Thursday, March 14, 2013

Freed from Sin, Freed for God

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year C

Catholics are often envious of Protestants especially of the fact that the latter are able to memorise catchy biblical verses and spew them at will. Occasionally, Catholics would also try to show off their mnemonic skills by citing something that presumably comes from the Bible. One of the oft repeated clichés a Catholic may cite, believing that it’s derived from the gospels, and perhaps even from the mouth of Jesus is this, “Love the Sinner, hate the sin”. Little do they realise that this doesn’t come from the Bible at all. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” has become a well-worn Christian mantra, an expression of conviction that even while we stand firm on what constitutes right and wrong, we will continue to love those who do what is sinful.

Today’s gospel story of the woman caught in adultery has become synonymous with this maxim. It would appear to many that Jesus epitomises the truth of this maxim: he loved the sinner, in this case the woman caught in adultery, but did not condone the sin, as demonstrated by his parting words to the woman, phrased as a commandment of sort, “Go away, and don’t sin anymore!” The story is so popular that even those who rarely read the Bible know about it. The cause of its popularity is by no means the closing words of Jesus; often this part is ignored or even forgotten in modern popular spinning of the tale. What often catches the attention of the audience are the words of Jesus addressed to the Pharisees and the angry mob, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” By these words, Jesus is held up as the singular model of non-judgmental compassion and acceptance of moral (or immoral) behaviour.

Both this story and the maxim ‘Love the sinner, but hate the sin” have often been used to justify the argument that no one has the right to judge another person for his moral behaviour, no one should criticise anyone else who is sinning, since Jesus didn't (or so they think). According to the argument, since everyone is a sinner, something which is not denied, all persons are disqualified from making moral judgments. This argument is often used against the Church and its leaders who are deemed to have wrongly assumed a self-righteous moral authority to judge the behaviour of others. The Church and who stubbornly persist in setting moral benchmarks which are practically disputed by the majority, both within and outside the Church. This, perhaps, explains the popular media’s obsessive fascination with excavating and exposing the Church’s ‘sordid’ past, and the ‘vices’ of its leaders, to press the point that since the Church and its leaders cannot plead impeccability, they must thus abdicate the right to judge others, the proverbial ‘stone throwing’ as described in today’s gospel.

But did Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and the scribes carry the above connotation? If it did, then no one, not even the media, has the right to judge; which seems ironic since the media constantly tries and passes judgments on institutions and personalities, in the absence of both the accused as well as incontrovertible evidence. Jesus never condoned sin or even the sinner who remains in sin. In fact, the conclusion of the story is the reverse. He told her unequivocally to sin no more. There was no compromise or the slightest tolerance for sin. He did not even provide her with a more realistically attainable path – go and “try” not to sin again. There is nothing ambiguous about what he meant. “Go away, and don’t sin anymore.” The woman and all of us are presented with a choice. We can choose Jesus Christ, or we can choose our sins. If you choose to love your sins, you will die in them. If, however, you confess and repent of your sins, and choose Christ, you will have life, life in abundance, for Christ has died for us, the unrighteous, in order to make us righteous before God.

Ironically, the phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin” actually has Catholic origins; it originated in St Augustine’s letter, written in year 211 to a group of nuns. The “sins” he has in view are excessive eye contact with men and receiving letters or gifts from men. He cautioned the nuns of his time not be tempted by desirous looks at men. What happens when a nun violates this rule? St Augustine proposes that others are to discipline her “with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin.” The saint even prescribes a method where this dictum could be put into practice: “But if any one among you has gone on into so great sin as to receive secretly from any man letters or gifts of any description, let her be pardoned and prayed for if she confess this of her own accord. If, however, she is found out and is convicted of such conduct, let her be more severely punished.” The modern person would have found this harsh and overly judgmental, failing to recognise that Augustine is the real author of the maxim. For Augustine and for Jesus too, no way was sin to be tolerated or approved. Love does not preclude discipline or even punishment. In fact, love demanded that the sinner be corrected and even punished when appropriate.

Pope Emeritus Benedict articulated the same point in his interview with Peter Seewald, “Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of law, which in fact is not only just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of the truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.”

If we are going to love the sinner while avoiding any attitude or behaviour which would approve sin in any way, then we must see sin in the same light as God does. God does not rationalise sin by “watering it down” and making it easier to accept.  He does not refer to fornication or adultery as “a love affair,” or homosexuality as an “alternative lifestyle”, or abortion as ‘d & c’ (dilation and curettage).  He does not refer to evil as a ‘psychological impairment.’ He does not distinguish the sinner from the sin, external behaviour from internal disposition. In fact, a person is not divisible in the way the cliché, and our underlying anthropology assumes. In the Bible there is no such division of a person that separates what we do from who we are. Identity is inseparable from our activity. Sin can never be quarantined. One can never deliberately and consciously choose to remain in sin and expect only unconditional acceptance from God. Sin is the very antithesis, the very opposite of God.

The reason why God hates sin, is because He loves sinners.  God knows that sin has cursed man with suffering and death. It is the cruel tyrant that enslaves the soul. God recognises what tremendous damage sin has done and is doing to His creation. He knows how sin holds a person captive in the depths of his own personal guilt, how addictive it becomes.  He knows the misery and pain that invades a person as sinful acts pile upon sinful acts until the person staggers beneath its load. Thus, no tolerance should ever be shown to sin. Tolerance for sinful behaviour should never be mistaken for compassion and love. True love demands that one seeks to announce the truth of the wrongdoing, call the sinner to repentance and finally to facilitate his reconciliation with God.

Today there are two popular extremes in how Christians approach sinners. The first extreme is like the Pharisees. “Let's stone them!” There is no charity in their judgment or in their condemnation. Likewise the second extreme is where we say, 'it's okay, do whatever you want, God's mercy will cover it." There is also a lack of charity in this seemingly liberal view of things. Rather, charity calls us to free those trapped in sin from the evil that enslaves them. Pope Emeritus Benedict’s past Lenten message spoke about the need to be concerned for the spiritual welfare of others and of the need to try and correct behaviour that is sinful: "The Church’s tradition has included “admonishing sinners” among the spiritual works of mercy. It is important to recover this dimension of Christian charity. We must not remain silent before evil ... Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other… It is a great service, then, to help others and allow them to help us, so that we can be open to the whole truth about ourselves, improve our lives and walk more uprightly in the Lord’s ways. There will always be a need for a gaze which loves and admonishes, which knows and understands, which discerns and forgives (cf. Lk 22:61), as God has done and continues to do with each of us."

Just like the woman in today’s story, Christ has seen our sin. He has smelled the stench of our wicked hearts. As we stand, caught in our sin, standing before Christ naked, shamed, expecting nothing but his judgment, we receive only this: his greatest gift, his life offered freely for you and for me. Just as he had looked into the eyes of the woman, he looks into ours and sees the cross. He would go to that very cross we deserved. He would keep the law perfectly to satisfy the justice of punishment due for our sins by becoming a sacrifice in our place. Christ tells us to “go away, and don’t sin anymore.”  This is as much a command as it is a call to freedom.  Freedom should never be taken as a permissive license to sin. Christ sets us free to live a life free from sin, a life free to be in communion with God, a life free to glorify God.

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