The Power of Sin Is the Law (I Cor. 15:56)

by Joseph M. McShane, S.J.

Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 15, 1989, p. 1044. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Laws that treat offenders as subhuman are certainly sinful. Violence sanctioned by the community begets more violence.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law [I Cor. 15:56].

In Corinthians, celebrating salvation leads to exhortation, to a reflection on the fact that Jerusalem still lies trampled by God’s enemies. Sin, the "sting of death," dictates much of the story of our personal and national life. These readings remind us how quickly we forget the lessons of Scripture in our everyday routines. ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law" (I Cor. 15:56) Is this merely a religious statement about freedom from the Torah? If it is, how does sin gain its power over us?

We look to the law to push away evil. How can it empower sin and death? On a TV special about the drug problem, a young ex-addict insisted that the key to helping people get off drugs was treating them with respect. Drug czar Bennett responded harshly that before those involved could be treated with respect, they would have to earn it by ceasing to act like vicious animals. Until they did so, they should expect to feel society’s anger in tough new policies.

Christians are not necessarily "soft on crime" if they choose to advocate humane laws. Laws that treat offenders as subhuman are certainly sinful. Violence sanctioned by the community begets more violence.

Isaiah and Luke depict the violence that reduces beautiful cities like Jerusalem or Beirut to rubble and invades the human heart. In Isaiah the Lord complains that when people are enslaved, God’s name is despised. It is not enough to send the exiles back to a beautiful new Jerusalem. The people must learn to recognize God again.

Luke expands the parable about a man who had entrusted money to his servants with a story of a nobleman who journeys to a distant country in order to confirm his position as king. The story would have been familiar to Luke’s readers who lived under local kings who called on Rome’s help to stay on the throne. If the ruler’s appeal to Rome was successful, the locals who opposed his ascent to power could expect death, exile or loss of property. Faithful servants, on the other hand, would receive cities that had been taken from the king’s enemies. We can easily point to similar situations in our own time. The superpowers frequently act as powerbrokers for factions in other nations despite the protests of citizens in those nations.

In Luke, the large-scale power plays by which the king establishes his rule are mirrored in the individual stories of the servants entrusted with property. There is no ambiguity about what the servants are expected to do with the small sum of money entrusted to them: the master commands them to "trade with these till I come. Though the reward is proportionate to the amount earned from the one "pound" (approximately 100 drachmas) , this is not a contest in which the winner takes all. Both servants are generously rewarded for their efforts even though they had no claim to any compensation from the master, as the third servant points out.

The king embodies what was considered "just" behavior in the Greco-Roman world. He is generous to his friends, subordinates and dependents and harsh toward his enemies. The third servant has safeguarded the "pound" he was given but has not followed orders. He justifies his disobedience by accusing the master of being a harsh man. Yet the reader has already seen that the king can be generous too. Even as the king uses his servant’s own description to render judgment against him, he points out that there was an alternative -- small-scale money-lending -- which would have satisfied his command.

The third servant attempted to play it safe in a world of power politics and master-slave relationships. Yet the only way his strategy could have succeeded would have been if the other servants had lost the money entrusted to them. Even then, one could not be sure of the king’s response. The third servant may have hoped that the nobleman would not come back as king. It is his disobedience rather than his success or failure in trading that provokes, the master’s anger. This parable is not a morality play but a sober description of how power operates in a world where the "sting of death is sin."