ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Sin by Any Other Name

GENESIS 3: 9-15
2 CORINTHIANS 4:13:5:1
MARK 3:20-35

Among William Shakespeare’s prolific contributions to English literature, there are literally thousands of memorable lines that continue to be quoted because of their eloquence and timeless significance. One of these, in particular, came to mind as I prepared this commentary. . . “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, act 2, sc.2, l.43). To paraphrase the great bard. . . What’s in a name? That which we call sin, by any other name would still be sin!

There appears to be a tendency in contemporary society to disregard or minimize sin or to call it by another name. Similarly, there is a tendency to ignore evil and to behave as if the reality of evil had faded into obsolescence. In his study of the subject, entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin?”, psychiatrist Karl Menninger stated that although sin was once a strong word, which described an ominous aspect of every human being’s life, life plan and life style, the word, along with the notion of sin has all but disappeared. The reality of sin, however, has not disappeared; it has simply been renamed. Sin may masquerade under several aliases, but it remains, nonetheless what it is.

For example, the sins of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the sins of Vietnam, Bosnia and Rwanda have been hidden behind an acclaimed patriotism or other ideologies. Soldiers, who have systematically gang-raped and slaughtered helpless women have claimed justification for their actions due to the exigencies of war and their “moral obligation” to obey their superiors.

Other heinous sins have been dismissed by excusing their perpetrators on ground of temporary insanity, or a troubled youth, or emotional instability. Some sins have been paraded under the guise of freedom of choice, ignorance, and aggressive or self-destructive behavior.

Menninger suggested that one of the reasons that sin is not recognized and named for what it is may be due to the fact that the major responsibility for identifying and dealing with misbehavior has been taken over by the State. Much of what is really sin is now called crime, and actions which are blatantly immoral are now labelled illegal. Murder, robbery, treason, adultery and lying have become defined as criminal acts with prescribed punishments. Because of this shift in responsibility, the consequences of sin have become depersonalized and the reality of sin as a breach in the relationship with God and with others has been overlooked.

The readings for today’s liturgy invite the gathered assembly to take a hard look at sin, to call it by name and to take back our responsibility for it. Similarly, we are challenged to look evil in the eye and, without blinking, own it for the reality that it is.

In the first reading, the authors of Genesis posit what they understood to be the cause of sin and evil in the world, viz., humankind’s choice of its own willfulness over obedience to the loving will of God. As a result of sin, the struggle between good and evil became an inherent aspect of the human experience. This struggle of strike and counterstrike continues unabated but not unaided.

As Paul points out to his readers in Corinthians (second reading), God’s grace is bestowed in abundance in order that we may not lose heart as we struggle. In today’s gospel, Jesus is accused of being in collusion with Satan or, at the very least, of being out of his mind. Putting evil in its place and naming sin for what it is, the Marcan Jesus reminds us that sin and evil must be confronted; the relationship we were meant to enjoy with God will be restored when we learn to do as Jesus did. . . to do the will of God in all we are, in all we do.

GENESIS 3: 9-15

Just as the reality of human sin has been dulled by calling it another name, e.g. crime, sickness, instability, etc., so also have the results of sin, viz., guilt and shame before God an one another, been recast and thereby diminished. Beginning in the nineteenth century C.E., biblical criticism began demythologizing the scriptural word. As a result, previously held literal interpretations of the primeval history began to give way to a deeper appreciation of the author’s backgrounds and contributions, of literary form, of comparative literatures, etc.

When it was understood that such stories (like the fall of humankind from grace) were offered as explanations of the origins of things (like evil) or as etiological accounts, some discredited and repudiated the truths that these narratives were intended to convey. Consequently, some began to consider the fact of sin and the resulting experience of guilt as passé. A new attitude gradually emerged which scorned the biblical message as harmful, or at the very least, as irrelevant to contemporary humanity. Walter Russell Bowie (“Genesis”, Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1952) suggested that this new outlook could best be expressed by the motto: “Get rid of the phobia which has grown out of a fable that was never a fact, and let the spirit of man (sic) go free!”

Those who thought themselves to be intelligent and informed regarded the notion of a fallen humanity as a discredited superstition and began to replace belief in God with belief in humanity. God was no longer the sovereign creator in whom all things were to find their center. Each person began to center on himself/herself and struggled to be free of what they regarded as the old falsehoods which served only to diminish human capabilities.

This shift away from God toward self was reinforced by Sigmund Freud’s theories and school of psychoanalysis. Eventually, the sense of shame regarding sin was renamed and the so called “guilt complex” became public enemy number one. G. B. Chisholm, a Canadian deputy minister of health and a psychiatrist declared that society had been “slow to recognize the unnecessary and artificially imposed inferiority, guilt and fear, commonly known as sin. . . because it has been misguided by authoritarian dogma, bound by exclusive faith and stunted by inculcated loyalty.”

Regardless of how craftily sin and guilt may be denied or redefined, thinking people, who are in touch with reality and humble enough to recognize the truth when it slaps them in the face, will understand the message of today’s first reading. The story of the fall returns us to the fact that human beings have been created as free agents by God. Instructed in the ways of goodness, men and women are nevertheless capable of rejecting it in favor of their own willful and proud desires.

