Today’s Gospel reading (Mat. 9:1-8) narrates the story of the healing of the paralytic. Friends of the paralytic brought him to Jesus and Jesus said to him “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.” The religious authorities who were present objected in their hearts. Why is this man forgiving sins, they thought, when only God possesses the prerogative of forgiveness? It is blasphemy! But Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins. He not only forgave the paralytic, but He also healed him, saying “Rise, take up your pallet and go home!”
Let us concentrate on one topic from today’s Gospel, a topic we seldom talk about. The topic of sin. What is sin? We hardly hear about this subject in ordinary conversations, and much less so in public discussion or the news. Fifty years ago Karl Menninger, the renown psychiatrist, wrote a book entitled What Ever Happened to Sin? In it he called for a clear-cut distinction between right and wrong at a time when moral values were being relativized, and people had begun to shirk personal and social responsibility.
The situation today, we can admit, is not any better. Many voices continue to demand rights and privileges rather than paying attention to duties and responsibilities. We don’t hear much about sin. Yet the word “sin” (amartia) is frequent in the Bible. The Scriptures teach that only fools deny the existence of God and the reality of sin. The two go together. If there is God, then there is sin as disobedience to His will. If there is no God, then, as Dostoyevsky the Russian author said, “anything is permissible,” which is the philosophy of some radicals today.
Why are we uneasy about sin? Sin is evil and evil is sin. Sin is not only individual acts but also a power which, through individual acts, establishes habits and conditions of sin. Talk of sin makes us a bit nervous because it is personal. We do not want to think of ourselves as sinners. We are also influenced by modernity. The paradox is that most people do not hesitate to talk about the existence of evil, given the conflicts and violence in the world. In the news, commentators and political leaders freely condemn as “evil” individual acts of violence and individual perpetrators who cause so much pain and grief to others. Why then the discomfort about sin?
Three reasons appear primary. The first is that faith in God has declined in modern society. As faith in God has declined, so also talk of sin has diminished not only in society but also in the churches themselves. By definition sin a wrong act or a wrong way of living which are prohibited and judged by God. The problem is not that sin and evil are less real now, or less noted in the news, given all the troubles of the world. The problem is instead lack of strong faith in God, to call a spade a spade. By faith I mean personal trust in a loving Creator, as revealed to us by Christ, a God who loves and cares for us, and who works with us to be liberated from sin and to enjoy all His gifts and blessings.
The second reason about our unease with sin is a false supposition. We suppose that sin has to do with a lot of do’s and don’ts, countless rules and regulations that stifle and repress the vigor of life. Sin is trivialized as the breaking of rules, as if God is a celestial policeman prone to punish people for jaywalking. Or we have the supposition that by His rules God wants to keep us obedient and humble, to know our place and serve Him as Master. These notions are false because they present a childish view of God that fuels rebellion against Him. We have free will, and we want to assert our freedom. The idea of a relationship with God based on rules and regulations makes us want to rebel. But God is neither a policeman nor a judge obsessed with rules keeping. Rather He is a loving Father who desires a personal heart relationship with us, a filial relationship of love and trust as His daughters and sons, a holy mutual communion which nurtures true freedom and the flourishing of life.
Consider the benefits of God’s commandments. God’s negative commandments such as “Do not steal, do not lie, do not commit adultery, do not be envious of others” are like guardrails on the highway to keep us safely on the road. As humans we want to test limits, to cross red lights, to drive too fast, and thus to cause accidents and suffer great harm. Likewise in life we are tempted to lie, to cheat, to steal, to commit other immoral acts, and to risk going “off the rails,” making a mess out of life, while obedience to God’s rules actually keeps safe on the road.
Consider the positive commandments. Christ taught that we ought to be humble, kind, merciful, forgiving, peacemakers, lovers of justice. These precepts are self-evident in their value and they hardly need a word of justification. By practicing humbleness, goodness, justice, forgiveness, and by even trying to love the enemy, we achieve greater cooperation and solidarity in society. There can be no real objection to these earmarks of Christian life because they are as clear and bright as the rays of the sun. They inspire and foster a vision of human life that is as noble as it is useful and practical.
A final reason for the unease about sin is also false supposition. I mean the notion that sin has to do mainly with indulgence, such as access in the use of food, drink and other far more serious matters. Who does not want to let loose now and then, without having to look over our shoulder at a disapproving God? Again we are like children, wanting to be free of parental supervision, and tempted to commit a few nasty things for the evil pleasure of it. We create a false view of God as killjoy, as an austere moral guardian who suspects His children may be having too much fun on earth. But God is exactly the first to have us rejoice and delight in all the blessings of life, in our families, our marriages, our workplaces, our recreation, and in all human relationships. Plain wisdom teaches that these blessings are best enjoyed when indulgence is curbed in order for us to make right use of things. Indulgence too can make a mess out of life, such as in the cases of excessive obesity, alcoholism, drugs and other addictions which carry heavy personal and social costs.
What is sin? We said that sin is evil and evil is sin. Anything and everything that harms or corrupts the good gift of life given to us by a loving God is sin. In the Scriptures and in the Orthodox tradition many depictions of sin can be found. Sin is missing the mark. Our goal is to actualize the ideal of being in the image and likeness of God. Sin is transgression of God’s will, an offense which incurs guilt, separates us from God, and then causes all kinds of conflicts and ruptures among us. Sin is ignorance, foolishness, deception, even a kind of sickness in which evil thoughts arise out of the heart, according to Christ’s words (Mark 7:21-23). Sin is the wrong use of things, wrong thoughts, and wrong relationships, which hurt people and diminish the gift of life.
Sin is an unavoidable universal reality, a parasite on the goodness of creation which can be overcome only by the grace of God. The Apostle John writes: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves . . . If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins . . . We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ . . . He is the expiation of our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 1:8-9; 2:1-2)
What is the best cure for sin? It is love. Out of love God sent His Son to save the world (John 3:16). Listen to the words of the Apostle John once again: “God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son . . . that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son as expiation of our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:8-11)
What is sin? Ultimately the essence of sin is failure to trust in God as a loving Father, as Christ has taught us. It is the refusal to believe in Him and to love Him in return for all the wonders of creation. We cannot love God if we do not strongly believe in Him. But remembering God’s boundless love for us can draw us to Him in faith. The prodigal son had a changed heart, he came into his right mind and returned to the Father for one main reason: he remembered the love of his father. He came home, found himself again, was restored to sonship, and enjoyed the party celebrating his return. The same love of God calls us home always. To leave behind any and all deceptions and corruptions of sin, to come to a conversion of heart remembering God’s love, to know God’s mercy and forgiveness, to rejoice in our faith and love for God by living as citizens of His kingdom. Let us love God and let us love one another as the best therapy to sin.
In the words of St. Paul: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled [God’s] Law . . . the commandments are summed up in this one sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor . . . love is the fulfilling of the Law.” (Rom. 13:8-10) Amen.
*Rev. Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Holy Cross School of Theology.