The biologist Richard Dawkins, in his best-seller, The God Delusion,
writes of what he calls
“the unhealthy preoccupation of early Christian theologians with sin.”
“They could have devoted their pages and their sermons
to extolling the sky splashed with stars,
or mountains and green forests, seas and dawn choruses.
These are occasionally mentioned,
but the Christian focus is overwhelmingly
on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin.
What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life”
(The God Delusion p. 252).
To some, it might seem that our readings today
would bear out his charge:
we hear first of David who,
once he is caught out by Nathan and threatened by God,
repents of the sin of having Uriah killed;
then we hear Paul speak of our unrighteousness
and our need to be “justified” before God;
finally, we hear the story of this sinful woman,
whom Jesus compares to a debtor,
before he forgives her sins and sends her on her way.
So is sin the “nasty little preoccupation”
that dominates the minds of Christians?
Do we take some masochistic delight
in pondering and proclaiming our own wretchedness,
or, perhaps more plausibly, the wretchedness of others?
And does our “nasty little preoccupation” with sin
stunt our sense of the beauty and wonder of the natural world?
Some who do not share Professor Dawkins’s atheism
might still agree with him
that we’ve really had too much of this sin business
and that we ought to focus more on the goodness of God,
on God’s blessings,
and not so much on sin,
which simply leaves us paralyzed with guilt –
Catholic guilt, which apparently is the most virulent variety.
One might think that if we focus on our sinfulness,
we will miss the beauty of what God gives us;
we will fail to see the blessing of, in Dawkins’s lovely phrases,
“the sky splashed with stars,
or mountains and green forests,
seas and dawn choruses.”
The more we are preoccupied with sin,
the less we will perceive God’s goodness.
Well, Jesus seems to be of a different opinion,
at least in today’s Gospel reading.
While dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee,
a woman – apparently a well-known sinner in town –
interrupts the proceedings
by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears,
drying them with her hair,
and anointing them with an expensive ointment.
The reaction to this of Simon –
who sees only the woman’s sins
and her temerity in touching Jesus –
prompts Jesus to speak of the great love that has moved her
to such seemingly outrageous actions –
crashing a dinner party
and daring to touch a prophet with her sinner’s tears.
He implies that her love’s greatness is directly proportional
to the burden of sin that had been lifted from her,
the debt that is to be forgiven her:
“her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
It is only because she knows how great her sins are
that she can have this great love awakened in her.
Her “nasty little preoccupation” with her sins
has opened before her vistas of divine love
vaster than the sky splashed with stars
and more beautiful than the dawn choruses.
How do we find this great love;
how can we have it awakened within us?
Where can we go to hear Jesus say to us what he said to her:
“Your sins are forgiven. . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace”?
In the Catholic tradition one of the privileged places
where we encounter Christ’s forgiveness
is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is no secret that this is a sacrament that, in the past few decades,
many Catholics have come to practice only infrequently, if at all.
Recent data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
at Georgetown University
shows that among those Americans who identify as Catholic,
only about a quarter goes to confession on even a yearly basis.
For about a ten-year period of my life,
I was among the three-quarters majority who never go:
held back by embarrassment, inertia, inconvenience,
and who knows how many other reasons.
I won’t speculate about other people’s reasons for avoiding the sacrament,
but I know that for myself
that the longer I stayed away from the sacrament
the harder it became to contemplate going,
as I imagined the priest saying,
“It’s been how many years since your last confession?”
I suppose I feared I would encounter someone who,
in terms of our Gospel,
was more like Simon the Pharisee and less like Jesus.
When, somehow moved by God’s grace,
I finally did return to the sacrament –
walking around a field in France,
confessing to a Benedictine monk
who was the only native English speaker in his monastery –
I was shocked to find that he was not shocked
by my long absence from the sacrament.
In fact, he didn’t seem much shocked by anything I said.
I discovered that all my reasons for not going to confession
were in fact excuses,
and that what had been dominating my life
was not my “nasty little preoccupation” with sin,
but my studious attempts to avoid thinking about sin –
or maybe I should say, “sin sin sin sin sin sin sin” –
in any personal way.
For Jesus, being aware of our sins –
indeed, confessing them,
weeping over them,
getting to our knees before the God whose love we have offended
and asking for mercy –
is not a “nasty little preoccupation,”
but a prelude to the great love
that can only be experienced in forgiveness.
It is not neurosis to know that we are sinners,
but rather a realistic assessment of our situation:
we have sinned in our thoughts and in our words,
in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
To deny this is the true neurosis;
it is to lock ourselves into a world of illusion,
and to make ourselves
blind to the infinite vistas of God’s goodness
and deaf to the song of divine mercy.
For we cannot know how good God is
until we see that, despite our sins,
Jesus does not shrink from our touch.
We cannot love God with all our heart, mind and strength
until we know how great a debt has been forgiven us,
until we hear Christ say,
“Your sins are forgiven. . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”