A clergy colleague suggested recently that this Sunday’s epistle reading[1] makes a lot more sense if you add ‘Dear Diary’ at the start. I think he’s right. For seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul the erudite and well-educated Greek-speaking rabbi has been going on at length about the Law and how it does or does not apply to Jews and Gentiles, how it does or does not apply to members of the church, and so forth. And then, all of a sudden, he’s no longer the learned Jewish Christian apologist; he’s just a guy complaining about life. He begins writing in the first person and bemoaning his inability to carry through with his best intentions. It’s like, “Dear Diary, I really screwed up and I don’t understand why!”

But this passage is not in Paul’s diary, it’s in his letter to the Romans, which the church has preserved as part of Holy Scripture, so here we are reading it during worship and trying to figure out just what the heck Paul is talking about! Is he, autobiographically and symbolically, describing a believer’s pre-conversion state? That is, does the misery described in these verses represent a person’s life before receiving the grace of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension? Or, alternatively, is he presenting himself as the stereotypical believer after receiving the grace of baptism? Does the conundrum Paul describes characterize the life of faith? And if he couldn’t get it right, who could?

St. Augustine of Hippo eventually settled on the second and used Paul’s letter to the Romans to come up with the notion of originale peccatum, the doctrine of Original Sin. This is the notion that humans, simply by being born, inherit from Adam and Eve a tainted nature in need of regeneration and a proclivity to sinful conduct. And we inherit not just their sinful nature, but their judicial guilt and condemnation, as well. As one evangelical writer summarizing the doctrine has put it: “As the representative for all humanity, God counted everyone born of and from Adam morally guilty. In some sense originale peccatum could be viewed as originale culpa (original guilt, not original sin).”[2] All of humanity, our entire species, said Augustine, is a massa peccati, a mass of sin, and a massa damnata, a mass of perdition.

And this monstrous idea, that all human beings, even newborn infants, are judicially guilty and therefore just automatically subject to the punishment of eternal damnation, became the accepted theology of the western church. Eastern Orthodoxy rejected it, but Western Catholicism embraced it.

And it got worse during the Reformation when Calvin and others articulated its further development, the doctrine of “total depravity,” the “teaching that human beings since the Fall have inherited both the guilt and sinful nature of Adam in such a way that absolutely everything about them is affected by sin … that every part of a person has been corrupted – the heart, mind, will, affections, desires, critical thinking, everything.”[3] My theology professor at seminary summarized this doctrine as saying that it teaches that human beings are not simply down in the pig sty wallowing around in the mud and other stuff, but that we are the other stuff!

This dogma, the doctrine of original sin and the notion of total depravity, is what is being taught as fundamental Christianity by a large segment of the American evangelical church today. I think they are wrong for many, many reasons, but primarily I believe they are wrong because I don’t think Paul’s “Dear Diary” moment is about baptism, grace, regeneration, or any of that. I don’t think Paul is drawing any sort of distinction between an unbaptized person and someone who’s joined the church. I don’t think he’s talking about guilt or making amoral judgment, at all! I think our lesson today is an anthropology, not a theology. Paul is simply describing the human condition.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus compares the religious leadership of his day, the so-called “wise and intelligent,” to children playing in the market square. Some of the children want to engage in a game of a make-believe wedding; others among them want to play at a pretend funeral.[4] I think another children’s game can help us understand what Paul is saying.

Have you ever played “Pin the Tail on the Donkey?” I’m sure you know this game. It was a popular party game for children when I was growing up; I can even remember playing it in college!

It’s a simple game. A cork- or foam-backed picture of a tailless donkey is put up on wall at about shoulder height for the contestants. One at a time, each player is blindfolded and handed a construction paper “tail” with a push pin or thumbtack poked through it. The contestant is then spun around until disoriented. The poor kid staggers around trying, first, just to go in the right direction and then to pin the tail on the donkey, all the while receiving often-shouted encouragement and helpful directions from those around him. The player whose tail ends up closest to the donkey’s rear-end wins. The game is really a group activity not particularly competitive; winning is of only marginal importance.

