Christian Cliches Sermon Series – #2: Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 9:9-13 – As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

John 8:2-11 –  Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Christian Cliches sermon series
#2 – Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
Matt. 9:9-13 and John 8:2-11

            One of my favorite cartoons has the caption “Countdown to the Final 10.” An angel with a stack of papers is reading through a bunch of different commandments to get God’s opinion on what should make the cut. In the cartoon, we see the angel say, “Is ‘Keep Off the Grass” a deal-breaker?” to which God responds, “OK, lose it.” So, apparently, we almost had an 11th command about lawn care!

            How are we supposed to know what’s in the Bible and what isn’t? In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a pretty big book! Some stuff that we think is in there is actually not in there, like “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and “Thou shalt use your turn signal.” And some stuff that we’re sure wouldn’t be in Bible – things like sex and genocide and talking donkeys – it’s in there. I think I’m going to start using that as a default response anytime someone disagrees with me. “Leigh, I think we should buy that big-screen TV for the basement. After all, ‘He who watcheth sporting contests on big screens grows wise and wealthy.’ It’s in the Bible! Chapter 1 in the book of Hesitations.”

Unless you’re a Bible nerd like me, how are you supposed to know? Take today’s cliché, for example. “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Is that in the Bible? It sure sounds biblical. It’s got the word “sin” in it, which is a pretty good indicator. And it sounds graceful and compassionate, at least on the surface. It seems to say that regardless of who you are or what you’ve done, I still love you. That feels Bible-y, doesn’t it? I could hear Jesus saying this. Guess what – not in the Bible. In fact, it’s not even close to anything Jesus ever said.

In our readings today, we have two examples of how Jesus dealt with sinners and their sin. In the first story, Jesus calls Matthew, a hated tax collector, to follow him. Matthew is so excited he invites all his fellow sinners to his house for a party! And then Jesus shows up. You might think he was there to condemn these heathens, but instead he pulls out a corkscrew and a wine glass and joins in the fun! When the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ choice of partygoers, he says, “I desire mercy (which also translates as steadfast love), not sacrifice. I haven’t come for all you righteous folks, I’ve only come for the sinners.” You see what he did there, right? The Pharisees were also sinners, but it was easier to call someone else that name. No qualification here from Jesus about only loving the sinner as long as you promise to hate the sin.

In the other story, the Pharisees bring an adulterous woman to Jesus and ask him if the law is right that she should be stoned to death for her sin. Jesus says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” You see what he did there, right? This Jesus was a pretty funny guy. He knew that the stone-throwers were just as sinful as the woman. There was no way they could hate this woman’s sin and still love her as a person. “We love you, Gertrude, so just remember that as we’re hurtling these boulders at you.”

Therein lies one of the problems with our cliché for today. While “hate the sin, love the sinner” might sound like a harmless, grace-full statement on the surface, it really carries with it an air of judgment. It’s the ancient version of our modern-day “Bless his heart.” You realize that you can get away with saying the meanest, nastiest, most gossipy things about a person as long as you end it with, “God bless his heart.” Did you hear about Johnny? That two-timing, Bible-stealing no-good son of a biscuit eater lost his job. God bless his heart.” That same sort of backhanded compliment is implied in the statement, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Another problem with this statement is how we determine what is a sin. The Bible is notoriously vague on details here. We get a few lists here and there, but they are more representative than exhaustive. Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but he doesn’t go on to offer a checklist of what counts and what doesn’t. And we crafty humans have devised all sorts of sins that weren’t even around when the Bible was written, like not using your turn signal. So how do we know what’s a sin and what’s not?

The definition I’ve always used is that a sin is anything we do or fail to do that hinders us from loving God and loving each other. That may not be perfect, but it works for me. But I would guess that for people who use this statement about hating the sin and loving the sinner, that’s not the definition they use. I think their definition of sin is anything that someone else does that they don’t agree with or that goes against their understanding of God and faith and the Bible. You see what they do there, right? You hear the judgment imbedding in the statement? I love you, but I hate that thing you’re doing that doesn’t fit with what I think you should be doing.

I have most often heard this statement said in relation to homosexuality. In researching this sermon, I read or listened to five different sermons on this specific cliché, and all five were about how this statement is used as a veiled condemnation of gays and lesbians. Regardless of your belief on this issue, it’s important to note that there are 3-4 passages in the Bible that speak about same-sex relations, none of which correspond to our modern understanding of homosexuality and none of which were said by Jesus. But there are hundreds of verses about the evils of money and greed, most of which were said by Jesus. And yet, I can’t ever remember someone saying to a church-going non-giver, “I love them, but I hate their sinful selfishness.” My point is this cliché tends to be used to name something that only someone else could do, something that is easy to look down on and judge in the other person.

I go back to our two stories about Jesus. Would you believe that Jesus never called someone a sinner? He told people to go and sin no more, he said he came to call the sinners, but he never looks someone in the eye and says, “You are a sinner.” He was not in the sin-accounting business. So as soon as we sit in the seat of judgment over someone else, we’ve missed the point. Jesus doesn’t judge the sinners; he parties with them, spends time with them. He didn’t act like they were sinners. They weren’t a project or a mission field. They were his friends. People with names. Defined as beloved children of God, not defined by their sins. The only people he judges are those who think they’ve got all their stuff together. He judges the righteous for being self-righteous, for spewing hate speech about the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in their own.

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I have trouble believing that any statement is reflective of God if it has the word “hate” in it. Still, this cliché isn’t completely useless. To be honest, I think it would be great if the church could actually live up to it, but too often people see the church as hating the sin and the sinner, all in Jesus’ name. Not much room for grace there. Can you claim to love someone while you’re throwing stones at them? I think when you define a person by their sin, you’ve already started hating them. The love you profess to have for them is conditional, measured out in proportion to just how much you hate their sin as you have defined it.

So if Jesus doesn’t instruct us to hate the sin and love the sinner, does he have anything to say about this? In another part of Matthew’s gospel, those pesky Pharisees to try trap Jesus by saying, “We’ve got all these great laws. Honor thy father and mother. Don’t kill. Keep off the grass. Tell us, Jesus, which one is the greatest?” And Jesus says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” No conditions there. No disclaimers about what to do if your neighbor happens to be a sinner. Just love God and love your neighbor. If we do that, I wonder what would happen to all the hate that seems to dominate our world.

For an answer to that, I close today with a slightly lengthy quote from a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, who we honor this weekend. In a sermon titled “Love Your Enemies,” he said, “Sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: ‘I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.’ And I looked at him right quick and said: ‘Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.’”

“Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.” For too long the church has been known as a place that hates the sin and the sinner. What would people think about us if we practiced steadfast love, not judgment? What would people think about us if we loved the sinners, all the sinners, and left the definition and judgment of  sin to God? What would people think about us if instead of loving the sinner and hating the sin, we loved God and loved our neighbor, even the sinful ones? How do we cut off this chain of hate? We do that by love.


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