What Two Monks Can Teach Us About Sin

There’s an old story that tells of a senior monk and a junior monk who were making their way from one monastery to another. It was a pleasant enough walk until they came to a certain crossing site at a river. Since the monks needed to get across the river, their only course of action was to wade the waters and hope that the current wasn’t swift enough to cause them any problems.

Just before the monks stepped into the water, a young woman approached the crossing site. She too needed to get to the other side, and she asked them if they would help her. The junior monk, having vowed to never touch a woman, was horrified at the thought. But the senior monk, who had taken the same vow, walked over to the woman, allowed her to climb onto his shoulders, and waded into the river. The junior monk followed close behind in shocked disbelief. Fortunately for all three, the river’s current was calm and they all made it safely to the other side. Once there, the monks went their way and the woman went her way.

Three hours passed as the monks continued in silence along their journey, and with each passing hour the turmoil inside the junior monk grew. Finally he reached a breaking point and blurted out to the senior monk, “How could you have allowed yourself to carry that woman on your shoulders? As monks, we’re not supposed to ever touch a woman.” In response, the senior monk said, “Brother, I sat her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?”

This story finds its roots in the “Zen wisdom” of Buddhism, and over the years various versions of the story have arisen. In some versions, the older monk pulls the naked, drowning woman from the river and gives her his robe. In other versions, the woman is standing at the river’s edge all dressed up in beautiful attire, not wanting to get her clothing wet. In other versions, the two monks talk a lot before they meet the woman at the river but hardly speak afterward, which prompts the older monk to ask the younger monk what he has done to offend him. The consistent details in all the versions are the older monk helping the woman at the river, the younger monk thinking less of him for doing so. and the older monk pointing out that it was the younger monk who was still carrying her long after the event.

The usual lesson that people take from the story is that most of us are carrying around old mental baggage that we need to set down if we are going to enjoy living in the present. While this is a perfectly appropriate application, I’d like to suggest an alternative one. My application goes like this: Even if an act isn’t a sin by God’s standards, it actually becomes a sin to you if you can’t do it with a clear conscience.

In the days of the Roman empire, many people worshiped idols and offered the choicest cuts of meat to those idols as acts of worship. Once the act of worship was completed, however, the leftover meat was sold at a greatly reduced price. We’re talking about high quality meat sold at discount prices. Some Christians believed that it wasn’t a sin to purchase this meat and eat it, but other Christians (particularly ones who had come out of backgrounds of idolatry) considered it sinful to eat such meat. As strange as all this might sound to our modern ears, it was a raging debate in the early churches, so much so that Paul had to weigh in with his verdict.

And what was Paul’s verdict? Actually, it was a bit tricky. In Romans 14:14-23 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, he taught that meat offered to powerless man-made idols didn’t carry any taint and could be sinlessly eaten as long as the Christian could eat it without feeling guilty. But if a Christian couldn’t help but feel guilty about eating the meat, that Christian shouldn’t eat it because he would be in sin to do so. As Paul said about the situation:

But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23, N.K.J.V.)

Mind you that this teaching does not apply to deeds that are 100% sinful all the time. It only applies to those that take place in the gray areas where life and scripture don’t collide in a clear-cut way. Getting back to the story of the two monks, whereas the older monk could touch the woman and not sin because his conscience was clear in the matter, the younger monk’s conscience would have landed him in sin if he had tried to help her.

Learn this about your conscience: erroneous information causes it to misfire by rendering wrong assessments regarding sin. For example, if you haven’t heard a Paul explain that it’s okay to eat meat that has been offered to idols, you’ll never be able to eat such meat without feeling guilty and consequently sinning. On the other hand, if a Paul has explained to you that lifeless idols can’t affect meat one way or the other, you’ll be able to enjoy a delicious meal at a cheap price free from sin’s guilt. Likewise, if you’ve been told that it’s a mortal sin to touch a woman (even when you are trying to help her), you’ll never be able to touch a woman sinlessly. On the other hand, if someone has explained to you that it is alright on occasion to touch a woman, your conscience will allow you to help damsels in distress without crossing the line into sin. Do you understand? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what two monks can teach us about sin.

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