Monday, November 26, 2012

The Greasy Stain of Sin

Two Paths - - 1397781
I remember the greasy feeling of shame. It's like a nausea that refuses to be swallowed down-a literal acidic ache.  Someone looked at me, saw my fault, and pointed it out. I'm not talking about a kindly Christian sister gently pointing out my sin and prayerfully leading me to repentance.  No.  I am talking about an irritated boss who gruffly called me down in front of coworkers or the catty friend whose "joke" left me stinging. Their attitude may have been wrong but their point wasn't.  My sin left a stain for the whole world to see. You been there? It's a cross road.  

One path leads to change.  One path leads past confrontation, through the grace of God, and by the aid of the Holy Spirit to repentance. The path is narrow and winding; it makes no promise that I can escape without facing up to my sin.  It does promise forgiveness though.

The other path slopes comfortably downward.  The final destination is fury but first there are rest stops at Denial Park, and Excuse Central.  "Who me?" We say, "I'm just like everybody else! What I am doing isn't THAT bad! How dare they judge me? Obviously they are the problem here, not me!"

I've been down both roads all the way to the end. I'm sorry to say the second one leads in a circle.  Over and over, back to the beginning, where our sin again becomes the butt of someone's joke, the subject of someone's cautionary tale, or the object of someone's scorn.  It's a vicious circle where our bitterness and fury grow until we teach everyone who loves us that there is no use in telling us the truth.

It was the story of Herodias that brought all this to mind. I was scanning the gospels for an entirely different writing project, when I stopped to read her story.  Mark tells us that she had originally been incestuously married off to Philip, one of the sons of Herod the Great who tried to murder the infant Jesus.  Then, according to historical sources, she divorced him to marry her brother-in-law, Herod Antipas, who also arranged a simultaneous divorce with his first wife.  John the Baptist was not impressed; he apparently told Herod multiple times that stealing his brother's wife was unacceptable.

This might have made Herod angry, but John was arrested on Herodias' behalf.  She wanted him dead.  Why didn't Herod hand him over, once he had John safely in prison?  Mark indicates that Herod was actively protecting John from his wife because he was afraid of him. Matthew records on the other hand that Herod was afraid the people would riot if he killed John.  Complex motivations aside, Herod knew that letting his wife's urge for revenge play out was bad politics (Mark 6, Matthew 14).

The story climaxes in a birthday party.  Salome, his niece/step-daughter, dances for him and the party guests, and she is impressive to say the least.  She receives a promise that he will give her whatever she asks.  At her mother's prompting, she requests John's head on a platter.  Embarrassed in front of all his friends, the King has no choice but to send for the axeman.

I remembered the bones of the story but when I read it carefully, I could see Herodias' fury in play.  John dared to criticize her marriage.  He was bold enough to speak up and say the thing she was doing, breaking up two families to follow her heart (or possibly her political ambitions) was unlawful.  Herod seemed to take the rebuke in stride but Herodias was livid.

At first reading, I was a little smug.  I thought about how her anger had gotten the better of her, of how she was out for revenge.  I have never been so angry that I tried to have anyone murdered.  I'm not doing too bad.  But then I thought about how it feels when someone points out my sin, and my heart sank. Herodias and I had more in common that I wanted to admit.

She seemed to be imagining that by eliminating the source of the criticism she could eliminate the shame of her sin.  I've thought that thought. It seems less difficult to cut the complainer from my life than to cut out the sin.  Oh, it never sounds like that in my head, but that's the practical result. I've blindly refused to see my fault and, lost in denial, blamed and isolated the critic instead.

When I am deep in sin, the people I least want to meet are the ones who see me clearly.  Herodias killed off her critic; I avoid mine. If Boss-dodging were an Olympic sport, I'd be a champion.  Spending all my time with people who act just like me is no help either.  The things I need the most are things I want the least.  Avoiding the shame doesn't make my sin go away.  Nothing will banish the greasy stain but facing up to the truth.  I can't fix it. I can't ignore it. I can't go on pretending that it doesn't exist.  All that makes me is a liar. What I desperately need is a faithful friend, a big brother, an advocate.  I need washed anew in the blood of my Savior (1 John 1: 6-10).
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
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