Forgiveness Opens the Door to Repentance:
I was a breech birth baby. That is, I came into the world the wrong way around: bottom first, head last.
As my mother reminded me many times, that may have set me up to do things through much of my life the wrong way around, “bass ackwards.”
My mode of birth may or may not provide an excuse when I get things backwards, but I wonder if the bishops at the Synod on the Family last October have such an excuse.
In the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the follow-up synod this coming October, there is a disturbing example of getting things backwards that is much more serious than any of my childhood or adulthood missteps.
The bishops appear to have gotten the Gospel backwards.
Paragraph 13 of the document says, “[Jesus] put what he taught into practice and manifested the true meaning of mercy, clearly illustrated in his meeting with the Samaritan woman [Jn 4:1-30] and with the adulteress [Jn 8:1-11]. By looking at the sinner with love, Jesus leads the person to repentance and conversion [‘Go and sin no more’], which is the basis for forgiveness.”
If Jesus’ encounters with those women show anything, it is that repentance and conversion are not the basis for forgiveness, but the result of it.
Let’s look at the stories. In the first case, that of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus starts a conversation with the woman that surprises her. Jesus knew she was a strange woman. He knew she was a Samaritan. He knew she was a sinner. He also knew that as a religious Jewish male those were three reasons he should have nothing to do with her or else he would be a sinner himself. And the woman knew all that, too.
We know she was a big sinner because she was at the well alone in the midday heat. Apparently, the other women of the village ostracized her, not letting her join them at the well in the cool of the morning or evening. Presumably, her big sin was the fact that she was living with a man out of wedlock.
What is interesting is that Jesus merely states her living arrangement without comment. He never calls upon her to repent or to leave her lover, nor does the Gospel say she did so. Instead, Jesus proclaims the Gospel to her and then sees her off to become an evangelizer herself.
We may assume that her life changed after the encounter with Jesus because he was willing to, in effect, become a sinner with her. First came acceptance, and then, probably, repentance and conversion.
The case of the woman caught in adultery is similar. (An aside: It takes two to commit adultery. Where was the man? Why did he go free while the woman was faced with a painful and degrading death? Clearly a double standard was at work, a double standard that still infects our world.)
Here again, Jesus does not call upon the woman to either confess or repent of her sin. He merely says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Did she not sin again? We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus forgave her without any expression of conversion or repentance on her part, but with the expectation that forgiveness could enable her to change.
Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus forgiving sins without any indication of repentance or conversion. Several of his miracles of healing involve unasked-for forgiveness. For example, when Jesus sees the paralyzed man being lowered through the roof, he says, “Your sins are forgiven.” He forgives him even though the man has said nothing about repentance, conversion or anything else. Then, to show that the forgiveness was real, Jesus told the man to walk. Once again, forgiveness precedes new life.
And then, as the Romans were crucifying him, Jesus asked that they and, presumably, all who were involved be forgiven, even though they were in the midst of committing their sin.
A bit of thought shows why forgiveness precedes repentance. Where can I find the strength and courage to repent and change if I am not sure I am embraced by God’s forgiving love? It is only when I know that love, experience that love that is stronger than my sin that I can joyfully, gratefully say, “Father, I have sinned. With the hope you have given me, I will walk a new path.”
We do not live a converted life in order to earn forgiveness. We live a new life because we are grateful to God for forgiveness. The Church’s vocation is to proclaim that forgiveness, showing our sisters and brothers that they need not be trapped in sin. They can accept the forgiving love of God and be free.
This is Good News. This is evangelii gaudium, the joy of the Gospel, that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)
Let us hope and pray that when the bishops gather at the synod in October, they will get things right side up.
Maryknoll Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com, based in Tokyo.