Can only God forgive sin? Sunday Readings B 7 (Y-not question the Sunday Readings)
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time B
February 19, 2012
Reading I: Isaiah 43: 18-19, 21-22, 24b-25
Responsorial Psalm: 41:2-3, 4-5, 13-14
Reading II: 2 Corinthians 1: 18-22
This story follows immediately from the cure of the leper that we read last week. It is worth remembering that there are no chapter divisions in the original. The opening scenario is one of those colourful pieces that make the gospels such entertaining reading. The crowd is pressing hard so that these four carrying a fifth on a stretcher have to devise their own way of getting in. (Nothing is said of the mess they made of the roof and how long it will take to stop the leaks. LOL) Jesus saw their faith, i.e., he was impressed, and congratulated them by speaking to the paralysed man even before they could ask for help.
There are many threads in the tapestry. It may be possible to follow two or three to see where they lead.
First thing I notice is that in this episode Jesus raises his mission to a new level. Instead of just curing the man, he opens up the subject of sin and forgiveness: Your sins are forgiven. I can think of three reasons that may have moved Jesus to say this: (a) because he saw that the man's soul/spirit was in fact paralysed by sin; (b) to teach that his real mission, why he had come, was not to heal physical ills but to heal disease of the spirit; (c) to show that the bodily ills he was curing - blindness, deafness, leprosy, paralysis, frenzy - were all symbols of the spiritual ills that humankind needed liberation from.
We don't have to choose one or other of these three: his purpose may have involved any one or two, or all three. But it is important to see that this is a new level in Mark's narrative.
The scribes were teachers of the law, experts who engaged in discussions about the law, its interpretation and its obligations. Jesus again takes the initiative, not waiting to hear their criticism, but putting a challenge to them. The simple question: Why do you have these thoughts in your hearts? may seem like a complaint, but I suspect it is more. Barklay again finds our idiom better than others do: What put questions like that into your heads? Or as we might say: Where are these ideas coming from?
Jesus goes straight past the technical, legal arguments the scribes were skilled at, right down to the level of conscience. Where are these thoughts coming from? Why are you judging what I said? Do you imagine that your role in the community is to judge everyone? Or is it from jealousy, that you cannot allow someone else to have influence in the community? Anyone with an ounce of human kindness would have rejoiced that a poor cripple might have his sins forgiven, but you - you miss that human dimension, so eager are you to question the authority of the Rabbi who would offer the forgiveness we all might long for.
One thread we might follow is 'god'. 'He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?' The presumption is staggering. These doctors in the law are so sure that they understand God. They know what God would consider an insult, and any mere mortal who would offer forgiveness to a common sinner is guilty, according to them, of blasphemy because they see him as assuming a role that is held jealously by god. I wonder are these ideas well founded in the scriptures.
Is forgiveness reserved to God?
For an answer we need to ask what is forgiveness - and what is sin. 'SIN'. Its meanings range from 'missing the mark' (as in archery), which is the meaning of the Greek word harmatia used throughout the Septuagint and the New Testament, to any failure to fulfill the Law or its many prescriptions, and especially the breaking of one of the Ten Commandments. This idea of sin - 'any thought, word, deed or omission against the law of God' (from the old catechism) - is like our idea of crime. It has the peculiar corollary that if something is not legislated against, then it is not a crime. Jesus was not the first to insist that our idea of 'justice' must go deeper, down to the level of conscience. He made it the standard of the metanoia, the change he called for (Mt 5:20). Much of his teaching dealt with people missing the mark by going for legal compliance instead of personal commitment. Later on we will find him using darkness as a metaphor to describe sin that is a state of mind, while he presented himself as the light to be lived in. (1)
So to forgiveness: fore-give, fore-go; or pardon: per-donare. You would think that to forgive is as basic, as common, as essential as to love, to hope or to trust. But there is no positive single word for forgiveness. It is not a primary impulse, but secondary. It is my response to someone who has first offended me. It is a second giving. Having first given my love, I have been rebuffed, and I must give again in fore-giving. So it is with God.
There is a saying: 'To err is human: to forgive divine'. Does this mean that only God can forgive? Rather it means that just as to err is commonplace among us, so to forgive smacks of something rare, something holy. It is not outside our competence to forgive: in forgiving we share something of the divine. We cannot initially 'give life' but in forgiving we give back life to one who has become bound in a paralysis of guilt after missing the mark in some way.
Can only God forgive sin? I think not. To the contrary, we pray 'Forgive us as we forgive each other...' Forgiveness needs to be amongst our most common activities. Forgiveness is healing.
What about the man on the stretcher? Perhaps hearing those words: Your sins are forgiven, made him free to face his own sins. The strongest bind of sin is in denial. Unexpectedly he heard that he no longer needed to deny responsibility for what he had done: it was recognised, and he was free of it. He lay there, deeply moved. Then he heard Jesus say: Get up and go home, and he did just that. He was free in spirit, and it is just possible that this caused the paralysis to lose its grip on his muscles and he could move again.
'Just to show you that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sin...' Still on the 'god' thread: the Scribes implied that Jesus was taking on a divine prerogative, and later on they will charge him with 'making himself God' (Jn 10,33). But Jesus insists on calling himself 'son of man', which at face value always means 'simply human'. I wonder could we say that the underlying message of Mark's narrative here is that every son of man has power on earth (here and now) to forgive sin and give the healing that comes from that release. What a way to live, liberating those we love, instead of heaping guilt on them and binding them with reminders of how they 'always' miss the target.
Footnote (1) I came across an article A Peculiarly Christian Account of Sin by William H. Willimon at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jul1993/v50-2-article5.htm#Willimon This article would be worth some study and discussion on the Forum, IMO.
"A post is a free gift, and it will go where it pleases."'
- Can only God forgive sin? Sunday Readings B 7 - Ynot, 2012-02-17, 16:27
- Can only God forgive sin? Sunday Readings B 7 - Francis, 2012-02-17, 20:09
- A tapestry with many threads - CathyT, 2012-02-18, 01:43
- Can only God forgive sin? Sunday Readings B 7 - Sue, 2012-02-18, 12:34
- Can only God forgive sin? Sunday Readings B 7 - Jerome, 2012-02-18, 14:19
- Can only God forgive sin? Sunday Readings B 7 - judith, 2012-02-19, 17:34