By Tony Hunter — Let’s start with a thought-provoking question: “Is silence a sin?” Answer: “Well, it depends . . .”
OK, that wasn’t very helpful. Great question, but a fairly unsatisfying answer. The problem is one of definition and context. Understanding what we mean when we use a word matters, and context is everything.
Question: “Tony, are you saying we can sort out both of those heavily-complex topics in less than 1500 words?”
Answer: “Um . . .” (pretends not to hear the question)
Let’s start with sin. What are we talking about when we use that word? That sounds like the correct question, but it isn’t. The correct question is: What were the original users of the word talking about when they used the word? In the New Testament, one of the main words translated as sin is hamartia (say “ha-mar-tea-uh”). It means “to miss the mark.” That seems like a reasonable definition. But here is a little contextual twist. It was a term that was used in ancient Greece for when archers missed their target.
On the surface, it’s a great metaphor. But let’s look deeper. When an archer is hitting a target, they don’t commit hamartia (sin). When they miss the target, they do commit hamartia (sin). Let me ask a question. What is the archer’s target? A paper bullseye? Or a man across a battle- field?
So, if an archer doesn’t kill someone with an arrow, he sins, but if he does kill someone with an arrow, he doesn’t sin. That seems to make the concept of sin more difficult. But you might point out that maybe I’m reading too much into the metaphor as most metaphors break down eventually.
Perhaps I am. But maybe not completely. Context is everything. There is a story in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:25-37 for those keeping score) where Jesus tells the story of a man beaten by robbers and left along the side of a road to die. Jesus is telling a parable, a metaphor, to answer the question that an expert in Jewish law asked Him regarding salvation that turned into a discussion about who our neighbor is. Because, to inherit eternal life, the expert of the law said, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus liked the answer, but then the law expert asked another equally important question: Who is my neighbor? That’s when Jesus tells the story of the guy beaten and robbed. While this man is lying broken, bleeding, and dying along the side of the road, a priest walks by, sees the man, and then crosses the road to pass by as far away as he can, doing nothing to help. Then a Levite comes by and does the same, which was nothing.
It should be noted that priests served in the temple doing the most sacred and holy works, and Levites were the people that priests came from.
But then a third man, a Samaritan, came by, stopped and helped. Samaritans were looked down upon strongly by the people Jesus is speaking to. They were considered low class. They were seen as less than. But this man stopped, band- aged the man, took him to an inn, paid for his care, and saved his life.
After telling this story, Jesus asks who is the broken man’s neighbor? The expert rightly pointed out the Samaritan. Well, technically he didn’t because it seemed he couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge the Samaritan and simply said “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus agreed.
Now, if we analyze this, I think most would agree that the Samaritan did well, and the priest and Levite missed the mark. They committed hamartia. They sinned.
Or did they?
The man is broken, bleeding, and dying. Most importantly, he’s bleeding. This is a problem for a priest and a Levite who were, as all Jewish and Israelite people were, for- bidden from touching things that are unclean. There is a whole list of unclean things, and blood is one of those things. Sure, they could do it, but there was a whole ritual and then a sequestering that would take place if they did. It was horribly inconvenient. So, the practice was—just don’t do it.
By not getting near that man, they were obeying the law. They were hitting the mark.
(Side note: What is lawful is not always just, and what is just is not always lawful. End of side note.)
But this article isn’t about what people do or don’t do. It’s about whether silence can be sin. It was bad enough that the priest and Levite didn’t choose mercy over law and act directly. But what is really more telling than what they did or didn’t do is what they didn’t say. They told no one. They didn’t get help. They didn’t find someone and tell them there was a man dying who needed help they weren’t able to provide.
They saw injustice and said nothing. It simply wasn’t convenient for them to do the right thing. From that perspective, they didn’t just miss the mark, they demonstrated they didn’t even know what the target was.
When we talk about sin, I’m curious if we know what the target even is? An equally important question is, as Adventist Christians, would you go somewhere Adventist Christianity says you shouldn’t to help a person Adventist Christianity says you shouldn’t be around because they are something Adventist Christianity doesn’t condone?
Would you get them help, or would you stay silent?
As a chaplain, I’m a mandated reporter. In fact, all pastors are technically mandated reporters. For those who don’t know, a mandated reporter is someone who is bound by law to report abuse. The abuse can come in the form of physical abuse or neglect. I’m oversimplifying this definition, so feel free to look it up for the full breadth of what that means. But the point is, if I see that someone is being abused or harmed or neglected, like children or the elderly, and I don’t report it, I can be charged by the law and be fined and/or imprisoned depending on how angry the judge is the day I’m dragged into court.
Our laws in this country tell us that if we see evil happening and say nothing, we are culpable for the evil taking place. Weirdly, the laws we use in Christianity do not usually include that caveat even though the Bible repeatedly makes the point that we are actually accountable for what we don’t do just as much as for what we do.
You might rightly agree that, obviously, if we see some- one being abused or murdered or some other horrible crime, we should be saying something. But what about the less obvious stuff? What about spiritual abuse? What about
theological abuse? What about when your pastor or elder or Sabbath School teacher stands before people putting down one group or another simply because they don’t believe the same?
When certain Adventists verbally attack Catholics and make declarations about people who believe that way, do we say, “Hey, it’s OK to not agree with them, but this is going way too far”? Do we stand up for pagans and atheists when some in our fold go on the verbal attack in Bible study? You don’t have to agree with a belief to defend the one who believes it. Are we not a people who stand for religious liberty? Or do we simply believe religious liberty only matters as it applies to Adventists?
The implication of the good Samaritan was that the Samaritan and the victim were of faiths that did not agree with each other. With that parable, Jesus implies a question. Are you willing to love everyone and stand for everyone and speak up for everyone, or only the ones like you?
Do we get so caught up in defending and distinguishing beliefs that we ignore the people on both sides? By equating the keeping of our beliefs with not sinning, do we wind up sinning by trying not to sin? By hitting one mark, do we miss another?
Are you willing to speak up for what is right, even if it makes the church look bad? Do we do what is right always, or only when it’s convenient?
The question was “Is silence a sin”? And the answer is, “Not always.” But sometimes it’s the greatest of sins. Maybe we don’t have the power on our own to stop evil and injustice. But we have a voice that is capable of exposing evil and bringing the help we can’t give.
It’s time to stop focusing on hitting marks (sin) and start focusing on showering our neighbor with all the love and mercy and justice that Christ is capable of funneling through us. Which brings us to one last question: Who is our neighbor?
–Tony Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and a hospice chaplain working for Elevation Hospice in Northern Colorado. Tony and his wife, Nirma, live in Firestone, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]