Scripture says that some of the scribes said within themselves: “This man is talking blasphemy.” And Jesus, aware of their thoughts, said: “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” St. John Chrysostom, the ancient preacher says, “Jesus rebuked the scribes. He said: “If you do not believe the first proof, and regard it as an empty boast, then see, I offer you another by revealing your secret thoughts; and to this I will add a third.” What is the third to be? The healing of the paralytic.” Jesus did not give a clear manifestation of his power when he first spoke to the paralytic. He did not say: “I forgive you your sins,” but: Your sins are forgiven. When the scribes forced him, however, he showed his power more clearly, that you may know, he said, that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins. Something new is at work here. Jesus is the power of God, present in the midst of human life. He overcomes suffering and sin and earns the praise of the bystanders, who profess that they are indeed witnessing something new. Our relation to God and Jesus—which is ruptured by sin—stands as the foundation for every other good in the world. It is the nourishment that lets each one get up and walk. Jesus tells us in John's Gospel: "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light....I judge no one." The first Eucharistic Prayer has the unfortunate sentence which brings with it not just the translation of the Latin but the theology of the Church four centuries ago: “command that we be delivered from eternal damnation”. It implies that we are damned by someone. Who? God?
God doesn't send anyone to hell and God doesn't deal out eternal punishment. God offers us life but we must choose it. God, Jesus tells us, doesn't judge anyone. We judge ourselves. God doesn't create hell and God doesn't send anyone to hell. But that doesn't mean that hell doesn't exist and that it isn't a possibility for us. God sends his life into the world and we can choose that life or reject it. We judge ourselves in making that choice. If we choose life, we are ultimately choosing heaven. If we reject life, we end up living outside of life and that ultimately is hell. But we make that choice, God doesn't send us anywhere. Moreover, hell is not a positive punishment created by God to make us suffer. Hell is the absence of something. To say all of this is not to say that hell isn't real. Hell is real, but it isn't a positive punishment created by God to deal out justice or vengeance or to prove to the hard-hearted and unrepentant that they made a mistake. Hell is the absence of life, of love, of forgiveness, of community, and God doesn't send anyone there. We can end up there, outside of love and community, but that's a choice we make if we, reject these as they are offered to us during our lifetime. Hell, as John Shea once said, is never a surprise waiting for a happy person, it's the full-flowering of a life that rejects love, forgiveness, and community. The popular mind tends to picture hell as fire, eternal fire, but that is only one image, and not necessarily the dominant one, in scripture. Among other things, scripture speaks of hell as "being outside" the wedding and the dance, is "mourning and weeping and grinding our teeth", as being consigned to the "Gehenna" (a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem),as being outside the kingdom. And it is always self-inflicted. It is never imposed by God.
When Jesus speaks of God, he never speaks of God as dealing both life and death, but only as dealing life. Who makes the judgment and who it is who does the sentencing? God does neither; he neither creates hell nor sends anyone to it. We do both. When we make choices to break communion with others and God we need reconciliation. Like the Israelites, we often find ourselves in exiles of our own making. We withdraw from people just when we need them most. In our sin, we hold God and others at arm’s length. We need to acknowledge the cause of our spiritual illness.
Like the paralytic in this story, we need to count on friends who are usually more than willing to help us to meet Jesus and to hear those precious words: "Your sins are forgiven," and, "Rise, pick up your mat and walk." Jesus came to set us free and is readily available to heal and forgive. When this happens, we will gladly join others in declaring, "We have never seen anything like this." Probably all of us have known the happiness of being reconciled with a friend or family member after some hurt has come between us. Last Friday on DocZone, they focused on public figures, politicians, stars, sports heroes whose private life has come into the light. Apologies were not enough. There had to be sincerity and sorrow for the harmed done. True forgiveness — that is, forgiveness without grudges, without ever bringing up the incident again — is a healing experience that breathes new life into a relationship. This quality of forgiveness is invigorating and noble because it reflects the quality of the forgiveness of God.
"Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Mark 2: 7 There are some who even today forget that Jesus made the forgiveness of God a human encounter. They still like the scribes feel that the church blasphemes when it claims to forgive sin. Yet we are the Body of Christ. “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven!” Standing on the brink of Lent, it is good for us to remember God’s willingness to heal sinners, to mend the broken and to reconcile all who have grown apart from God and from one another because of human weakness. Rather than dread, joy should fill our hearts; rather than guilt, gratitude should lighten our step. God remembers not the sins of our past. This assurance challenges us to let go of the worries that age us in order to skip like a child and experience the forgiveness that awaits us all.
On Ash Wednesday we will celebrate the Sacrament of Forgiveness within our celebration of the liturgy of ashes. “Turn away from sin and believe the good news!”