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Forgiveness of Sins

by: Archbishop Charles E. Smith, OSF

Many times, albeit I have the radio, I drive in total quite, thinking planning etc. But then one other thing that I enjoy doing for the fun of it is when I see a bumper sticker, I like to pull up alongside the car and see if the message fits the driver. Sometimes it's a surprise. I saw an off-color bumper sticker on a car. I pulled up alongside, and saw a little old lady driving. Perhaps someone put it on her car, perhaps she bought the car with it already on the bumper and perhaps she put it on herself!

I once heard of a bumper sticker that said, "Life is too short to feel guilty." It sounds like it could have come from one of those semi-religious, quasi-psychological enterprises that crop up every now and then. And if so, then I am really going to be embarrassed. But on the other hand, "life is too short to feel guilty." It's true, for some. Perhaps these semi-religious, quasi-psychological enterprises have arisen, and flourished because the Church has forgotten that Jesus came into the world to preach and to forgive sinners.

After hearing the Gospel (Mark 2:1-12) story today, if someone who wasn't here asked you what the gospel was about, what you would tell them? Would you say that it was the story of the "healing of the paralytic"? Or was it the story of the "Forgiveness of a Sinner"? How would you answer the question?

When we look at the gospel message for today, the healing of the paralytic, it raises all kinds of questions right off, but you read it carefully. It says, "Jesus was at home in Capernaum." But the scriptures say he is from Nazareth. Maybe, he was just visiting and felt at home. Maybe he had two homes.

Anyway, he is at "home" in Capernaum. The crowd gathers to hear him. The local fire department (if they had one) would not be happy, as they are stacked into the house in great numbers. In fact, they are overflowing the house, out through the door, onto the lawn, sitting on the window sills, hanging from the rafters all against any kind of fire code today. Among this crowd there are some scribes. They are here at the beginning of the gospel, and they will follow him throughout the story, appearing every time he preaches, among the crowd. Every time Jesus gathers people around him to preach, they will be in the background, gathering evidence for the inevitable arrest and trial.

Mark now turns his attention to four men carrying a paralytic to see Jesus. They can't get into the house, it's too crowded. The crowd won't part to make a path for them. So they climb to the roof, take off part of the roof, and lower the man right onto Jesus' lap.

Mark then says that Jesus "saw their faith." We would assume that Jesus is talking about the faith of the four and the paralytic. But that's not what the text tells us! According to the grammar of the text, it is the faith of the four men who brought the paralytic there, not the paralytic himself. Which raises interesting questions, will my faith help somebody else? Can faith be vicarious?

Archbishop Tutu, of South Africa, said many times that what kept him going in the fight against apartheid during the struggle in South Africa, for all those years, were the prayers of people around the world that he felt uplifting him and giving him courage. Many have said that they have felt the healing power when they know that others are praying for them.

While we focus on the healing of the paralytic remember that what Mark is actually talking about Jesus forgiving the sins of the paralytic, though nobody has said anything about the paralytic being a sinner. But of course we know that in those days they believed that physical illnesses and deformities were punishment for sin.

In or society today, we believe that we have to explain situations. Today's situation one might say that the paralytic problems were only psychosomatic. Many believe that we can punish ourselves physically by the way we think. If we think bad thoughts, if we suppress bad things, we are going to pay for it physically. I believe that there is some truth to that as well. But with some, today's story is about the paralytic and psychosomatic medicine.

Some people turn to this text from the perspective of psychosomatic medicine, and interpret the story saying, Jesus is the great diagnostician. He just looks at this guy and he knows immediately that he is laboring under repressed guilt. So Jesus forgives him, and he is healed.

But is that what Mark is saying in his text? We have to read it carefully. The story says first he forgives his sins, then he enters a dispute with the scribes, and then he heals the paralytic.

So there are really two miracles here. One is the forgiveness of sins, which is what the story is all about. The other is the healing of the physical problem, which is what most want to focus on.

The story is called, "The Healing of the Paralytic," but it's really about the forgiveness of sins. This guy falls into Jesus' lap. Everybody sees it. Now Jesus has to do something. He's right on his lap. All eyes are on Jesus. He already has a reputation as a healer. This is only the second chapter of the gospel. In the first chapter he healed, among other people, a leper. That's why the crowd is there. They know his reputation. They've come to see a miracle of healing.

So the crowd is there looking at Jesus hoping to see a miracle healing. But Jesus is looking at the scribes in the back of the room, who are probably taking notes; remember that they didn't have tablets, ipads, or laptops. He continues to look at them, and stretches out his hand, and touches the paralytic, and says, "Your sins are forgiven."

The paralytic is still paralyzed at this time. To say, "Your sins are forgiven," doesn't heal him. What it does is shock the scribes, which is exactly what Jesus intended to do. The scribes, when they hear that, gasp. If they had cell phones they would be texting away frantically. Facebook, as a friend says, Spacebook (which I dearly love) would have been flooded with post after post.

Jesus responds saying, "Why do you question all of this? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or, 'Rise, take up your pallet and go home'?" Then comes the punch line: "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins".

