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Presumptuous Sins

Romans 7:18-25a
Psalm 19:7-14

In the psalm appointed for today there is a phrase which, in my ears, has a certain poignancy.  The psalmist prays, “Keep your servant from presumptuous sins”i, also translated, “keep your servant from being insolent.”ii Insolent, from the Latin, īnsolentem, meaning “arrogant,” which is an unwarranted pride or self-importance; a haughtiness: presumptuous sins.  Here are two pictures of presumptuous sin, about which I can speak with expertise.

For one, a presumptuous sin is to presume that your “take” on things is the way things are.  Period.  What you see, what you hear, what you sense, what you conclude, what you understand, what and how you judge about a person or situation or conversation or altercation has a kind of eternal veracity.  It is correct and uncontestable and obvious.  You may presume to know clearly the motives in other people’s actions or comments: why it is they have done or not done, said or not said, whatever it may be.  It’s a presumed omniscience about others which predisposes us to judge another person harshly, to condemn them, or belittle them, or to be quietly satisfied that we are not like them.  A presumptu­ous sin.

I think this is the very thing Jesus had in mind when he told the story about the Pharisee – the religious person on high moral ground – and the tax collector, an obviously inferior reprobate.  It is this morally superior person who is caught praying the prayer, “I thank my God that I am not like these thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like [him], this tax collector.”  And it is this person, the morally “superior” person, whom Jesus says is missing the mark, not the “bad” person, tax collector.  Jesus ends up by predicting that the self-proclaimed mighty will fall, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”iii

Another presumptuous sin is to assume a kind of eternal stuckness about another person: knowing something about this person’s past – something they did or said, how they typically acted a day ago or week ago or year ago or twenty years ago – and assuming that this person cannot change and will not change, in part because we cannot countenance it.  We have enormous power to condemn and imprison others by keeping them in the prison of their past.  Guarding that prison door, keeping them locked up, frozen to their past.  And we have enormous power to help set some free.  Jesus speaks of our power to bind up and to loose others.  “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”iv

Why would we keep someone imprisoned to their past?  It may have to do with our maintaining a self image of being superior to this other soul, especially when they were in a low way, broken, screwed up, deceptive, injurious.  It may have to do with our own issues around envy or jealousy,  and we ourselves are better, and we shall always be better, superior, unthreatened, by binding another soul to their past, at some point when they were worse, or down, or broken.  Keeping someone bound to their past may have to do with our own collusion.  We may be far more like this “bad” person than we can let ourselves acknowledge.  In actuality we become what we hate; we resemble what we reject in others, and we miss an extraordinary opportunity to see ourselves mirrored in the faces of those whom we most dislike if we keep them bound, distant, dissimilar from the per­son whom we presume ourselves to be.  Jesus talks about the dangers of  seeing a “speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, [‘Let me fix you,’] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  In this context, Jesus calls a person a “hypocrite,” a Greek word for an “actor,” what I am call a presumptuous sin.v

Saint Paul obviously struggled with this kind of sin, so we hear in the epistle reading appointed for today, from Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….”vi He calls himself “a slave to the law of sin,” and goes on to ask, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  And his answer: Jesus Christ.  Jesus comes to our rescue.  How?  Jesus will most likely come to our rescue through another person.  Likewise, Jesus will work through you in reaching or rescuing another person who is stuck. Teresa of Avila says that “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  She says, “Christ has no hands [on earth] but yours, no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world.  Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.”vii In my experience, most of us need help, a lot of it.  We need each other’s help to convert our judgmental faculties from disdain to a judgment of mercy for one another.  The person whom we may mistakenly see as the problem may actually be our rescuer, may actually be Christ coming to us in disguise.  You could call that “presumptuous grace.”

i Psalm 19:13 (BCP).  Interestingly, a German translation of Psalm 19 describes these sins as “hidden” sins (verborgen – hidden or concealed).

ii Psalm 19:13 (NRSV).

iii Luke 18:10‑14.

iv Matthew 18:18.

v Matthew 7:3‑5.  Matthew goes on to say in 6:22-33, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Luke 6:41-42.

vi Romans 7:15‑25.

vii Teresa of Avila (1515-82), a Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic.

4 thoughts on “Presumptuous Sins

  1. Mostly agreed, and good distinctions are made.

    The one area in which clarity might be useful is in abusive relationships where the person has clearly demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to change or grow out of their projection of anger or self-hate onto another person and their ability/willingness to act in damaging ways out of that anger or self-hate to harm the other person.

    It’s the one area where being “wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove” involves not waiting around to see if the other person can change. Because women, and those seeing themselves in any similar role in other domestic partnerships, in particular are schooled to this, or may incline towards it preternaturally, it’s a distinction that needs to be made continually: the lack of such a distinction too often leads to the abused partner staying in the situation until serious consequences, including their death, take over.

    This distinction needs to be made whenever forgiveness is preached because it’s an exceptional case that can have dangerous results if the clarification is not articulated, and the church has, sadly, not helped as much as it could have over the centuries, although, thankfully, that’s been changing.

    • My sentiments exactly. This hits me right between the eyes. My brain is a judging, comparing, storytelling machine that keeps me off the mark.

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