inappropriate sex, drink and drugs. Today some Christians seem to revel in the degree to which they tolerate others who overindulge in any or all of these areas or actually themselves have sexual partners to whom they are not (heterosexually) married, or get drunk or are addicted to non-prescription drugs. But I wonder, have both groups overestimated how “weighty” these matters are compared with the neglect of social justice, concerning which Micah berated Israel?
What would happen if we exercised church discipline over those who did not care for the poor and needy in their midst? After all, Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 says it is precisely those people who should not take the Lord’s Supper! What if we were concerned to treat the alien and sojourner in the land with the same mercy as the native born, as the Law so often commanded? And if someone protests that we must distinguish between legal and illegal aliens, were there any legal aliens in Israel? If God had bequeathed the land to the Jews, weren’t they all illegal? I don’t pretend to know what system will give the best health care to our growing ranks of uninsured, but shouldn’t that issue be at the forefront of every Christian’s agenda? Or are we still tithing dill, mint and cumin and neglecting the weightier matters of the Law?