Naming Sin

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Palmer

Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive. (Luke 17:3-4)

I’m not very good at rebuking people. Sometimes I yell at my kids when they misbehave, and I’ve had a lot of practice lately at censuring my political opponents in the abstract. But it’s hard to imagine myself rebuking an individual member of my community face-to-face, naming their sins, and asking them to repent. I’m much more comfortable skipping to the forgiveness part. 

When I look at where the Greek word for “rebuke” appears in the Gospels, though, a pattern emerges. The disciples and members of the crowds sometimes rebuke other people, but Jesus almost never does. He rebukes demons, devils, and unclean spirits that are hurting people. He rebukes the wind and the waves when they’re threatening to overturn the boat carrying the disciples. He rebukes a fever that’s afflicting Simon’s mother-in-law.

The kind of rebuking that Jesus does in the Bible, in other words, isn’t about individuals and their relationships with each other. It’s an existential showdown with the powers and principalities that cause harm. It’s a casting out of sin and danger that has just one purpose: making people well. This leads me to believe that when Jesus tells us to rebuke each other for our sins, the stakes are high. Skipping to forgiveness too quickly won’t loosen the grip that sin holds over the world. Sometimes repentance is a group endeavor.

Prayer: God, help me guard against the temptation to live with false peace, give me the courage to name and rebuke sin, and thereby deepen my capacity to forgive. Amen.

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