While once again reading through The Ladder of Divine Ascent..... my blood began to boil.
4:121, "It is better to sin against God than against our father"
Though a monk owes loyalty to his abbot, this seems like completely disastrous advice. This seems like idolatry, as one would hold a man more important than God.
As we were commanded "Thou shalt have no God before me".
I can't imagine anything worse than sinning against God.... How on Earth could this book/text be read aloud and given so much credence promoting that a sin against a man is worse than a sin against God?
Is this book not promoting a sin itself, in placing the importance of man in front of God - thus breaking the first commandment?
A lot of clear, thorough responses have been provided for the original poster's question, and without intending to judge anyone, I'm surprised that this is still an issue. It seems fairly clear to me. All sin, whether directly aimed at God or at someone else, offends God. Other posters have quoted St John Climacus as saying as much in the same Ladder. So why is it better to sin against God than against our father?
I'd like to suggest looking at this from a very simplistic angle: God's a big boy. It's not like when I sin against him, he starts to cry and pout and sit in a corner and not come out to play because I'm a big meanie. He doesn't have self-esteem issues in heaven because my sins make him feel like he's not good enough. We do speak of sin as offending God, but I think the bigger issue is what it does to me in relation to him. Sin darkens my mind, prevents me from seeing truth and right, distracts me from God, pulls me away from him and toward anything and everything else but God. It's a downward spiral that I continue with each sin, it's a hole into which I dig myself deeper. God doesn't want that for me, he doesn't enjoy watching me do that to myself, he doesn't enjoy watching me destroy his rational creature, created in his image and likeness. If anything about sin offends an immutable and dispassionate God, I'd guess this is pretty high up on the list. This is bad enough.
But when I sin against my father, not only do I suffer all the negative consequences above, and not only is God sinned against, but now I've spread the evil around to another human being. Unlike God, he is subject to change and passion; I can offend and hurt him. I can cause him to sin, or at least hurt his own self-esteem, make him feel less worthy, be abusive towards him, etc. Not only have I used my freedom to offend God and hurt myself, but now I'm bringing someone else down with me, someone also created in God's image and likeness. That person is not as much a "big boy" as God is, and so I ought to tread more carefully. Contrary to Cain, I am in fact responsible for my brother in a way that I'm not responsible *for* God. In this sense, the burden of sin is greater when we sin against our father/brother than it is when we sin against God, because it "affects" more people: God, me, and whomever else.
Just my opinion; it's not high theology or anything, but I don't think I've drifted into heresy. Not about this anyway.
Also, I believe it is important to note that the Ladder is monastic literature. While I believe that non-monastics can gain a lot from monastic literature (I own my fair share of books!), we need to understand the "culture" in which it developed and within which it makes perfect sense. Others, I think, have spoken about the importance of the spiritual father in the life of the monk and how this may shed light on the question, and I defer to them on that. Laypeople typically don't have the same relationship with their spiritual fathers that monks have with theirs, so a lot of this is not immediately applicable; the application of a certain ascetic principle may need to be tweaked to accommodate the differing lifestyle and conditions of monks vs. laypeople. And some things may not be able to be tweaked, they may be proper to one or the other mode of life. That's not a bad thing or a heretical thing, it's just a thing.
I think Fr Thomas Hopko once talked in an AFR podcast about how he'd read something in a book, not understand it at the time, and then, reading the same thing many years later, it would suddenly make perfect sense. Rather than editing the Ladder by crossing out parts we don't understand, it might be better to just pass over it and take from it what we can for now. Maybe we'll get more out of it later, but even if we don't, it's OK. There's a lot more out there that we may find useful and appropriate for ourselves and our own spiritual development.
Finally, I'm puzzled at how an utterly literal interpretation of the quote in question seems to have prevailed in the original poster's mind, no matter how many people have tried to delve deeper. No offense to him or her, but I'm guessing s/he has sinned with the eyes, hands, and feet, and yet, despite our Savior's unambiguous language, I doubt s/he looks like Monty Python's Black Knight.