Notre Dame professor Gary Anderson, in his splendidly written new book Sin: A History , tackles a subject that has gained renewed attention among scholars while it has lost its nerve among many preachers and lay folks and culture at large. In a word, that topic is sin. People have just gotten nervous about the word and aren’t sure when and when not to use it, so they don’t use it at all. It’s like the word “me” as in “she sent the package to me.” Some folks are taught not to use the word “me” so they just use the word “myself,” and they make that myself look like they don’t when to use it.
It’s about the same with “injustice.” This word has developed a proper usage. First, liberals love the term and bandy it about all kinds of things; but they don’t very often make it personal as in “I committed injustice” unless they are gathering themselves into a group of others who did the same “injustice.” Conservatives, on the other hand, don’t like that word “injustice” and tend to see it as squishy and liberal and useless, so they don’t use it for themselves. So, the term “injustice” has become something “we” do but not very often something “I” do — or, if you are so inclined, “something myself does.”
“Sin” is a good old rugged word that tells true things about “me” and about “you” and about “us.” In that order. Sin, as a word, hasn’t become unpopular because of overuse. No, it’s become unpopular because it is … hear, hear … well, how do we say this, let’s be frank: it’s so judgmental. That stammering reveals why so many don’t use it. To say something is “sin” is to sit in judgment on something, some act or some person.
Drawing from specialists about metaphors, including Paul Ricoeur, Anderson observes (and claims) that we can’t comprehend the biblical notion of sin until we become familiar with its many metaphors. And what Anderson has learned is that there is a story to tell about sin’s development in the pages of the Bible.
He provides an opening salvo: in Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, sin became a burden that had to be transmitted to a “pack animal” and then that animal carried it off into the heart of desert, a place he says was perceived as beyond the reach of God (6). Fasting and repenting were not enough; something had to be done.
But Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matthew 6, sees sin as a debt and he teaches his disciples to ask God for forgiveness so they could avoid becoming debt-slaves. Thus, a very common commercial term — debt — became a very common word for sin (as debt).
His point: there’s a difference between sin as burden and sin as debt. The word “debt” entailed physical punishment, such as labor or imprisonment, and during the exile the sin of Israel was seen as punishment and the duration of that punishment was paying off the debt.
Alongside this development was the corollary: virtuous acts were depicted as credits. In Second Temple Judaism some saints were thought to have carried sufficient credits to have them stored in a bank for themselves and for Israel — thus, in rabbinic Judaism, the credits of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob counted for something for later Israelites. (See Dan 4:24).
Now a big one: almsgiving was “the” major command for many Jews at the time of Jesus. It was the way one accumulated merit. Neither in Greece and Rome were alms seen as individual tasks; they were the tasks of the State. But in Judaism and Christianity, because alms were religious deeds, it became the task of the individual.
But Anderson will show that this moral world is not a zero-sum economy. Alms were investments in a company that would eventually rise to the top. While alms and the treasury of merit were big in medieval Christianity, the Reformation undid much of this connection … and the rest is history.