Sins of Commission and Sins of Omission
Ordinary Sunday 23: 10th September, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Ez 33:7-9; Ps 95; Ro 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. (Ro 13:8)
Reinhold Niebuhr, writing in the context of the Great Depression in 1930 in the United States, reflected poignantly on the weakness of the modern Church. He argued that:
The constitution of our civilization was written by Adam Smith [18th C. Scottish economist and philosopher; proponent of the free market] who gave himself to the illusion that each man could be selfish without any other restraint but that which the selfishness of others offered, so that a society of selfish individuals would nevertheless create a social harmony.
Niebuhr continued later to assert, "Either the church must take its gospel of love seriously in this world and apply it to the important relationships of life or it will die with our dying civilization. What is needed to make this gospel effective is a combination of two qualities which are not always combined with ease: spiritual vigor and social intelligence."
When we don't take our gospel of love seriously, when we lack Niebuhr's spiritual vigour and social intelligence, it is a sinful thing. It is as much a failing of our Church today as it was then.
Do you remember the old Prayer of Confession, said at Matins? I was brought up on it as a child:
Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us... .
Those words always used to stick in my young mind: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done" ... sins of commission and sins of omission.
Ogden Nash in his poem, 'Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man' gives a delightful reflection on this important distinction:
- It is common knowledge to every school boy and every Bachelor of Arts
- That all sin is divided into two parts.
- One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
- And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
- And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is
- equally bad in the eyes of right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha.
- And it consists of not having done something you shouldha.
In today's gospel reading we have a Biblical grievance procedure laid out; how to deal with sins of commission, if you like:
If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the brother or sister listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
It is good advice, and we have similar procedures in place in our church today. Our Office of Professional Standards in the Diocese of Melbourne is responsible for developing these processes, and in the wake of the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse, there is a lot of new work being undertaken in this area.
Last week I attended a Professional Standards workshop. I must confess that I was not excitedly awaiting the day; these workshops can be a bit like watching paint dry! But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It was a very engaging workshop. The thing that struck me most powerfully, is that government legislation has moved into the domain of "sins of omission" as far as churches are concerned.
There is a new criminal offence in place now, as a result of the Royal Commission; it is called: "failure to protect." Organisations, such as churches, can now be prosecuted if we fail to protect a child from potential abuse. It is an acknowledgement that in the past, as a church, we have failed to put adequate protections and protocols in place. The onus is now on us to acknowledge our sins of omission and put more robust child protection processes in place.
The Parish Council is forming a sub-committee to develop these processes here at St Peter's. We already have some good protocols in place: Working with Children checks, not allowing children to be alone with one adult who is not a parent, and so on. But the sub-committee will be looking in more detail at what we do and how we can improve our systems.
Churches can be seen as soft targets for those with ulterior motives, because we preach love and forgiveness. But as today's gospel demonstrates, Christian love sometimes needs to have a hard edge to it. Love is about creating safe places for everyone. Love has boundaries, where forgiveness and grace can be real not cheap.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.