Saturday, February 18, 2012

What is Sin and Why Does It Need to Be Forgiven? Thoughts on the Readings of the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday is the last before the start of Lent, and in this weekend’s Readings we are confronted with two recurrent themes: the forgiveness of sin, and the pouring out of God’s Spirit. The two are related to each other, but figuring out just what the relationship is will require some reflection on what sin actually is.

1. The First Reading is taken from the cycle of poetry that makes up the second half of the Book of Isaiah (40–66), much of which revolves around the coming of God’s “servant.”

It’s helpful to read our Mass passage (Isa 43:18-25) in context. The prophet is reflecting on the miracles of the Exodus in Isa 43:15-17, but then warns the people not to live in the past, because what God is going to do in the future will be even better:

Reading 1 Is 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25
Thus says the LORD:
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
To give drink to my chosen people,
The people I formed for myself,
that they might announce my praise.
Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob,
for you grew weary of me, O Israel.
You burdened me with your sins,
and wearied me with your crimes.
It is I, I, who wipe out,
for my own sake, your offenses;
your sins I remember no more.
God promises “in the desert” to “make a way,” in “the wasteland, rivers.” Without further information, we’d be inclined to take this literally: at some future date, the prophet is promising, God will change the water table and hydrology of the land of Israel so that the desert going down to the Dead Sea will be verdant.

But the ancient prophet was actually using imagery which he explains in the following chapter:

I will pour water on the thirsty land,
And streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants,
And my blessing on your offspring. (Isaiah 44:3)

This is classic Hebrew poetic parallelism, where the meaning of the first stanza is elucidated by the second. To “pour water on the thirsty land” means to “pour my Spirit on your descendants.” The water imagery throughout Isaiah 40-66 is, in fact, a figurative reference to a future outpouring of the Spirit. And the outpouring of the Spirit is related to the forgiveness of sin: “I … wipe out … your offenses…”

2. The Responsorial Psalm continues with the theme of the forgiveness of sin. Psalm 41 is the last psalm of Book 1 of the Psalter, the Book that is most filled with Psalms of individual lament—that is, psalms in which David cries out for help because he is in distress. In this closing psalm of the Book, David is remembered as one “who has regard for the lowly and poor,” and for that reason God raises him up from his death bed. The psalm connects the concepts of sin and sickness, or better: sin and lack of life. “Heal me,” David says, “though I have sinned against you.” The relationship of sin and sickness goes both ways: on the one hand, sin can cause sickness. (Ultimately, our faith teaches us that all suffering and sickness in this world resulted from the sin of our first parents, who rejected God’s plan for their lives.) On the other hand, sin is a kind of spiritual sickness, a disease of the soul that needs healing:

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 41:2-3, 4-5, 13-14
R. (5b) Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.
Blessed is the one who has regard for the lowly and the poor;
in the day of misfortune the LORD will deliver him.
The LORD will keep and preserve him;
and make him blessed on earth,
and not give him over to the will of his enemies.
R. Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.
The LORD will help him on his sickbed,
he will take away all his ailment when he is ill.
Once I said, "O LORD, have pity on me;
heal me, though I have sinned against you."
R. Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.
But because of my integrity you sustain me
and let me stand before you forever.
Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
from all eternity. Amen. Amen.
R. Lord, heal my soul, for I have sinned against you.

3. In the Second Reading, St. Paul praises God for his faithfulness to his promises. “God is faithful,” he says, and “however many are the promises of God,” their “Yes is in Christ.” In other words, all prophecy finds fulfillment in Jesus. In the context of today’s Mass, we are reminded that Isaiah’s prophecy of the pouring out of the Spirit of God and the forgiveness of sin is recorded as being fulfilled already in Jesus’ earthly ministry, of which the Gospel reading gives an example.

Reading 2: 2 Cor 1:18-22
Brothers and sisters:
As God is faithful,
our word to you is not "yes" and "no."
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,
who was proclaimed to you by us, Silvanus and Timothy and me,
was not "yes" and "no, " but "yes" has been in him.
For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him;
therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory.
But the one who gives us security with you in Christ
and who anointed us is God;
he has also put his seal upon us
and given the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.
St. Paul concludes this short passage by pointing out: the Spirit, promised by Isaiah, has indeed been given to us, placed in our hearts as “a first installment” of the life to come.

4. The Gospel records the dramatic (1) forgiveness and (2) physical healing of a paralytic brought to Jesus by his friends. Notice that these themes are the same as from the Responsorial Psalm.

There are many aspects of this Gospel story, but for today we want to focus on a few questions: Why is it that “God alone can forgive sins”? Why can’t someone else do that, like the offended party, perhaps? And what does it mean “to forgive sin” anyway? What actually happens when sin is “forgiven”?

Gospel Mk 2:1-12
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
-he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home."
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."

I’m going to suggest a way to think about sin that provides answers to the questions I raised above.  “Sin” is a privation, a lack of divine life. The word “sin” can be applied to an act in which we turn away from God and thus also from his life, or to the state of being without his life within us.

“Original sin”—the concept that we have inherited sin from our first parents—may be thought of, not as something, but a lack of something—the lack of God’s life in us. Turning from God, Adam and Eve lost the “living breath,” the Holy Spirit or divine life that God had breathed into Adam’s body.

God does not force us to share his life.  Our actions can separate us from the life of God.

Once we understand “sin” as the absence of God’s life as the result of our turning away from God, it becomes clear why no one else—not even the person we sinned against—can forgive sin in an ultimate sense. The person we offended my pardon us, but cannot restore to us divine life.  That has to be an act of God.

The Holy Spirit is the Life of God.  When we sin gravely, the Holy Spirit leaves us (actually, we expel the Holy Spirit by our choice).  When our sin is forgiven, the Holy Spirit returns; his return is, in fact, the "forgiveness" of sin, in a sense.  This is the connection, then, between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sin—two realities that recur together again and again in Scripture. We saw them above in Isaiah. We see them together throughout the New Testament:

John 20:22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven …
Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel Reading today does not explicitly discuss the activity of the Holy Spirit, but we know that Jesus is the “Christ,” which means “anointed one,” and what is he anointed with?  The Holy Spirit, as Mark showed us in the previous chapter (Mark 1:10). This “forgiveness” of the paralytic is a restoration of divine life in his soul, the communication of the Holy Spirit to him, because the Spirit is living and active in the ministry of the Anointed One.

The Spirit continues to be living and active in the ministry of his servants who act in persona Christi, who are authorized to say:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son
has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is the Body of Christ, and continues to exercise the “authority” give to the “Son of Man … on earth.” The Gospel is not a dead letter; we can still receive this power of forgiveness, and restore divine life to our souls, because Jesus touches us in the Sacraments.


msgrdeutsch said...

Bergsma you are the man!!!

Msgr Dan Deutsch

Benoit Meyrieux said...

Beautiful. It is refreshing to read about the role of the Holy Spirit in the forgiveness of sin. So many times we loose sight of the personal dimension of sin and forgiveness. I was wandering, may the gift of the Holy Spirit can be said to be the seal of the covenant (and its further renewal when we are forgiven)?

John Bergsma said...

Dear Benoit:
I think so. Based on Benedict XVI and Scott Hahn's thought on covenant, one may think of an oath (with solemnizes as covenant) as one's Word backed up with one's Life. "I take thee... till death do us part." That is a Word of promise backed up with one's Life. So, the two processions can be viewed as having an oath-covenant structure: God gives us his Word (the second person) confirmed by his Life (the third person). And this living Oath establishes a Covenant between us. So yes, the gift of the Life of God, which is the Spirit, seals the Covenant of kinship that he has formed with us.