However, even when free human choices cause things to go awry, God does not turn away, leaving them to their own designs. As the ancient Yahwistic author points out, God comes searching, “Where are you?” Face to face with God, sinful humanity becomes aware of itself and its deeds and is ashamed. In God’s presence however, no alibi can substitute for the truth. Adam blamed Eve and indirectly accused God. . . “the woman whom you put here with me. . .” Eve blamed the serpent. But all were in collusion and all were held accountable. Gradually, the serpent became associated with evil and the image with which today’s first reading concludes represents the ongoing struggle between good and evil which is the human experience. Like dominoes toppling, all of humanity has been affected by sin, not because it is genetically transmitted but because of the solidarity of the human community. However, the solidarity with God which has been extended to each of us, in Jesus, enables us to find courage in the struggle; in Jesus, we have been assured that goodness will never be overcome by evil.

2 CORINTHIANS 4:13:5:1

“Cogito, ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am. So said René Descartes in Le Discours de la méthode (1637 C.E.). For Descartes, thinking, or the consciousness of himself as intelligent and rational helped him to deduce his existence and the existence of God and the physical universe as clearly necessary to a coherent whole. For Paul, it was belief that was foundational. Centering the meaning of his existence on a higher plane than rational thought, Paul claimed that his beliefs impelled him to speak (v. 13). His faith in Jesus’ dying and rising necessarily issued forth in a proclamation of that good news and enabled Paul to put his trust in an unseen future of everlasting glory.

By faith, Paul could be certain that human existence is not a hapless series of coincidences but a life ordered to the benefit of humanity by God. Paul’s faith assured him of God’s continuing assistance; with grace bestowed in abundance, believers become capable of facing the exigencies of life with equanimity and the joys of life with gratitude.

Scholars suggest that Paul’s description of his body being destroyed (v. 16) may refer to an illness or disability which was becoming increasingly evident. Others believe that Paul was simply acknowledging the fact that the many sufferings and hardships he had endured during his ministry were beginning to take their toll on his physical health and stamina. Nevertheless, Paul did not lose heart because his inner being, i.e., his spirit was being renewed daily. This renewal of grace enabled Paul to consider the burden of his sufferings as light when compared with the eternal weight of glory yet to come.

While Paul may have given a nod to Greek philosophy’s dichotomous understanding of body and spirit (v. 16), he went on to affirm the integral nature of humankind and the belief that God will raise up a new dwelling (spiritual body) to replace the earthly dwelling (body) of each believer. The great apostle underscored the transitory nature of life on this side of the resurrection by characterizing his body as an earthly tent, or a temporary shelter during the sojourn of life. For his part, Paul was eager to break camp and rest secure in the permanent home God would provide for him in heaven.

In the daily struggle to cope with sin and evil, Paul’s words remind us that we are not alone; God’s supporting and sustaining grace is ever present. Moreover, our ancient forebear in the faith encourages us to look beyond the struggle with sure hope to what lies ahead.

MARK 3:20-35

Why is it that when we human beings come face to face with utter selflessness and love, we sometimes distrust it and dismiss it as disingenuine? What perversity erodes the human heart that it questions the motives and criticizes the actions of the truly good people among us? If someone makes a very generous donation to a charity or other needy organization, they are suspected of looking for a tax break or seeking publicity. When someone volunteers their free time to tend to the needs of dying AIDS patients, some regard them as “crazy” or, at least, very foolhardy. When someone dares to confront the status quo with the truth, or points out the error of certain traditions or rituals, they leave themselves vulnerable to the scorn and rejection of those less courageous. This was precisely the situation reflected in today’s gospel.

As Jesus went about doing good and proclaiming the nearness of the reign of God, some of his closest contemporaries thought he was out of his mind (v. 21). Although they remained sympathetic to him, Jesus’ family was hard pressed to understand how he had chosen to live his life. He had left his home at Nazareth along with the carpenter business he had probably inherited. In their eyes, he had thrown away security and safety and chosen a path which appeared to be on a collision course with the civil and religious authorities of his day.

Others, less sympathetic to Jesus, accused him of being possessed by a demon (v. 22). Still others made an even more heinous charge, one which the Marcan Jesus called the unforgivable sin, viz., to attribute the power of the goodness and love at work in Jesus to Satan (v. 29). As Daniel J. Harrington (“Mark”, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1990) has noted, Jesus’ charge of “blasphemy here describes irreverent behavior vis-à-vis the Holy Spirit - the failure to discern the Spirit’s presence in Jesus’ ministry.” Wilfrid Harrington (Mark, Michael Glazier, Inc., Wilmington: 1984) agrees and adds, the trouble with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is a perversion of mind which chooses to call light darkness. Persistence in this perversion makes one impervious to any movement of repentance and closes one to forgiveness. Nevertheless, the unforgivable sin need not be fatal; it does not at all preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

Both as an appeal to those who attacked his goodness (v. 22) and in answer to the family who thought Jesus had lost his mind (vv. 20-21), Jesus explained to the crowd that those who would associate with him would not be in collusion with Satan or incurring sin. Rather, those who accepted him in truth and recognized his ministry as authentic and divine in origin, would come to know the very will of God in the words and works of Jesus. It was these, whom Jesus would henceforth regard as family and with whom he would eventually share the familial love of the God who he called Abba, Papa, Daddy.

As members of that family, Mark’s gospel reminds us that doing the will of God will require that we sharpen our sensitivities to sin and to goodness so as to be able to truly recognize each for what it is, call it by name and live accordingly.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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