Entering Discipleship: the Recognition of Sin
March 5, 2017
THE FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT (Year A)
To what do I attribute the evils in our society? Do I blame them on bad politics? Bad business practices? Inadequate education? Unenlightened ministry in the Church? Disintegrating family life? What do I think is the root cause?Could the root of it all be sin?
The Entrance Antiphon quotes God: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them” (Psalm 91).
Do I believe the answer to society’s problems is to call on God? How often do I do it? And what do I call on him for?
In the Opening Prayer we ask God to “help us understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection.” But we are not looking just for abstract enlightenment. We continue: “Teach us to reflect it in our lives.” We are willing to respond to what God shows us, to act on what we understand.
The Prayer over the Gifts echoes this: “Lord… may this sacrifice help us to change our lives.” And so does the Prayer After Communion: “Help us to live by your words and to seek Christ, our bread of life.”
The focus of Lent is on seeing more clearly and acting more consistently. This is the description of conversion — but of conversion based on greater insight, on new discovery, on a clearer understanding of what Jesus really calls us to believe and do. We don’t just turn away from “the same old sins.” We turn away from attitudes, values, priorities and patterns of behavior we never recognized before as “sin.”
This is what “conversion” really means: a “change of mind” made fully human in a change of heart and habits. The New Testament word for sin is hamartia, which means “to miss the mark, to fall short.” To “convert” is to correct our aim: to rectify coordinates and range.
But to do this we have to recognize it when we “miss the mark.” We do this in a “confession of sin” that is a profession of more enlightened faith.
Sin is the root:
Genesis 2:7 to 3:7 is a story God told to answer one of the basic questions in life — like the questions little children ask their parents — “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”
The Genesis story is intended to make it clear that God didn’t will this. God does not want people to suffer. The world God gave the first humans to live in was like a garden, teeming with beautiful trees and luscious fruit. A paradise.
But God made humans free. He knew they might abuse their freedom and mess up the world for themselves and others. So he gave instructions: he told them what they must avoid and what they must do if they wanted to keep their living conditions, their environment — including their interaction with one another — pleasant, beautiful and enjoyable for all. These instructions have come down to us as the “Ten Commandments.”
In the story there is only one command, because the point of the story is that there is only one cause of all the pain and suffering in the world. The cause is sin — the choice people make to use freedom, not to obey God, but to disregard God’s instructions and do what they themselves think will make them happy. We might think some particular sin is messing up the world, some particular way of acting. But God says the problem is sin as such. Any time we choose not to do what God says, we “miss the mark” and we mess up the world for ourselves and others.
When we choose to live by our own light, our own guidance system, instead of God’s, the results are disastrous. When we recognize this, our “eyes are opened” and we realize we are blind. Then there is hope.
“If you are…”
Matthew 4: 1-11 shows us Jesus confronting his call to be the Messiah, the Savior of the world. He is being tempted to falsify his mission. Not to disobey God overtly and explicitly, but to adopt as the goal of his mission something that looks good to human eyes but “misses the mark” established by God’s wisdom.
The devil urges him to give people what they think they want: prosperity, protection from enemies, a just and peaceful society; in other words, a pleasant, pain-free life on this earth. Basically, the devil is urging Jesus to make the earth a garden without God.
Jesus is not asked to exclude God; just to make God marginal. God can be a player; just don’t let him call all the plays. God will be allowed to speak to those who want to listen, but listening to God is not what will save the world. Society believes salvation consists in what people have, not in what they hear.
Jesus’ first answer is a call to discipleship — to listening and learning. The way to live fully is to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Is this an answer I have accepted? Will I accept to be the one who saves society around me by preparing myself through reading and reflecting on the words of God? Is my failure to do this the place where I am “missing the mark”? Can I recognize this as “sin”?
“Through one man”
The Responsorial Psalm is a meditation on the first reading. The response to which it guides us is: “Be merciful, Lord, for we have sinned.” When we realize we are blind, we call out to God. And God will always save us. The “definition of God” that God himself gave when he showed his “glory” to Moses is: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). God will never turn away from us when we sin.
But for us to turn to him we have to recognize our sin: Jesus said to the Pharisees, who refused to do this, “Because you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (read John, chapter 9). Romans 5:12-19 shows us the form God’s mercy took when he acted to save us from our sins. And it gives the answer we asked for in the Opening Prayer “Father, help us understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection.”
On the cross Jesus recognized sin as sin in the name of us all. He “became sin” by taking our sins into his own body (2Corinthians 5:21) to express and expiate the evil of sin in the name of the whole human race. And just as sin and suffering entered the world through one free choice — the first human choice to sin — so salvation began through the free choice of “one man,” Jesus Christ, to offer himself on the cross. When he died, all who were or ever would be made members of his body by acceptance of him also died “in him,” and their sins were annihilated. This is the mystery of our redemption.
But just as the first human act of disobedience to God began a chain reaction that filled the world with sin, so Jesus’ unique divine-human act of obedience began a chain reaction of graced responses to God that continues to reverse the destructive effects of sin on human society. Through the obedience of “one man” we were saved. But through the obedience of many that salvation takes flesh in society to turn wasteland into gardens, alienation into acceptance, selfishness into service and indifference into love. For this to happen, however, each one of us has to be that “one man” or “one woman” in whom it begins. This may be the conversion to which God calls us during Lent.
Insight: Do I really believe that if I want to relieve pain and suffering in the world, the first thing I should do is read and reflect — seriously and consistently — on the words of God? Should this be my first priority?
Initiative: What “conversion” will I work toward during Lent? What it would mean for me to convert to being a disciple. How could I begin?