That's what this story is about. He has already healed. That's not a big deal. That's why he says it is easier to heal than it is to forgive sins. Healers were no big deal in those days. There must have been healers by the hundreds in Palestine in those days. But only God can forgive sins. So who is this man?

Can you image the scribes and elders in the back hashing this one out? "Jesus thinks he's God". "This man says he's sent from God". "This man thinks he is the Son of God". Anyway, what Jesus said was blasphemous in their view.

Mark writes this incident down in his gospel in order for you to come to him. "For the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins." That's why he came. And "life is too short to feel guilty."

Now the first thing that needs to be said in talking about guilt and sin is that some people ought to feel guilty. I mean, they have done terrible things. They have hurt people. They have thought only of themselves. They have manipulated people. They have used people. They have done those things that they ought not to have done, and they have not done those things that they should have done. So guilt, in their case, is appropriate. And sometimes they actually feel it. When they do, it is the most human and the most healthy response to what they have done. So in their case you could say, "life is too short not to feel guilty." Which is the point that Carl Menninger made in his famous book, Whatever Became of Sin. Menninger pointed out that guilt isn't necessarily a bad thing. It is a sign of conscience. A conscience is a sign of a moral individual. A moral individual is a fully human person.

Someone who can't feel guilt isn't really human. They are sub-human. Guilt is good when it motivates change. That's what it is for. Guilt is good if it gets you to live a better life than the life that you are living now.

A therapist shared this with me, a person came to this therapist and complained of feeling guilty. He said he was feeling guilty and wanted to get rid of it. It was messing up his life, making him depressed all the time. In the therapy it was revealed that the person was doing something that violated his sense of right and wrong. He wanted the therapist to get rid of the guilt so that he could continue to live the life that he was living. The therapist said to him, if you want to get rid of the guilt, to stop doing what is causing it.

So there are some, an increasing number I suspect in our time, in this secular age, who know nothing about guilt, and who ought to feel guilty. It would do them some good. And it would do society good as well. We would raise the level of quality of life in this society by a great deal if there were the kind of healthy guilt that motivates us to live better lives.

But there are those who have not done anything wrong, and who still feel guilty. Their problem is not a problem of conscience rather a problem of the spirit. You can make the distinction between a moral problem and a spiritual problem. A moral problem is relatively simple. It is a matter of the will. Just stop doing what you're doing. If it is doing you harm, just stop it. You know what you ought to do to do good? Start doing it. It's a matter of the will.

A spiritual problem is complex. It's a matter of your relationship with God. How do I have a relationship with God? Well I wonder if you have noticed that psychology emerged in this world when the religious perspective declined. That was at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century. With the decline of a religious outlook on life, people turned to what was available, to the secular science for answers to what was wrong with them and what they could do about it. Before that time people turned to religion for the answers.

Religion said the secret of human life, the reason that you are here, is to have a relationship with God. If you don't have that relationship, then there is going to be an emptiness in your life. You are going to feel something, and that feeling was identified as guilt. In other words, if there is something wrong with your life, something missing, what you feel is guilt. God is missing from your life. You are made for God. You are made in God's image. You will be restless, you will be ill at ease, you will be dis-eased, until you rest in God. That is the religious answer to the human condition, reconciliation with God.

But you don't hear that much anymore, not even in church. Which is an indication of how vast the influence of secular science has been in interpreting what life is all about. Secular therapy is good, and God uses it. But I couldn't help notice this. When the world turned from a religious understanding of human life, they got rid of God, but they didn't get rid of guilt. In fact, if anything, the incidence of guilt has increased in that time. The pharmaceutical industry has made billions in profits not to help cure our guilt, but to mask our guilt. We now use another language for it to describe it. We use the language of science. We use the language of psychology. But whatever language we use to describe the symptoms, we have remained the same in every age. What you don't hear in this age is a religious diagnosis of the problem, if you are separated from God. What you need is to hear that you are forgiven, we need reconciliation with our Creator.

So the message that you are supposed to hear, the reason the Church is here in the first place, is to proclaim that message of forgiveness. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever would believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him would be saved."

That's the way the Gospel of John puts it. The Gospel of Mark puts it much more simply. "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins."

When Jesus talked about what forgiveness means, what it looks like, he used the analogy of family reunion. I think he did that because he knew that everyone of us would know what that means. Even if we have had lousy parents, we can understand what it would mean to have a homecoming, a family reunion. Even if we are estranged from homes that we do not want to return to. Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again." Many of us have no desire at all to go home again, to the homes that we left. But we still know what he is talking about. We know what it should have been like. We know what we wish it had been like.

At every Mass as we celebrate Holy Communion, we gather around a family table, because the Church is to be the new family. And for some, it will be the only genuinely human family they will ever know.

Jesus told us about a son, feeling guilty, afraid to come home, afraid to face the father. But when he had the courage to do that, and to ask forgiveness, he found the father coming down the road to meet him.

As we prepare for our Lenten Season this week let us focus on our relationship with God, do we feel part of the family? If not, remember that the Son of man has authority on earth and has passed that authority down to us, to welcome anyone back into the family.