Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

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Our sermon series for the spring and summer will explore common Christian sayings that are misquoted, misinterpreted, and contrary to the teachings and ministry of Jesus. For the preacher, while seeming like a playful sermon series, the task of answering the “why” and “what’s next” in exploring these sayings will prove to be a difficult task because each of these sayings that …Said Jesus Never, they are accompanied by our lived experiences with the saying. All of us have been either on the sending or receiving end of one of these sayings, meaning that when I say Love the Sinner Hate The Sin… Said Jesus Never, in your mind you immediately jump back in time to your last encounter with the saying. 

On Wednesday and Thursday I headed into D.C. to attend the Festival of Homiletics. The Festival of Homiletics is a preaching festival highlighting some of the greatest preachers in the United States. As I sat in the hard wooden pews I asked a few of the people sitting around me what they thought of when they heard “love the sinner hate the sin.” Most of you can probably guess what every response was. Among the preachers I polled there was a 100 percent response rate for one thing. I thought, well of course a bunch of nerds listening to sermons for fun would say that so I asked the baristas at three coffee shops in D.C. and one in Arlington, again a 100 percent response rate the same response given by the nerdy preachers I polled. I asked three more people on the silver line train I rode from McPherson Square to Ballston and again the same response.

I love the sinner but I hate that they love someone I think they shouldn’t. They can do sin X, Y, or Z but who they love is something I cannot tolerate.

So there is the predicament the preacher finds himself in this morning. How do I preach on love the sinner hate the sin… said Jesus never when your mind has already jumped out of this place and gone back in time?

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Jesus and his encounter with the woman caught in adultery could be retitled, “The time the Scribes and Pharisees tried to trap Jesus.” This scene from The Gospel of John is the only time John records the Scribes and Pharisees together. It seems redundant to put them together because they both favored intense study of and adherence to the law, to the Torah. The 613 mitzvoth Jews were required to follow. These commandments, along with the interpretation of the Pharisees, dictated and ordered the day-to-day activities of the community. The Scribes and Pharisees bring a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus to force Jesus to condemn her, which according to the mitzvoth would result in her death, or to force Jesus to incorrectly interpret the law, thus showing he was indeed a false-teacher.

As I read the story this week and then again listening to it this morning I could not help but shout in my mind, “Look out Jesus, it’s a trap!”

It is a trap because either way Jesus responds, he is in trouble. If he sides with the Scribes and Pharisees he will have sentenced a woman to death, which would run contrary to the mercy and love he has been teaching. But if he ignores the woman’s sin he will be portrayed as a false teacher.

It’s a trap!

It’s a trap. 

Love the sinner hate the sin or anything close to it is found nowhere in the Bible. I looked. There is a copy in front of you. I invite you to take a look. 

If you dig through the Old Testament you will not find it. Jesus never said it or anything close to it, and Paul never wrote it. The saying is thought to have originated with St. Augustine, a 5th-century bishop in North Africa. Augustine wrote, “love for mankind and hatred of sin.” 

Someone you are probably more familiar with something similar. Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.” Gandhi was not advocating that we love the sinner and hate the sin, rather he was saying it is hard to hate someone’s sin without then harming the one you view as sinning.

Love the sinner hate the sin is how we choose to respond when we find out someone is living their life in a way that does not align with the orthodox view we have created for the way we think they should live their lives. United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton calls love the sinner hate the sin the most commonly used Christian “half-truth.” 

I love you but I hate ____________.

I love you but I hate that you cheated on your taxes.

I love you but I hate that you cheated on your spouse.

I love you but I hate that you do not pay your employees a living wage.

I love you but I hate that you do not keep the Sabbath.

The Scribes and the Pharisees, a woman caught in the act of adultery, and Jesus is a story of trials. The trial of the woman was a ruse from the very beginning. This was an occasion where the entire life of the woman in question was distilled down to this is one event in her life. It’s a trap that we fall into as well because like the Scribes and Pharisees we, religious leaders like me,  use this woman as prop to make a theological point.

In their attempt to trap Jesus by shaming the woman and subjecting her to possible death, the Scribes and Pharisees show their own guilt and shame. Their true agenda is shown when the adulterous woman’s partner, someone required by the mitzvoth to be on trial as well, was not brought forward. 

The Scribes and the Pharisees revealed their own moral hypocrisy as well as their inability to interpret or lack of understanding of the law. The Scribes and the Pharisees missed this because they were blinded by hatred and rage.

As the focus was redirected from the woman to the Scribes and Pharisees as Jesus said, “Let anyone without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” the shame of sin covered those who set the trap for Jesus as their inability to interpret the law was made public when the crowd dispersed.

When we say, “Love the sinner,” it is a redundant statement. Of course, we love the sinner, but “love the sinner hate the sin” is a loaded statement. It is full of judgment that we hold in our hand, waiting for permission from the Scribes and Pharisees to throw. 

Love was a critical part of Jesus’ ministry, so much that it makes up the two commandments he gave to his disciples, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus did not tell his disciples to love the sinner just because it is a redundant statement but because he knew that to love the sinner leads to judgment and self-righteousness. Our human tendency is to judge one another. For better or worse we judge one another on a regular basis. Sunday morning, regardless of how welcoming we like to be, we judge what we people wear to church and by how quiet a child is in worship. We judge who loves who, seeking to gain the moral high ground. We focus on what we say sin is all the while ignoring the log in our own eye. Our focus on their sin blinds us just as it did to the Scribes and Pharisees, revealing our own guilt and shame instead of redirecting attention to someone else or an entire group of people. 

I love you but I don’t like this or understand it so you need to stop it. I love them but they need to _________. Love the sinner hate the sin provides us with what we think is a shield to protect ourselves from what view as sin, but this half-truth places our self-righteousness on full display.

I said that our reading this morning was a story of trials but this story also becomes our story whenever we act out of hatred and rage instead of love and mercy. It becomes our story whenever we are more interested in proving someone else is wrong when instead Jesus called us to live righteously with abounding love. This story becomes our story every time we choose to judge prematurely, harshly or both.

Saying that we hate sin is redundant as well. 

I hate that people don’t stop to allow my child to safely cross the street for school. 

I hate that people die daily due to a lack of clean drinking water and that children die from preventable diseases.

I hate that the Bible is used to abuse, exclude, and marginalize people of color, LGBT persons, and women. 

I hate it and I know that you do too, so that to say “hate the sin” is redundant.

In the redundancy of love the sinner hate the sin we overlook that Jesus calls us, each and every one of us without exception, to love. The redundancy of love the sinner hate the sin blinds us to the role of God in all of this, as we try to assume the agency of the divine. It is God who judges, not us. Especially not religious leaders like me. Jesus did not let the adulterous woman off the hook. In showing mercy and forgiveness (we call this grace) Jesus also shows that holiness matters as he acknowledged her past, forgave her, and then telling her to sin no more and inviting her to step into grace.

All of us deviate from God’s path. We overlook, ignore, or purposefully choose not the love one another as God loves us. Instead of love the sinner hate the sin we are invited to drop the stones we are prepared to throw and to step into grace. This allows us to love them despite who we, not they, are.


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