Changing ideas of sin?

I am reading a recent book by Biblical theologian Gary A. Anderson on the changing ideas of sin in Judaism and early Christianity.  He analyzes scriptural texts using many detailed scholarly sources.  His intriguing findings are that the concept of sin in Judaism changed from earlier metaphors of stain and burden to the idea of sin as being in debt to God and other creditors.

Whenever Jewish persons could not repay their debts they were condemned to suffer and work off their obligations by becoming enslaved to their creditors or suffering other punishments. Sin became increasingly identified with being in debt to God as the ultimate creditor.  Such concepts and practices are referred to in the parables of the New Testament and explain the plea to forgive us our debts in the Lord's Prayer.


To be forgiven one’s debts was a freedom and life restoring event. A family member may pay up for you or the debt can be cancelled by a generous creditor who no longer demand what is owed. Earlier Biblical concepts of sin as stain or burden were removed by the weight being taken away, perhaps by a scapegoat, or being washed clean.

Such metaphors for sin and its remission can be seen to influence different theological interpretations of how Jesus saves his people and takes away the sins of the world. Ancient Semitic practices of using credit to help others in need have also played a role in ideas of how God, Jesus and the saints can be called upon to extend help to the hard pressed sinner from their rich treasury of grace.  

The traditional images can still be seen to possess power for us in understanding the good news of salvation. Yes experientially sin is a heavy burden and we can feel stained and soiled. To be washed clean as snow and relieved of weighty depressing burdens renews life. The painful condition of being in debt and enslaved to debt also still works as an idea for sin. This image works literally in this debt laden economy and symbolically in understanding how much addiction is like the despair of being a debt slave. 

How grateful we are to be liberated, forgiven and freed. But more may also be at stake. Ancient ideas of sin can be changing and evolving even now.  What do we think is the nature of sin today?

Sidney Callahan


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Liam Richardson
7 years 5 months ago
I would venture that sin today is view less as stain or debt and more as impairing right relationship.
ed gleason
7 years 5 months ago
We do a family/spirituality program at a Franciscan recovery house for addicted men. There are spiritually recovery houses all over the USA. The men have sponsors {spiritual guides?], twelve steps, payback and  acknowledgment for sin, the 12th step= to 'bring unto others' etc. Nowhere do we see the lack of communal responsibility. As Sidney says
'This image works literally in this debt laden economy and symbolically in understanding how much addiction is like the despair of being a debt slave.'
This is well understood by people in recovery. 

Sure, the confessional boxes are not in use [my parish uses them as a supply storage] we do have a confessional room though.
It might be reassuring to look at all the thousands of 12 step meetings held in Church basements as the new Reconciliation. The' boxes' opened their no-windows to a fresh breeze. 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
David (#7)  Who is talking about institutional evil these days?  I hear an awful lot of condemnation of personal morality, but very little about the sins of power, prestige and possessions, all of which are the root of institutional evil.

I think you misunderstand what is meant by insitutional evil.
7 years 5 months ago
Sin, a word heavy with mixed meanings, from my strict Catholic childhood, to the heady days of Vatican ii when all was to be explained anew and religion was joyful, to now when mixed metaphors are the order of the day, depending on who one is hearing. Is Christ the scapegoat that we should all feel very bad about having burdened with ours sins? Is it our fault that He had to die? Or is my soul like a dirty cloth, to be washed clean only in confession and by doing penance?   Do we owe a debt to God, to be repaid by sacrifice, penance, good deeds and Purgatory? And if we don't pay back enough, Hell is our final stop. But God loves you, Jesus is love, love Him back and all is forgiven. What to think, believe? For my peace of mind, I have to reject all those explanation and just talk to God in my head, a God that I hope is fair, just, and -it is said - loves His creation, or He wouldn't have bothered with creating. I don't think many believe in sin any more,  other than as breaking a rule, rules that keep changing.  
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
A few days ago Fr. Richard Rohr, in one of his daily email meditations, reflected on the difference (and deep connectedness) between personal sin and systemic, or institutional evil.  Rohr says that the individual usually gets all the blame while the powers and principalities get off scot free.

I think this is an important point when reflecting upon what sin is.

But I also am intrigued with considering sin in terms of (the burden of) debt (and forgiveness).  Not being worthy and knowing it, yet somehow having this great debt absolved.  Talk about having a winning lottery ticket.

It reminds me of the celebration of Jubilee in ancient Judaism.  Supposedly every 50 years all debts were forgiven, all prisoners freed, and the wealth and land redistributed.  That kind of radical societal cleansing has to be rooted in a profoundly real relationship with an unconditionally loving God.
7 years 5 months ago
As a retired Parish Priest I miss the certainty of, at times, being God's chosen instrument. Humbling, emotional moments. Afirming moments for both penitent and confessor.
''Bless me Father''......Words often spoken through tremulous tears are becoming a rarity..not because the priests of today and the people they serve are in some way less faithful but because the image of priest and bishop has been shattered as has the trust of the people.
Confession is a particularly intimate experience for both participants. Its fragility is now being demonstrated....but redemption is ongoing and I believe in Christ's healing love and a consequent revival of that confident, humble plea.....''Bless me father.........''


The latest from america

On Jan. 18, a teenager wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, center left, stands in front of an elderly Native American singing and playing a drum in Washington. (Survival Media Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An exchange between Catholic high school students and a Native American tribal leader in Washington Jan.

Like most public writers, I was used to getting notes that were crude, crazy or even mildly threatening. Normally, I would say a quick prayer for these obviously troubled people and get on with my day. This time it felt different, precisely because the author wasn’t insulting or obviously deranged.
Rachel LuJanuary 21, 2019
In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019