So, you’ve played this game. Right? Is there any moral significance to winning at Pin the Tail on the Donkey? That is, is the winner whose tail is closest to the correct position considered any more ethical than the player whose tail is furthest away? Of course not! The game is not about ethics or morality or guilt.

I think that Paul, in today’s epistle lesson, is writing about Pin the Tail on the Donkey. He’s not writing about original sin, or total depravity, or eternal damnation. He’s simply writing about the human condition, whether one is baptized or not. He’s saying that life is like a game of Pin the Tail! But to understand that, we have to understand how Paul uses two words in this passage: sin and flesh.

Let’s start with sin. There are two Greek words used in the New Testament that get translated or understood to refer to sin. One is opheilema; the other is hamartia. The first means “debt” and comes from the Greek commercial world. It’s used only a few times in Scripture. We find it in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts (opheilema), as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[5] Paul uses it earlier in the letter to the Romans to describe the wages owed to a worker.[6] And it’s used together with the second word in Luke’s version of the Our Father: “Forgive us our sins (hamartia), for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted (opheilema) to us.”[7]

The second word, hamartia, is taken from the world of Greek sports, specifically from archery, from a verb meaning “to miss the mark.” The principal Hebrew word for sin, chata’, is similar; it also derives from the verb “to miss.” When the 70 legendary rabbis translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the version known as “the Septuagint,” they used hamartia wherever they found chata’ in the original.

Remember that Paul is a rabbinically-educated, Greek-speaking Jew, he knows chata’ and he knows hamartia and he knows what they mean. So when he writes, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin – hamartia – that dwells within me,”[8] what he is saying is, “If I don’t do what I want, it’s because of this missing the mark that dwells within me, this inate inability to reach a goal.” So then there are two questions. One is “Why does Paul (and, by extension, why do all of us) have this inability to hit what we are aiming for?” And the other is, “Oh, by the way, what is the goal that we’re aiming for?”

In answer to the second question let me quote the famed Presbyterian preacher R.C. Sproul:

The goal of the Christian life is not spirituality, and the goal of the Christian life is not piety. The goal of the Christian life’s not morality, but the goal of the Christian life is righteousness. We seek spiritual power, spiritual gifts, spiritual disciplines, not so that we can be spiritual, but so what? So that we can be righteous.[9]

And righteousness, as the Episcopal Church puts it very simply on its national website, is nothing less than “living in right relationship with God and others.”[10] We are all aiming at the goal of a right relationship with God and each other, and we are all falling short of it.

So back to the first question. Why do we find it so hard to reach this goal? Paul’s answer is “I am of the flesh…. I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.”[11] In Greek, the word is sarx. Paul’s use of this term has been called “quite careless and unsystematic,”[12] but we can nonetheless draw some inferences from it.

Like hamartia, it is a word used in the Septuagint to translate a Semitic concept. Sarx translates the Hebrew term basar, which “refers to human beings in their frailty and transience, to man in his [finite] limitations, as distinct from the infinite God.”[13] For example, “The most prevalent use of basar in Genesis is to describe a person or an animal in terms of [their] mortality.”[14] For another example, the Prophet Isaiah underscores the impermanence of humankind when he says:

The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh [all basar] is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.[15]

Frailty, transience, impermanence, the transitory nature of human existence – this is what sarx, the Greek word used to translate basar in the Septuagint, signifies. Surely Paul, the Greek-speaking Pharisee turned Christian apologist, would have this meaning in mind.

