The Forgiveness of Sins

At Sunday Mass when we sing or say the Nicene Creed, we “acknowledge one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But the Church pays only lip service to this idea. While we read Bible passages about forgiveness, hear confessions, and pronounce absolution, Churches seldom oppose punishment per se in the secular world. 

The United States, a supposedly “Christian” country, has yet to read, mark, and inwardly digest the concept of forgiveness. Instead, we have a punishment mentality. Most punishment occurs where someone who has a power relationship over another, whether by contract, law, custom, or brute force, imposes negative consequences on the person in a lesser power position that displeases the person in the greater power position. Examples include: pay your credit card bill late, and you’ll get a late fee. Drive your car too fast, and you’ll pay a fine if the police catch you. Children who disobey their parents get punished, sometimes in brutal ways. Students who disobey school rules are suspended. So why doesn’t the credit card company forgive late payments? Why don’t the Courts forgive traffic law violators? Why don’t parents forgive children? Why don’t schools forgive students? It is to maintain power and control over the behavior of another person. For some people that is more important than following Jesus.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the crucifixion of Jesus. His death did not occur as a result of a divine plan to have Him suffer punishment for the sins of humankind, whether cumulative or original, but was a cruel power exercise by the despicable Sadducees and Pharisees (the words I would really like to use to describe them would be unfit for a family newspaper) whose power Jesus threatened by, among other things, teaching that he could forgive of sins. The prevailing theology in His day was that only God could forgive sins; hence, the Jewish scholars thought in their hearts that Jesus had spoken blasphemy, and the penalty for that was death. Jesus, however, was a rabble-rouser, no good for the First Century Jewish people whose uneasy relationship with the Roman authorities required the temple leaders to keep their population under control lest they incur the wrath of Pontius Pilate, a weak-kneed leader with no moral compass who ordered Jesus crucified despite finding no fault in Him.

Jesus, however, is NOT about power and control over others. Born in a stable to a young unwed mother, he did not accumulate wealth or amass an army. His power arose from words and deeds, in the Sermon on the Mount, at Cana, with the Woman at the Well, at Bethany with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in the parable of the talents, in his encounter with Zacheus, his healing of the woman with hemorrhages, his visit to the home of the centurion, at the Last Supper, in Gethsemane, before Pilate, and on the Cross, from which he said to his oppressors, “Father forgive them, because they know not what they do.” 

Many people misconstrue forgiveness as an abdication of responsibility. It is not. To be forgiven one must show contrition and repentance. In the story of the Prodigal Son, a wealthy father has two boys. If the father were to die, his property would be divided equally between his two sons. The younger son, however, isn’t content to wait for his father’s death. Delayed gratification is not on his agenda. He wants what he wants NOW so he can go spend his share of the family money and have a good time. That’s exactly what he did. And being young and immature, he spent it all. He wasn’t like the investors in the parable of the talents who took their master’s gift and multiplied it. The spendthrift son was left with nothing and was forced to work for a pittance, feeding pigs and sharing pig food. Even his father’s servants had it better than that. He longed to be home, and humbly journeyed back to this father. His words were sincere and poignant: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” The wayward son took responsibility for what he did, and his father’s response was to put a ring on his finger, a robe on his body and sandals on his feet, to kill the fatted calf and celebrate his return. 

But that didn’t suit his jealous brother. He’s like a lot of us. He complained that he’d been a loyal son, never did anything wrong, and never got so much as a goat for his troubles, yet the father was throwing a party for the wayward son. The father recognized his loyalty and reminded the older son that his entire estate would go to him. This is significant – it reminds us that while poor choices may be forgiven, There are still consequences for our choices. What the story doesn’t explicitly say is that the younger son who took his half of the property and left home is not going to inherit anything if the father dies. However, these consequences arose not out of retribution, but were the natural result of events. The younger son is still going to have to make it on his own – he will pay when he is older for being a spendthrift and not saving and investing while young.

Old Testament society reflected a definitive system of punishment for wrongdoing. It’s described in in the book of Leviticus. Adulterers are to be stoned. Those who engage in same sex relations are to put to death, to name just a few. Jesus, however, brought us a new way to do business. Jesus tells us, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to God to forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. And on Easter Day, Jesus told the Apostles that those persons they forgive are in fact, forgiven.

I often ask myself what the world would be like if no person punished another person. Would children be more compassionate adults if their parents never punished them? Would people drive safely without traffic fines? Would borrowers make their payments on time if there were no late fees? What if we lived in a society where we recognized that indeed certain actions were wrong, but provided the reward of forgiveness to those who were contrite and repentant? Can we ever liberate ourselves from a supposed innate desire to pass judgment and punish? 

Christianity is not just words in a book. Nor is it just ceremonies. It is all of that, and more. It is a lifestyle, and not an easy one. It goes against the grain of our secular world. But we can listen to the still small voice within us when we are in a position of power over another person, whether as boss, teacher, parent, police, or creditor. Listen to Jesus as He tells you to forgive, not punish, your employees, students, children, citizens and debtors. You will make our world a better place. How often must you forgive someone? Jesus says, at least seven times seventy times. AMEN.