Very few things are more evident in our world than the reality of human sinfulness. Even the quickest glance in the mirror reveals that truth about ourselves and about the world around us. We don’t have to believe it, because daily we experience graphic testimony to the existence of sin everywhere. We also experience goodness.
If we were to use some imaginary test to detect sin as if it were a type of immoral radiation, we would quickly see the flashing “hot spots” of human dishonesty, injustice, greed or violence in our social fabric.
If sin were a type of cancer, we would discover the aberrant infected social cells of idolatry, lust or arrogant disobedience. Although often just below the surface of things, human sinfulness has the unfortunate capacity to thwart God’s providential hopes for our world. It represents moral disease.
God respects our freedom so much that he accepts the choices of our free will and allows the fabric of creation to be ripped by the self-centered decisions we may make. At the same time, however, as I often say, we don’t have to be good for God to love us, because God will love us into goodness – if we allow it. The key, of course, is a willingness to allow the graces of God’s transformation to do their work in our lives.
The sadness of sin is far more profound than simply disobeying divine commands or rules. There are many different metaphors to understand what sin is really all about. Whatever negates, ignores, disregards or dismisses God’s vision for our world is sinful. Supposing, therefore, that we imagine a set of different transparencies which we lay over our respective lives … each illustrating the difference between the reality of our lives and the potential to which we are called.
If we are invited to friendship with God, then any action or attitude or omission which offends true friendship is sinful. Imagine all the things which offend the friendships we cherish in life: dishonesty, betrayal, exploitation or hurtful words.
If we are called to be witnesses to the Resurrection, already at work in our lives, then anything which obscures or lessens the life of the next age already shared in this age through our baptism is sinful. If our witness is skewed, or our lives contrary to the teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels, they are marred by sin.
If we are called to be part of the new creation, then anything of injustice or violence is sinful. The final stage of creation will be marked by a world in which everything will exist in right relationship with all the other parts of creation. Whatever is contrary to that will be sinful.
The early church singled out three areas of human activity which were so serious as to destroy an individual’s relationship with God and the community of the baptized: idolatry, adultery and murder. They were called the “tria capitalia.” They could only be remedied by extended periods of penance and separation from the Eucharist.
Other actions could be sinful by reason of lacking charity, truth or justice, but not so fundamentally destructive as to separate a person from God or God’s world. They were remedied by contrition, prayer or alms to the poor.
Over the centuries and through the insight of holy people, deeper areas of sinfulness were understood. Sometimes violations of sexuality came to dominate Christian moral consciousness as if they were the greatest of sins. While not denying the power of sexuality to twist our moral judgments, we have seen that human social structures as well as individuals could be marked by other types of sin. Economic systems and political structures can also be evil and contrary to charity, justice or truth.
The Good News of Christ Jesus, however, is the startling fact that our individual and social sinfulness is not the end of the story. God sent his Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it (Jn 3:16). His name is Jesus because he saves us from our sins (Mt 1:21). The blood of the new and eternal covenant is renewed at every Eucharist and sacramentally celebrated because it is poured out for us and for the many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28). God’s plan envisions the healing of our moral illnesses and the full and final restoration of our world in Christ.
On the occasion of the promulgation of the renewed rite for the sacrament of reconciliation in 1976, Pope Paul VI suggested the entire mission of the church could be described as one of mediating God’s forgiveness and mercy. That means the church should never be reduced to the type of corporate justice embodied and practiced by the institutions of this world. The church proclaims forgiveness and needs it.
God’s forgiveness presumes genuine repentance, a firm purpose of amendment and efforts at restitution when possible. God’s forgiveness requires restorative justice to those offended by evil actions. God’s forgiveness does not automatically enable a sinner to resume leadership in an area which was sinfully exploited in the past.
When all is said and done, however, and when the evil of our human sin is named and claimed, the Gospel still recalls the teaching of Jesus which insisted on the possibility of forgiveness, “ … not only seven times, but 77 times if necessary” (Mt 18:22). That admonition was given in the context of Matthew’s instruction to his community. That Peter and the disciples found that teaching disconcerting and almost humanly impossible does not absolve us from holding forgiveness as the constant ideal for life in this age. The sense of sin and the grace of forgiveness are God’s gifts in every age.