REV. ROGER KARBAN
As a child in Catholic grade school, I was taught the two ways in which serious sin could be forgiven. It could be removed by an act of perfect contrition, in which you were sorry for the sin because you had offended God whom you loved above everyone and everything else; or by sacramental confession along with an act of imperfect contrition, in which you were sorry for the sin because you were afraid of spending eternity in hell.
The priest preparing me for Confirmation quickly got rid of the first option (and my non-Catholic kin's chances for reaching heaven) by stating, "In my opinion, no one can make a perfect act of contrition."
Knowing no Scripture back then, I never wondered how people before Jesus (or even Jesus' immediate followers) had their sins forgiven. Knowing Scripture now, I'm amazed how few of us Catholics are familiar with the only biblical way in which serious sin can be remitted.
Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures teach that people must become new persons in order to have their sins forgiven. The sin offerings and sacrifices commanded by the Law of Moses were never intended to offset intentional, grave sins, the kind committed with "fist outstretched to heaven." They were only effective for accidental transgressions of God's law, when people either didn't realize the sinfulness of what they were doing or weren't in control of their actions.
No sacrifice, no prayer could bring forgiveness to those who committed serious, formal sin. Only a total change of personality wiped out such a transgression.
We'll appreciate and understand Sunday's three readings only when we hear them against the background of a biblical idea of forgiveness, and not against the two-way concept we learned in grade school.
Noah and his sons become new people because Yahweh makes a new covenant with them (Gen 9:8-15). Covenants always create a unique relationship between those who initiate them. Coupling that conviction with the ancient Israelite belief that one of the first steps in becoming a new person was to enter into new relationships, we see the importance of entering a new covenant with Yahweh. If we relate with someone differently, then we become different people.
This is the very message Jesus preaches. Mark tells us that it's Jesus' experience with evil in the wilderness which helps Him understand God's presence in a new way (Mk 1:12-15). If Satan is His near-at-hand, personal tempter, then Yahweh, through the angels who wait on Jesus, is His near-at-hand, personal savior. No longer does He relate with a "God out there," a God distant in space, whose support and assistance is just as remote. Jesus returns to civilization proclaiming an alarming message: "This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand!" Everything we've been hoping for and looking forward to is already here. God's in our midst right now.
Of course, if we're to believe such good news, we've got to change the way we look at reality. No longer is our everyday life just a preliminary episode on the road to some tremendous, future event; it's the event itself. We have to view ourself through totally different eyes.
When Jesus tells us to "reform," He's telling us to do a 180 on our attitudes and our value systems. We relate differently to a God who's present and immediately working in our life than to a God who's distant from and inattentive to our life. That new relationship creates a new person.
That's why the author of I Peter encourages the recently baptized in his community to really become the new people their Christian initiation indicates they are (1 Pet 3:18-22). "This baptism," he writes, "is no removal of physical stain, but the pledge to God of an irreproachable conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Just as Jesus "was put to death insofar as fleshly existence goes but was given life in the realm of the spirit," so those who give themselves over to Jesus have received a new life, making them totally new people.
Sin is gone because the person who committed that sin is gone. The new person is not responsible for the actions of the old person.
It would have been easier for us if Jesus had taught a two-tier way of forgiveness. He just must have been too much of a new person to even think about such a system.