My Dear Friends
‘Be sure your sin will find you out.’ A well-known saying, and one that particularly came to my mind when the Volkswagen emissions scandal broke back in 2015, especially when I found that my car was affected and would be one of the most difficult models to fix. With hindsight it is pretty obvious that what was basically a fraud involving 11 million vehicles was not going to go undetected for ever; the wonder is only that they got away with it for so long. Right now the nefarious doings of the Russian government have been traced back from Salisbury to source, and Facebook permitting its customers’ data to be misused by Cambridge Analytica has been exposed.
What is perhaps less well known is that the saying is a biblical one, and I guess that fewer people still will be aware of the context in which it occurs. It’s actually quite obscure. It’s in the Old Testament Book of Numbers (32.23) and is spoken by the Israelite leader Moses to members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad. I’ll come back to that a bit later.
The fact is that many sins do go undetected here on earth and will be revealed only on the Day of Judgment, ‘the day when, according to my [Paul’s] gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus’ (Romans 2:16).
The Greek word used here for ‘secrets’ is ‘that which is hidden, concealed, covered up’. The adulterer may successfully hide his extra-marital affairs; the thief may cover up his crimes and not get caught in this life; wicked hearts and evil thoughts may remain unseen by other people; hypocrisy may be concealed for years under a pretence of piety; mean, miserly people are sometimes found to be enormously wealthy when the will is read. We can all think of examples, old and recent, of those whose misdeeds came to light only after their death.
Some may rub their hands with satisfaction, even with glee, when scandals such as those I’ve mentioned break, but at the same time they wonder whether there may be others in the same field who are up to similar tricks. ‘Be sure your sin will find you out’…? We’re not sure at all. We may feel, as did the godly in the days of the Old Testament prophet Malachi, ‘Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape’ (Malachi 3.15).
So let’s get back to the original context, and those Reubenites and Gadites. Those two tribes weren’t fully committed to God’s plan for the Israelites to cross the River Jordan and conquer Canaan and settle there, in the Promised Land. They had a lot of livestock, and seeing good pasture asked Moses’s permission to stop in Jazer and Gilead, east of the Jordan, instead. At first Moses refused, saying this would hamper the war effort and be a great discouragement to the rest, but the Rs and Gs wouldn’t take No for an answer. They did however offer to come and do their share of combat across the Jordan and then return to their chosen plot, and Moses accepted this. He warned them solemnly though, in the words of my opening text, of the consequences if they did not keep their word. Their promise had been made in the sight of God, and he, God, would not overlook its breach.
As a matter of fact, the Rs and Gs did all that they had agreed, and the conquest was successful.
So really the saying about our sin finding us out is not a dire warning about the reality of Judgment Day – we should be convinced of that from numerous other biblical passages – but about the more subtle danger of spiritual half-heartedness. It’s easy, isn’t it, to coast as a Christian: to come to church, but not offer for any jobs (or offer for jobs but not come to church); to join in the “All things come from you, O Lord” bit at the offertory, but give little or no money; to listen to the Bible readings and sermon, but do nothing about them; to smile at strangers over coffee, but never ask their names. In short, to take our ease east of the Jordan and let others do the hard graft over on the west. And vicars are by no means immune to such temptations!
Your sincere friend and Vicar,