Sin is attractive. I have watched a lot of television shows in my life and a lot more commercials, and the one thing I know for certain is that sin is fun, often accompanied by happy young women and men, and there are no, absolutely no, consequences for bad behavior! If you want to be justified in your pathologies, let the pleasure bleed out from the TV screen and wash over you. You will be greeted by an audacity of entitlement for whatever behavior you engage in, secure in the confidence of one who knows that there are no repercussions. This is sin that no longer has the good sense to know what it is.
This experience is not precisely comparable to that of the pharisee in Jesus’ story of the righteous tax collector because the pharisee in the story still had the good moral sense to recognize the reality of sin and the need to honor God. He prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” There is one parallel, though, and that is his blindness to his own sins. Sin was something others did, and he had tired of their sins; but since he did not acknowledge sin in himself, he remained self-satisfied, happy and justified.
This ancient scenario also makes clear that it is not fair to blame Madison Avenue for our sins, our sense of entitlement or our self-righteousness. The attractions of sin, I have it on good authority, are not original to our age. Madison Avenue and the TV networks might commodify our fallen natures and sell them back to us as entertainment, but the vast majority of us conspire with the advertisers and producers in our own downfall. If the media whisper in our ear, they only whisper lies that we delight to repeat to ourselves.
In fact, it is television that has recently put on display for us the effects of sin in as blunt a fashion as possible in the person of Walter White. The main character of the hit series “Breaking Bad” continued to tell himself that what he was doing was for the care of his family, even as he left behind a meth empire and numerous dead bodies and lost souls. But Walter White could not manage the damage of sin, and as his twisted empire crumbled, his family ruined or dead, the reality is presented to us starkly: sin is our attempt to meet our own twisted needs, which from the beginning are perversely turned away from God.
Yet Walter White only did on a larger scale what we all do when we turn away from God. He first convinced himself there was no sin and that, even if there were, it was justified. Jesus offers for our consideration a tax collector, crying out to heaven, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus tells us that the tax collector “went down to his home justified rather than the other,” the pharisee. This is the only occurrence of the verb dikaioô, to justify or make righteous, in all of Luke’s Gospel. It is a perfect participle, which means it might be translated “having been made righteous.” Why is this sinner justified? “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” To move from self-exaltation to humility to justification, you need to acknowledge your sin and you need to get tired of your sin. You need to get sick of the excuses, the lies and the entitlement; you need to come home to God.
We tire of sin when we recognize we are intended for more and when we feel God’s love burning through the lies we tell ourselves. God does not need a Madison Avenue ad agency presenting his pitch: “Tired of sin? Want to get rid of it? You keep scrubbing and scrubbing but those stubborn, persistent stains won’t go? Don’t despair, there’s a God who cares.” All God needs is recognition on the part of the sinner that she is loved. In the presence of God’s love, the reality that sin cannot abide becomes gloriously apparent. This is when the cry emerges, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The best part of all? God will be.