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Sin, forgiveness, the lost sheep and lost coin

Sunday 15th September, 2013 @ 10:30 am

by The Reverend Christopher Harrison, St Mary’s Church | tags:

It’s interesting how the Church’s perspective on sin has changed over the years. When I was at theological college in the 1980s, we were in a time of reaction against what were seen as many years during which the Church had actively encouraged people to feel not sinful, but very guilty. This, it was said, had helped to reinforce the power of the Church and its clergy over people – the clergy being the only people who could forgive sin, on God’s behalf. We can’t deny that there is some truth in this description of how the Church has behaved at certain times in its history. But what this perception of the historical Church did was lead to an over-reaction – to a belief that sin didn’t really matter, as God always loves us whatever we do. The new dominant approach became the idea that if we do stray from his commands it isn’t really our fault anyway, but our parents, our circumstances, even our genes were really responsible. This even led to people in one of my previous churches arguing that we shouldn’t have the confession of sin near the beginning of the communion service, as it was too depressing and made people feel unworthy.

If we face up to the truth about ourselves, and the reality of life in the world today, we have to admit that we fall, we fail, we hurt people, we let God down – which is what is really meant by the unfashionable word ‘sin’. Yes, it is true that we can become over-morbid about it, and that some people are perhaps too preoccupied by feelings of guilt and low self-worth – but the fact of the matter is that few people are as loving as they would like to be or, as other people would like them to be – and most of us are acutely aware of this. Even if things may seem fine on the surface, and we put over an acceptable impression to others, everyone has what some people call a ‘shadow’ side to themselves, which can be much more unsettling to live with than outward appearances. For some people it is even worse – the consequences of things they have done in the past have left them actually broken within, they find it difficult to live with themselves, and there is a constant struggle between the need to carry on with life and the torment, confusion and guilt within.

It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus knew all this. We can see this not just from accounts such as that of his meeting at Jacob’s well with the woman from Samaria, who was astounded that Jesus seemed intuitively to know all about her, including how many husbands she had. The number of times Jesus pronounced to people that their sins were forgiven shows that he was well aware of the inner burdens which many if not most people carry. Of course in his day those burdens were made greater by the oppressive nature of some elements of the Jewish religious law, which was almost impossible to fulfil in all its detail. His repeated pronouncement of forgiveness must have seemed like new freedom to so many – as well as being a direct threat to the religious authorities. But think of Zacchaeus; the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned; St. Peter, who disowned Jesus three times; the paralysed man who was lowered through the roof of a house and then healed by Jesus; and the parable of the prodigal son. In each of these cases forgiveness was granted and a fresh start made possible.

Imagine how radical this must have seemed. Only God was supposed to be able to forgive sins; but Jesus was showing not only that he was God on earth, forgiving sins, but that the task of humanity was to follow in his footsteps, forgiving the sins of others as God forgives us, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. We can imagine the discussions about this which may have taken place among the disciples, when they were trying to work out what this meant, and the problems which might arise. So, for example, Peter wondered whether there were any limits to the number of times you should forgive someone – and Jesus essentially said that no, there weren’t – we are called to forgive not just seven times but seventy times seven times.

But this brings us to today’s gospel reading. ‘The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about Jesus, saying, ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’. Jesus’ response is to tell two parables, which were designed to make his listeners think about their unforgiving attitudes towards others. The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheet who are safe and goes in search of the one that has strayed. The woman who has lost one of her ten silver coins sweeps the house until she has found it. Jesus reminds his hearers, in these parables, that they would all do anything within their power to find an animal or a coin which was lost – these, after all, amounted to wealth for their owners. How much more, he is saying, does God value individuals who have been lost from the path of righteousness, who have strayed from his kingdom? They are parables, therefore, about God’s care for the lost.

Notice, however, that the parables assume that God’s compassion and forgiveness should result in a response by the one who has sinned. Jesus normally assumed that true repentance did mean that some form of cost should be borne by the one who was being forgiven, some kind of restitution to those who had been hurt – think for example of Zacchaeus’ promise to pay back those he had cheated, and Jesus command to the woman caught in adultery not to sin again.

Of course Jesus’ forgiveness of the sins of humanity came to its climax when he paid the ultimate price for them on the cross. In death as in life, then, he showed compassion on a broken and sinful world; not underestimating the reality of sin, not being soft on those who have done wrong; but showing the world that no-one need be estranged from God for ever. However far his sheep may stray, God is always seeking to bring them back to him.

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