The Flipside of Feeling Bad

Monday of the Second Week in Lent: Daniel 9:4b-10, Luke 6:36-38.

Today’s readings present us with two sides of the Christian coin: sin and forgiveness. One side is ugly and tarnished; when we look at it in the full light of day, we are humiliated by what it reveals about us. The other side, though, is shiny and new, stamped with God’s image, gorgeous to behold. As long as we walk this earth, we deal in these coins. The devil constantly presses us to use the ugly side while God offers to make it beautiful again. Our soul soars when the coin is made beautiful, but it demands a full accounting of our sin in order to flip that coin. 

The Coin Collector (1600), Joos van Craesbeeck | Creative Commons, courtesy of the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois.

But God operates within a different economy: that of love. The economy of love is governed only by the rules of mercy and abundance. Jesus tells us that we can participate in God’s economy of love. He teaches us that the more we forgive others, the more we will be forgiven for our own sins. The economy of love is multiplicative, never divisive.

Let’s consider the first reading where the author of the Book of Daniel presents an honest accounting for the sins of the Jews and an accompanying request for forgiveness. Humiliation is something the Jews knew well at the time the Book of Daniel was written (~165 BC). During this period, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was the Greek ruler over Israel who brutally put down the revolt recorded in the Book of Maccabees. “He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery” (2 Maccabees 5:11–14). Then he tried to force the remaining Jews to worship Zeus on pain of death.

Rather than bemoan their conquered and downtrodden state, the Book of Daniel acknowledges their humiliation and takes spiritual responsibility: “O LORD, we are shamefaced, like our kings, our princes, and our fathers, for having sinned against you.” The message is not all shame and doom, however. God’s covenant with his people still stands and hope is always there: “But yours, O Lord, our God, are compassion and forgiveness!” The Book of Daniel sees God’s compassion and forgiveness in the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate vindication of the chosen people. (The writer of Daniel uses the famous phrase “Son of Man” for the messiah — one that Jesus will use in reference to himself throughout his ministry.) He is pointing to Christ, waiting for a fuller experience of being human and redeemed.

What can we learn from this long passage acknowledging sins? We aren’t Israelites who broke their covenant by worshipping idols and ignoring God’s commandments. Or are we more like them than we think? Our idols may not be golden calves, and our worship of them may not include burnt offerings, but how much more willing are we to sacrifice our time and money for things of leisure, pleasure, pride, and position than charity for our fellow human? Americans are notorious for a few things: relentless drive in the work world, greed, and consumption. I think we can honestly lament with Daniel, “we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and your laws. We have not obeyed your servants the prophets.”

We live in a world transformed by Christ, one that the author of Daniel longed for. God has provided us with a clear path to forgiveness, namely our sacrament of Reconciliation. Let’s recall that at the heart of this sacrament is a pledge to no longer sin and an honest intention to convert back to God in our ways. Church Fathers like Tertullian see Reconciliation as the amazing gift that it is and beg us to engage fully with it: “In so far as you do not spare yourself, the more, believe me, will God spare you!” (Repentance, 203 AD). A few centuries later, St. John Chrysostom writes much the same: “Unless you tell the magnitude of your debt, you do not experience the abundance of grace” (Homilies on Lazarus (388 AD), 4.4). The emphasis on public confession and penance grew throughout the centuries until it was commandeered by secular Kings during their own inquisitions to root out heretics in their populace. The Spanish Inquisition is the most infamous, and these trials culminated in the highly orchestrated auto-da-fé. Prisoners were taken outside the city walls to a place called the quemadero, or burning place, where the sentences were read. Prisoners who were acquitted or whose sentence was suspended would fall on their knees in thanksgiving, but the condemned would be punished (whipping, torture, burning at the stake). The auto-da-fé is the pinnacle of public humiliation for sins and stands at the outward bound of a philosophy of negative reasoning around sin. In negative reasoning, if God’s mercy is given to us in the measure that we “do not spare ourselves” (to use Tertullian’s words), then extreme penance and humiliations are better guarantees of mercy. In this line of reasoning, the auto-da-fé is not only justified, its punishments are the best thing we can do to save souls. (queue the shivers)

The Inquisition Tribunal (1808), Francisco Goya | Wikimedia Commons.

