All y’all, listen a sec.
One thing I noticed is that when I started doing these reflective readings through the New Testament, I apparently never wrote anything on the first 8 chapters of Matthew. Since that was the first gospel I started with, I wondered if maybe I just had made handwritten notes that never made it to the blog; if that’s the case, they are lost to history, for better or worse, because I can’t find them. So I started back on Matthew 1-8, mostly because I find myself avoiding the dive into the depths of John’s gospel.
As is true with the Passion narratives, I have a lot of trouble finding anything that jumps out at me as new or surprising in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. So while there are a lot of great pieces to this opening of the New Testament – all the dreams in Matthew 2, including the impetus of my favorite obscure James Taylor song, “Home by another way,” for instance – they all feel like well-traveled ground. You’ve already heard the sermons and homilies.
One thing I did notice in Chapter 3, though, is about John the Baptist’s preaching. It’s a very slimmed down version of what you hear in Luke, and it’s a lot more focused on threatening the religious elites than it is on challenging the wealthy (which Luke’s JtB does). But the Good News translation of Luke 3:2 has John saying “Turn away from your sins” to the crowd, and I think the translation (which sure sounds like what we always hear) blinds us to stuff that’s really important by messing up the singulars and plurals.
It’s well known that the English language was vastly improved by American Southerners when they established a real second-person plural: “y’all.” (If you think it’s “ya’ll,” I am so sorry.) Unlike virtually every other language, non-southern English lacks a proper demarcation between second-person singulars and plurals, and I think that’s problematic here. But so is the pluralizing of “sin” to “sins.”
Look, the Greek here is just metanoia, which means “change of heart/mind”, so we’re all riffing a little on the translation. But the Christianity I grew up with really focused on the singularity of the “you” and the plurality of the “sins.” And that brought with it an emphasis that faith was about the individual-you getting right with God by confessing the specific things you had done wrong.
Which is not a bad thing, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t seem to go as far as I used to think.
I could dwell on the limits of this mindset: the OCD legalism that comes with a focus on eliminating specific sins like weeds in a garden; the me-and-God individualism that blithely ignores the social and cultural context in which we live and allows us to personalize faith to the point that we forget that we are all meant by God to be connected to each other, etc.
But let me instead just focus on flipping this around. John the Baptist also means y’all – really, the emphatic “All y’all” – need to repent of your “sin.” Actually, he probably means that phrasing first, given how he lights into the religious elites who create the culture there.
When sin is singular, it isn’t a to-do list (or, worse, a to-don’t list) to check off. It is a state of being. We don’t slip and do SINS. We are existentially mired in SIN. The first, we can try to work on. The second, we just have to give up, throw our hands up, recognize that we are mired in a culture that is fundamentally messed up, and cry for help.
And when the sin isn’t YOURS or MINE but OURS (as in an “all y’all”), it doesn’t just cover discrete actions by one of us but a system and culture that is the air we breathe together. It is not just about deciding which of us did the worst thing the most times; it is recognizing that we all are in this mess and all need to get each other out of it.
To fix “All y’all turn away from your (collective) sin,” we have to recognize that things like consumerism and racism and individualism and sexism and all the other -isms aren’t just the libs trying to stick their grievances onto the concept of sin; they are part of the thick muck in which we all live our lives. And unless we, collectively, recognize the muck for what it is and recognize that, no matter how well we dry-clean our own individual dress clothes, the muck still remains, we’ll never be open to the change of hearts John calls us to at the Jordan.
So maybe that was worth re-reading Matthew again.
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