Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

The Exile From The Garden: The Paradox Of God’s Mercy and Wrath

The first reading for this past Sunday was taken from the story of the Fall, as described in the third chapter of Genesis. Since the devil (represented by the snake) tempted the woman, and the woman tempted the man, all three of them are given by God a punishment for their sin. Yet, even in the midst of these punishments or curses, there is contained the promise of salvation. The punishment or curse for the snake contains the words, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) The perpetual enmity between the serpent’s offspring and Eve’s offspring, and the notion of the serpent’s descendants biting at the heel of Eve’s descendants while Eve’s descendants stomp on their head, is a prophesy of Christ defeating sin and death, and thus undoing what the devil brought about by his temptation. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in Against the Heresies, Book V, chapter 21, says,

 

He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head, as thou can perceive in Genesis, “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall be on watch for your head, and thou on the watch for his heel.”  (Genesis 3:15) [2]

It is for this reason that the Virgin Mary was called the New Eve: just as Eve brought sin into the world by allowing herself to be tempted, and then by tempting Adam, Mary paved the way for our salvation by doing the opposite of what Eve did, namely cooperating with God’s plan of salvation, thereby giving birth to Jesus our Savior.

 

Thus, even though God held Adam and Eve responsible for their sin, God is both just and merciful. He did not merely leave them to wallow in their sin. If God had let man remain in its sin, then God’s act of creation would have been in vain, since the purpose of God’s creation was to bring about union between Him and that which He created. It often, unfortunately, seems as if God is just leaving us to wallow in our sin, considering the large amount of evil that is taking place in the world. But, St. Paul reminds us that God is using all things for the sake of our salvation. As he writes in the second reading, taken from 2 Corinthians: “Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) St. John Chrysostom, in his ninth homily on 2 Corinthians, writes,

 

How does it [the body] decay? Being scourged, being persecuted, suffering ten thousand extremities. … How is it [the soul] renewed? By faith, by hope, by a forward will, finally, by braving these extremes. For in proportion as the body suffers ten thousand things, in like proportion has the soul goodlier hopes and becomes brighter, like gold refined in the fire more and more. [3]

 

Jesus on the Cross does not promise to make pain, sorrow and evil go away; rather, He takes it upon Himself and uses it as the means by which to save us from sin. God permits evil and suffering partly as a punishment for our sin. Yet, God is active even within this same evil and suffering in order to save us from our sin. God can use even the greatest of evils to bring forth the greatest of goods.

 

All of this thus shows how the mercy and justice of God go hand-in-hand. Both are active at the same time, simultaneously, and in a mutually implicative manner. Jesus Himself indicates this in the Gospel reading for this past Sunday, taken from Mark 3: “Amen I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But, whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.” (Mark 3:28-29) The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has been interpreted by some, such as St. Augustine (cf. Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love, chapter 83) and St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. Summa Theologiæ, II-II, Q. 14) as a refusal to repent of one’s sins. Since it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we repent of our sins, to refuse to repent of our sins – either through presumption (the belief that we don’t need to show sorrow for our sins, since God will forgive us automatically) or through despair (the notion that our sins are too big for God to forgive) – is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. We can’t be forgiven of our sins insofar as we refuse to seek forgiveness.

 

What this means is that all humans have the moral responsibility to examine their consciences, to realize the full extent of their sins, and feel a sense of sorrow for their sins, and thus repent, turn towards God and amend their lives. Yet, we must also trust in God’s ability to forgive us, and to give us the strength to overcome our sins. Both of these things go hand-in-hand, since man, as a being with free will, has the moral responsibility to turn from his sin, but as a being weakened by sin, cannot fully turn from his sin without God’s assistance. We thus have the moral responsibility to simultaneously amend our lives and to recognize that this is impossible without God’s grace, and so to trust in God.

 

Those who opposed Jesus said of Him as He preached this, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:30) In a sense, we see this paralleled today: there is a strong polemical battle going on in the contemporary Church between those who are accused of being “crazy, fire-and-brimstone fanatics” and those who are seen as not emphasizing man’s moral responsibility enough. In Jesus, these two things come together. The responsibility that falls onto to amend his life, as well as man’s utter dependence on God (and thus the fact that we need to place all of our trust in God for salvation) are both things strongly emphasized in the Gospel. The glories of heaven are described in a fantastical manner in the New Testament (including in the teachings of Jesus), but hell is described in one of the most chilling and dreadful manners as well (again, including and especially in the teachings of Jesus). In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus simultaneously emphasizes both points, namely how man should trust in God’s ability to save Him from any sin, and yet our responsibility to put in the effort to amend our lives. If man refuses to repent of his sins, God will hold him accountable; yet, man should never cease trusting in God’s ability and willingness to forgive him.

 

This is also indicated in the responsorial psalm for this past Sunday taken from Psalm 130. That man needs to place all of his trust in God for the forgiveness of sins is indicated in verse 7 (“…let Israel hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption”). Yet, that man cannot merely play a passive role in his salvation, but has the responsibility to turn to God for salvation is indicated in the first verse (“Out of the depths, I call to you Lord…”) and the fifth verse (“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and I hope for His Word”).

 

Thus, the radical, unlimited, and unfathomable mercy of God on the one hand, and man’s moral responsibility on the other – and thus, the close interconnection between God’s mercy and God’s justice – is something strongly emphasized by the Gospel. Unfortunately, many people find one side or the other difficult to understand or even discomforting, but for those illuminated by grace, it is shown to be what it is: a beautiful paradox that lies at the center of salvation.

 

Sources:

 

  1. To see the full readings for this past Sunday, visit the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website at: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/061018.cfm
  2. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies, Book V, chapter 21. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. Originally published in the Fathers of the Church series, more specifically The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (published in 1885 by Christian Literature Publishing Co., Buffalo, N.Y.). Accessed on http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103521.htm.
  3. St. John Chrysostom, Ninth Homily on 2 Corinthians. Translated by Talbot W. Chambers. Originally published in the Fathers of the Church series, more specifically The Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 12 (published in 1889 by Christian Literature Publishing Co., Buffalo, N.Y.). Accessed on http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/220209.htm.

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