God’s gift of forgiveness

By: By Father Dominic Garramone, OSB

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 22

Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22,24b-25; Psalm 41:2-3,4-5,13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

The story recounted in this Sunday’s Gospel is one of the most unusual scenes in the New Testament. A paralytic in need of healing, prevented from seeing Jesus by the huge crowd, is hauled to the rooftop by his determined companions. They tear apart the thatch (fairly easy to repair, by the way) to open a hole above the room where Jesus is teaching, and then lower their friend to Jesus’ side in the hopes that the miracle-working rabbi will heal him.

It’s a dramatic scene, even for the Gospel of Mark.

We must be careful not to let the unusual details of this story distract us from a crucial point. The text specifies: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.'”(Mark 2:5) Notice the pronoun here: Jesus saw their faith. It would appear from this passage that Jesus offers the forgiveness of sins to the paralytic not because of his own faith but on account of the faith of his friends.

This passage has some important implications for Catholic theology. If God offers forgiveness to some people on account of others’ prayers, then we have a founded hope that our prayers on behalf of the poor souls in purgatory have an effect. Even more fundamental, the faith of the parents, family and community of a baptized infant is sufficient to merit the forgiveness of original sin in baptism.

We must be careful, however, not to presume that by our own efforts alone we can achieve or earn salvation for ourselves or anyone else. The first reading makes this clear in its final passage: “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.” (Isaiah 43:25) God’s forgiveness is not bound by necessity or strict justice, but rather is a loving, radically generous offering that he makes “for his own sake” and according to his own free choice.

In the fourth and fifth centuries there was a heresy called Pelagianism that held that we could achieve salvation through our own efforts, without the grace of God. It was condemned by church councils who recognized that our every good work has God’s grace as its origin and its goal, its inspiration and its final end.

The challenge in the upcoming weeks of Lent will be to dedicate ourselves to good works such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and yet to remain free of any sense that we earn salvation or that God will “owe us something.” Rather, let our Lenten practices be the free response of loving hearts that have already experienced the wonder of God’s generous gift of forgiveness through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

Father Dominic Garramone, OSB, heads the religion department and serves as drama director at St. Bede Academy in Peru. He is also subprior at St. Bede Abbey.

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