Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I had read it several times. I had walked Romans road. I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans. One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series. The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry. There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves. The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.
This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another. When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God. This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly. Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human. “Am I in the place of God?” This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well. The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.
This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin. Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God. We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings. Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.
It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around. Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition. It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so. We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship. We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods. We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.