The third chapter of Matthew’s gospel says a lot about John the Baptist.
It sounds as though he was a guy that said thins pretty straight as he believed them to be. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily make him right about everything.
People flocked to him and confessed their sins and repented and were baptised in the river Jordan.
There’s a whole lot of stuff packed into the words sin and repent.
What is sin? There’s a whole article about it here. It says for example:
Sin is the breaking of God's law. If God says "Do not lie" and you lie, then you have broken His law and sinned.
This, though, seems a very black and white view of life in a world which is full of colour.
Is there such a thing as a white lie?
- Is telling the truth always better than not telling the truth?
- Should doctors always tell people everything … regardless of the individual persons needs at that moment in time?
- Is knowingly withholding the truth the same as a lie?
I think, I’m not certain, but I think, that anyone that has the idea that it’s easy to define what sin is, really is over simplifying things.
The article also says:
The Old Testament contains the Law of God. It is a perfect standard because it is God's standard.
And this leaves me stupefied. The law as dictated by the Old Testament ranges from the reasonably sounding Ten Commandments to quite a lot of not quite so reasonably sounding stuff. There’s a lot of this recorded here … the tone of which is over-aggressive for me and demonstrates what I think, is a misunderstanding of what Christianity is. The author has some big problems. But it illustrates the point that working out what’s right and wrong can be a tricky business.
And still … I remember back in early 1973 when someone asked me if I thought I had ever sinned. Even by my own subjective definition of right and wrong … I knew I’d done things that I was ashamed of. I remembered people at school that we’d teased and made fun of. Horrendously. For no good reason.
And sneaking a peak ahead into chapter 20 of Matthew’s gospel, the following story is recounted:
… a teacher of the Law, tried to trap him [Jesus] with a question.
"Teacher," he asked, "which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
Jesus answered, " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
This is the greatest and the most important commandment.
The second most important commandment is like it: 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself.'
The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments."
The first of these is difficult for an agnostic or an atheist to understand, let alone to put into practise.
But the second could provide a starting point for anyone.
But even then it’s complex. I’ve heard it said that we have to learn how to love ourselves before we can really learn to love other people. And that fits in pretty well with what Jesus said. If a person doesn’t love his or her self, then it makes no sense at all to love other people in the same way.
Maybe the main thing is to not do things that hurt yourself or hurt other people. And major on things that are good for you and for others.
Maybe any kind of commandment that doesn’t influence these things is something that doesn’t really matter. And any command that goes against these isn’t really a commandment at all.
It gives a starting point for definitions of what’s right and wrong.
And also hints at the possibility that what might sometimes be right in some circumstances and for some people, might be wrong in other circumstances for other people.
Then there is repentance. I think this means accepting and understanding what you’ve done that is wrong and committing yourself to change, be different and not do it again.
And so … even in the agnostic world that I inhabit these days … if I define sin as the things that I’m uncomfortable about doing because I feel that they are wrong … maybe because they aren’t good for me or for someone else … repentance seems like the right thing to do. It makes sense.
There’s some nasty sounding stuff in Matthew chapter 3.
Every tree not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire
He [Jesus] will clean up his threshing floor and gather his grain into the barn, but he will burn the chaff with inextinguishable fire.
It sounds bad for trees that don’t produce the fruit and for the chaff.
Some interpret this as meaning that people that do bad things end up in hell. Or maybe it’s people that don’t do good things.
I’m not at all sure about heaven and hell.
Then, John baptises Jesus and it says:
When Jesus had been baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Suddenly the heavens opened up for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.
Then a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love. I am pleased with him!"
If I could believe in God, it would mean a lot to me. There was a time when it did.
Even for an agnostic transvestite, though, there is something of meaning in this chapter.
- An encouragement to think about what I feel is right and wrong and why I feel that way about things.
- A call to repentance … which I think just means to live honestly with my own feelings. To try to not do stuff that I feel is wrong, and to do the stuff that I think is right
That makes sense to me. It doesn’t seem unreasonable.
In the past when I tried this it was within the constraints of an evangelical Christian view of right and wrong. And this included a lot more than loving other people as I loved myself. And it relied on a subjective understanding of the Bible … as all understandings of the Bible inevitably are.
And I failed.
Over and over.
And some of the failure had to be kept secret. I didn’t understand the part of me that is feminine. Actually, I still don’t. But I don’t need to understand. I am learning to accept and enjoy. I don’t have to repent from being a transvestite. I don’t have to deny my femininity or my masculinity. I don’t have to deny the person that I am. I can love myself.
There was a time when I needed some kind of a totally objective view of right and wrong.
These days I think it’s not so easy as that. There’s an element of subjectivity in everyone’s views. I’m happy to start again with an aim at working towards loving other people as I love myself.
So, the positive thing I’m taking from Matthew 3, with a bit of help from Matthew 22, is that the idea of repenting from a subjective kind of badness … which seems somehow more possible and sensible than anything I’ve tried before, and it’s something that I can work on.