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February 19, 2006: SEVENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24-25
II Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12

Today's passage from Deutero-Isaiah contains some of the most powerful concepts in all of Scripture. "Remember not the things of the past," Yahweh proclaims, "the things of long ago consider not. See I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? . . . You burdened me with your sins, and wearied me with your crimes. It is I, I who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more."

The prophet is addressing people who have spent over 50 years in exile. They've little hope that they'll ever return to the Promised Land. That place of peaceful security has become just a memory which the community's old folks try to keep alive. Most have bought into a theology that constantly reminds them that they're in Babylon because of their sins, and an unforgiving God is going to keep them there. That's why Deutero-Isaiah's words are difficult to swallow, and also why he's so direct in announcing the "something new" which Yahweh is bringing about.

Not only are the people to start preparing for a return to Israel, but they can no longer fall back on their "punishment for sin" theology. One of those new things is Yahweh's forgiveness. Deutero-Isaiah informs them that the basis of their theology is no longer valid. Though they've done nothing to merit it, Yahweh is forgiving all of them for whatever they did in the past.

Yet it's clear in the prophet's 16 chapters that many in his audience are more comfortable with Yahweh's vengeance than with Yahweh's forgiveness. As bad as their situation is, they're more familiar and secure with what's expected of them when they're guilty than when they're guiltless. They're now expected to respond to Yahweh in a new way. And they find it difficult to adapt to this new relationship.

Looking at today's gospel, it's no accident that first in Mark's famous series of "conflict stories" is a narrative about forgiveness. Marcan scholars tell us that in these stories the evangelist zeroes in on the particular conflicts which those in his community face every day. They're constantly defending their association with sinners and their breaking of laws for the sake of a higher good. Yet all these conflicts seem to spring from their belief in forgiveness.

Notice that the forgiven person is paralyzed. Mark couldn't have chosen a better symbol. Only after Jesus forgives the man does he cure his paralysis. The evangelist seems to be saying that the principal cause of paralysis in a Christian is unforgiven sin. Our past stops us from experiencing both the new things the risen Jesus is doing in our lives and the new things he expects us to do because of his forgiveness.

Paul falls back on this belief in our II Corinthians pericope. Stung by the community's claim that he's wishy washy, the Apostle declares, "My word to you is not 'yes' one minute and 'no' the next." How are his readers to know that he's always "yes?" His answer is simple: he's convinced that he's too important to be wishy washy. He's been given an importance which comes from Jesus' forgiving relationship with him. "The one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment."

No doubt most of us would be inspired to do heroic new things in the faith if we were just convinced of the high esteem in which God holds us. Before anything else, we must listen to those who preach and live out God's forgiveness. If we don't, our old comfortable theology of constantly being punished for unforgiven sin will see to it that nothing which God wants us to accomplish will ever be accomplished.