Proper 9(A): Missing the Mark
By: The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly
When I was a child, my family and I belonged to a church that loved to talk about sin—who was sinning, what was sinful, and even the parts of Scripture that proved something or someone was sinful. Suffice it to say that I grew up with a robust list of behaviors that were sinful. If I needed to know right from wrong, all I had to do was consult my list.
Once, when I was in the third grade, the teacher gave a pop-quiz on our multiplication tables. Now, being the studious little eight-year-old Poindexter I was in those days, I had studied my multiplication tables, and I was fully prepared for the quiz. But my friend across the table from me wasn’t quite as prepared for the quiz. She leaned in and whispered, “Is six-times-four 20?”
Now, because I had my mental list of what was and was not a sin, I knew that cheating was a sin, but I also knew that lying was a sin. So, in a moment of ethical angst, I shook my head, “No.” I had quickly worked it out that I wouldn’t be cheating unless I actually told her the answer—which I wasn’t going to do. All I was doing was truthfully answering a question: Six-times-four is not 20!
“Is it 22?” She whispered again.
I shook my head again.
“Is it 24?”
I was trapped! If I said “yes,” I would be cheating—definitely a sin. But if I said “no,” I would be lying—which was even worse! After all, there’s a whole commandment about lying! So I just stared at her. I didn’t nod, I didn’t say yes, and I didn’t say no.
Little did I know that our teacher was standing at the back of the room watching all of this. And in front of everyone, she called down the thunder!
“Marshall Jolly,” she roared, “you are cheating and that is not allowed! At recess today, you will sit with the teachers and write, ‘I will not cheat in math class’ 100 times!” Obviously, a grave injustice was done to me on that day, and I’ve really never much cared for math ever since.
But in all seriousness, we all have our lists, don’t we? We all have our notions of what a “good Christian” is; or what it means to be a “good person;” or what “good family values” look like. Lists aren’t always bad—I’m a big fan of grocery lists, otherwise I spend two hours and two hundred dollars in the grocery store without actually buying anything that can be made into a meal!
Lists are easy—they’re linear. You’re either on it or you’re not. The box either gets checked, or it doesn’t. We as a culture like lists—Top 10 lists, bestseller lists, Wikipedia even has an entire page that is nothing more than a list of other lists! And in some ways, I think that our penchant for list-making has crept into our lives of faith.
“Did I pray today?” Check this box.
“Did I go to Church this week?” Check that box.
“Did I remember to write my check towards my pledge?” Circle that one.
But perhaps the most dangerous list that we’ve grown accustomed to making is a list of sins. When we treat sin like it’s a checklist of “right behaviors” versus “wrong behaviors,” our faith gets reduced to a list of stale and rigid rules governing how we are to act, rather than how we are to live, and preachers and theologians become nothing more than referees, making calls about what is inbounds and what is out of bounds. Pretty soon, our relationship with God becomes paralyzed under the weight of legalistic rules, meant to keep us in check rather than fostering a way of life.
So how did we get here?
For 2,000 years, Christians have largely misunderstood sin.
I’m not suggesting that we suddenly woke up in the year 2020 with a clear-eyed, modern, progressive view of what sin is. The Biblical witness for what sin is hasn’t changed in that time. We’ve just been overlooking it.
By my count, the word sin, which is most often derived from the Greek word hamartia, appears 121 times in the New Testament. More than one fourth of those appearances are in the Book of Romans alone.
But hamartia, this word for sin, didn’t actually originate with the New Testament. It originated with Aristotle, who uses it in reference to archers, whose arrows miss their target. Its literal definition is “to miss the mark,” or “to make an error in judgment.”
When we think of sin with the added dimension of missing a mark or a target, it suddenly becomes more relational.
Sin is less about asking what’s inbounds or out of bounds and more about asking how we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with our children or our partners; our neighbors or our friends; and ultimately, how we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with God.
This is the tension that Paul writes about in Romans: the tension between doing what is easy—making our lists and checking our boxes on our terms; and giving ourselves over to something that is absolutely beyond our control—a relationship with the God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
The tension between the two is so great that Paul writes that they are at war. “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
We like to focus on what we can manage and control; on what we can figure out and solve. That’s why we’re so well-suited for list-making. The trouble with that is, we can’t manage and control death or grief or relationships or other people, and we can’t manage and control God. And when we try, we “miss the mark.” We ignore the law of God, in favor of the law of sin—of distorted relationship. We come under the illusion that we can act or behave our way to salvation.
Truth be told, this is the heart of human sinfulness: the delusion that we can save ourselves. We try and try and try, but we miss the mark every time. But Paul, that fiery, uncompromising, stubborn, and controversial Apostle—bless his heart—reorients us to the truth.
He writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Although we continue to miss the mark with our lists and our egos and our insatiable desire to manage and control, God is determined to love us more than we can possibly imagine; to redeem our brokenness; and to save us in spite of ourselves.
This is the very definition of grace. We receive a gift that we didn’t know we needed, and like it or not, little by little, we’ll be transformed into who we’re called to be.
And I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine life any other way.
The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (DMin, MDiv, & Certificate in Anglican Studies). In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.