I’m part of a small clergy group that meets each week to share thoughts about the lectionary passages for the coming Sunday. We explored a passage from Matthew's gospel that has Jesus saying that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom ahead of others in the audience with whom he was speaking.
That brought up the question of what it meant to be a sinner, which, given the presence of prostitutes, slid toward the usual conflation of sin with sexual immorality. I say usual because it seems that every time the subject of sin comes up in any discussion, it turns quickly to sexual morality. It’s a curious thing.
One can raise the issue of sin, at least in the gospels, as being a condition of living outside the boundaries of strict pharisaic standards. That would include just about everyone living in rural communities, and most of the poor living in cities. One can raise the issue of sin as failing to meet the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments. One can raise the issue of sin as any failure to live up to God’s expectations as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. One can raise the issue of sin in just about any way one wants to raise it, and the discussion will turn quickly to sexual morality. Why is that?
In popular thought sin means immorality, and immorality will be assumed to have something to do with sex. To be sure, there are important moral questions revolving around sex including clergy abuses, human trafficking, sex tourism and more, but morality is more than sex. You know that.
Very strange. Has our culture has become so obsessed with sex? If not obsessed, has it been so overwhelmed with sexual overtones that we cannot avoid it? FaceBook ads tell me that Fredrick's of Hollywood is still in business. Who knew? I wonder why they think that would interest me? But I digress. That may all be true, but there is more. I suspect that we slide so easily into equating immorality with sex as a way to avoid examination of, and responsibility for, the multitude of behaviors with moral implications that we participate in on a daily basis without giving them much thought. And we don’t give them much thought because we don’t want to give them much thought.
I’m reminded of the years I taught an ethics course for business students (no oxymoron jokes please). They always wanted to start off with questions about things like the morality of atomic warfare. That gives you an idea of how long ago that was, but the point is the same. They could grapple with that, but did not recognize the need to grapple with questions of a more immediate, everyday nature involving the decisions they actually make and are responsible for. They didn’t recognize the need because they didn’t want to recognize it. It was a matter of avoidance. I think it’s the same dynamic that took place in my little clergy study group, and it takes place in almost every discussion of morality and immorality. We quickly turn to sex because it’s, well, sexy. The issues are real and important, but even more important, they allow us to avoid the more immediate issues that are no doubt lurking nearby. Maybe we should leave the prostitutes out of it altogether, and focus entirely on the tax collectors. They hit closer to the homes in which most of us live.