To describe human life as “of the flesh,” of basar, of sarx, is to described human life as fleeting and impermanent; it is not to pass moral judgment. Yes, short-lived, ephemeral flesh is subject to death and decay; it may be corruptible, but it is not necessarily corrupt. This flesh, Paul says elsewhere, is like a tent in which we dwell only briefly, a “slight, momentary affliction.” It may be “wasting away” but we are not waste. The problem is that while we are still in this tent, we are blind. We can see only the temporary; we cannot see the eternal.[16] This tent of sarx obscures our vision and disorients us, as the blindfold and the spinning about in Pin the Tail on the Donkey blind and disorient the player.

What we have inherited from Adam and Eve is not their guilt, but their impermanence, their temporality, their mortality. Paul himself said as much earlier in this letter when he wrote that “the wages of sin is death.”[17] What we’ve inherited from Adam and Eve is their blindfold. We’ve inherited their blindness, not their badness. We are groping, not guilty.

So, dear diary, I screw up. I don’t hit the mark, I don’t reach my goal, because I’m blindfolded and disoriented by my transitoriness, by my mortality. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”[18] Well, we know who: Jesus Christ … and the community which is Christ’s body. We who are (as St. Teresa of Avila reminded us) his hands, feet, and eyes in the world today,[19] working with him, will rescue one another.

Like the children who gather around the blindfolded player in Pin the Tail on the Donkey and joyfully shout directions and encouragement, we are here to help one another reach our goal of righteousness, of right relationships with God and with one another. But here is where the Pin the Tail analogy breaks down, and we have to go back to the world of archery.

In the Donkey game, everyone has the same goal; everyone is trying to pin their tail on the same part of the donkey. But my right relationship with God is not going to be exactly the same as your right relationship with God. Like bowmen and bow-women on an archery range, we are all pointing our arrows in the same direction, but we are aiming for somewhat different targets. We are all headed in the same general direction and we can help one another get there, but we cannot and we should not dictate to one another the exact details of reaching each individual’s final goal, each one’s personal relationship with God. We are to encourage and uphold one another, not dominate and control one another.

I don’t believe Paul was writing about original sin or original guilt or a mass of perdition or the depravity, total or partial, of the human race. This isn’t theology and it’s not moral judgment. It’s just about being human. I think Paul was just writing, “Dear diary, I really screw up sometimes. I’m just a mortal human being who often cannot see my way, but thanks be to God, I have my brothers and sisters to help me! Amen.”


This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2023, to the people of Harcourt Parish, Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher during that parish’s rector’s sabbatical.

The lessons were from Proper 9A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; and St. Matthew 11:16-19,25-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Romans 7:15-25

[2] Paul D. Adams, Originale Peccatum?, En Xristo, June 19, 2009, accessed 5 July 2023

[3] Allen S. Nelson IV, 3 Reasons People Reject Total Depravity, Grace Bible Theological Seminary, May 21, 2020, accessed 5 July 2023

[4] Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

[5] Matthew 6:12 (NRSV)

[6] Romans 4:4

[7] Luke 11:4 (NRSV)

[8] Romans 7:17 (NRSV)

[9] R.C. Sproul, The Goal of the Christian Life, Ligonier Ministries, February 17, 2023, accessed 5 July 2023

[10] “Righteousness” in An Episcopal Dictionary for the Church, The Episcopal Church, undated, accessed 5 July 2023

[11] Romans 7:14,18 (NRSV)

[12] Sarah Harding, Paul’s Eschatological Anthropology: The Es? Anthr?pos and The Intermediate State, Transformation, Vol. 34:1, 2017, pp. 50–65, 51

[13] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids:1974) p. 458

[14] Jefferson Vann, Basar in Genesis (a study of meaning in context), AfterLife, September 10, 2020, accessed 5 July 2023

[15] Isaiah 40:6-7 (KJV)

[16] 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5

[17] Romans 6:23 (NRSV)

[18] Romans 7:24 (NRSV)

[19] Elizabeth Manneh, Lessons from St. Teresa: How to Be the Eyes, Hands, and Feet of Christ, Busted Halo, May 23, 2018, accessed 6 July 2023