Thankfully, Christ provides a much different teaching in today’s gospel. He says, “Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you.” In other words, live by God’s law and you will continue to live with God for eternity; carry divine love in your heart as you live, work, and act with other people, and divine love will be given to you for eternity. In addition to providing us with the Way to live in the light of truth, this is the antidote to negative reasoning about sin. Instead of the equation where greater humiliation and penance = greater forgiveness from God (negative reasoning), we encounter an equation where greater forgiveness towards others = greater forgiveness from God for our own sins (positive). We can see that the more we participate in the economy of love by which God operates, the more we are conforming ourselves to final unity with Him. This reciprocation is a refrain that Jesus repeats throughout his ministry. The Lord’s Prayer uses nearly the same formulation: “forgive us our trespasses, as [you see us forgiving others].”

What changed from the old covenant in time of Daniel is that Jesus bursts into history as a bridge between Heaven and earth. He Himself is the one gateway to the eternal Kingdom. Since we now have the liturgy that gives us true communion with God, we have the opportunity to carry our godliness into every aspect of our lives in a way that was never available before Christ. The liturgy as we live it is the new Way; the earliest Christians referred to themselves as followers “of the Way” (cf. Acts 9:1-2). To inhabit the spirit of the law (and let the Spirit inhabit us), we must not carry the spirit of condemnation and judgement, we must forgive and give.

It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback the problem with Inquisitors and the logic of the auto-da-fé. We must realize that this was a form of policing by the crown leveraged against non-Catholics and heretics, and reveals the problem with co-mingling our faith and political power structures. The state is charged with keeping the peace and enacting the national politics of a group of people. The Church is charged with saving souls. These are different aims and the centuries of Christendom in the Middle Ages gave us plenty of examples of how power structures of the state twisted and mobilized aspects of our faith for dubious ends.

Christ calls us to something much different, much more radically personal. He calls us to begin operating within the generous, merciful economy of love. This has to be on an individual level, not a policy or state level because it is a participation in the unique relationship God forges with each of us. Each person’s free will must be engaged within the state of life, personal histories, and sphere of influence that person has. The only law that can prescribe this type of engagement is a spiritual law because it involves the action of the soul in communion with God. No secular structure can know, much less evaluate, someone’s adherence to this law. Only God knows; and He knows us better than we know ourselves.

Detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Creation of Adam (1511), Michelangelo | Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, I’d like to explain the title of this post. Just like our Christian coin on earth is sin/forgiveness, there is an associated mindset with which we can proceed in our lives. On one hand, we can focus on the awfulness of our sinful state and approach ourselves and everyone else as impure abscesses on the Body of Christ that require penance to eradicate. Or we could focus on the gift of forgiveness God gives us and the broader economy of love. This is the clear direction in which Jesus leads us. He speaks not just of forgiveness but of three other ways to understand God’s overflowing generosity:

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;

What unites these four is love and generosity — no judgement, no condemnation, just forgiving and giving. This is the way God works and Jesus is calling us to become more and more like Him. This isn’t just good advice. His final statement in the gospel reading spells out, “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” I like the double meaning of measure being something you measure out to someone else as well as the way in which you take account of things. The “measure with which you measure” is not just the quantity of your generosity with others but also the way in which you’re thinking about your spiritual journey and salvation. This means that true salvation (i.e., divinification, union with God) comes to those in whom the spirit of generosity and forgiveness infuse them to such an extent that it is everything. We are not “measuring” the number of times we forgive others or the number of gifts we give as a way to quantify or tally our movement towards Heaven. The way we go about things, “the measure with which we measure,” itself shuns the idea of quantification. We don’t count the hurts people enact on us; we don’t judge or condemn, we simply forgive. This Way of being, brought to us through Christ, is the point. And the more we walk the Way, the sooner and more completely God embraces us on that Way.

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