Sin and Forgiveness

Sin and Forgiveness

In this beautiful homily for 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Father Hanly looks at sin and forgiveness, and helps us to understand that sin is really a refusal to love and to commit a sin is very often to break a heart.

Readings for Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

  • First Reading: Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24-25
  • Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 41:2-3, 4-5, 13-14
  • Second Reading: Second Corinthians 1:18-22
  • Gospel: Mark 2:1-12



This is a very nice gospel. It’s a charming story. But it’s more than charming. Some of it seems rather humorous at times, especially when the four men, who are bringing their friend on a mat who’s paralyzed, and they can’t get in because the place is so crowded with people.

Jesus has come back early to St. Peter’s house. And as you know, the houses in those days were not that large and so it didn’t take much to fill them. But the scribes and Pharisees get the first seats, so they were there. And the ordinary people were there.

And it was so crowded outside that the four people who were carrying the young man, and wanted so much to help him, they didn’t know what to do.

And then someone had the idea, “Well, let’s go up to the roof and tear the roof apart.” Which probably didn’t matter to Jesus, but it certainly must have mattered to St. Peter, whose house it was.

Anyhow, they went on top of the roof and took the tiles off and cleared a space and then they dropped the paralytic down in front of Jesus.

And I’m sure he must have smiled, because, when he looked up, he saw these four men and there was such yearning in their eyes.

And he opened his mouth for the first time and he said, he said to the child, because it wasn’t a man it was just a little more than a boy, and he said to the child, “Your sins are forgiven you.”

But what he saw in the eyes of his friends was great faith. It was for the first time today I really realized that, when we’re talking about forgiveness, we usually think of me and God, or me and confession, or me and this, and it’s really, it’s really a community project to be healed and to be forgiven by God Himself.

When he says that, of course, the scribes and the Pharisees around, felt…

Mark is very careful. He doesn’t say they said anything. The only words were Jesus saying to the little boy, “My child, your sins are forgiven.”

But they thought in their hearts, “How can he say this? How can he say such a thing?”

Because the power to forgive sins is only God’s prerogative. No one can forgive sins, but God alone. No one. And here is this itinerant preacher suddenly saying to the little child, “Your sins are forgiven you.”

It’s still very quiet. The only voice anybody heard was Jesus talking to the child.

And then he looks at the scribes and the Pharisees, and he reads their hearts and he knows that they’re scandalized.

And he says to them, very simply, he says, “What is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?”

And, so that you might know that the Son of Man has power to forgive sins, he turned to the little boy and said, “Rise up, take up your mat and return home.”

And the little boy jumps up and runs out of the house totally delighted, because he’s been healed.

But he must have been healed not only that he could walk and jump and dance, but also because, in his heart, whatever was sickening his own heart, resentments and angers and we can’t even guess, but Jesus could see that it was in there that he needed healing and that is why he said to him first, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The people, when they saw this, they were astounded.

But they weren’t astounded because the little fellow was cured, because they saw cures all the time: spontaneous, long lasting, ones that took years with certain ancient forms of medication and prayer, whatever. So they were quite common.

But they were astounded, as the Pharisees and scribes were upset, because they knew that only God could forgive sins. And they couldn’t understand it.

To understand, I remember, for most of us, I think, the first time we heard forgiveness was when our parents taught us the “Our Father.” You remember that?

“Our Father, who art in heaven.”  And I thought Art was another man, because it was short for Arthur.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” I didn’t know what that meant.

“Thy kingdom come.” I kind of knew what that meant.

“Thy will be done.” I knew what that meant.

“On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.” I knew what that meant, because I remember receiving my First Holy Communion. I never quite got over it. I still remember to this day just about everything that took place at that time.

And then it came to the part, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Today, we say, “Forgive us our sins.”

To understand what forgiveness really means, you have to understand what sin really means.

Sometimes we think, especially when you’re speaking in Cantonese or in other forms of Chinese, you say often (Father says something in Chinese). You know very often (Father says something in Chinese) means crime, most of the time, but it also means sin in this context. And so you get the idea that a sin is when you break the Ten Commandments, or you break a precept, or you break a law, or you break something else, but this is what the word sin means.

But it doesn’t.

This word is only used in one context. And the one context it is used in is relationship. You cannot commit a sin without a relationship. You can commit any of the Ten Commandments with no relationship at all. But not a sin. A sin is based on relationship. And it’s based, very often, on personal relationship.

So the Old Testament says God forgives. That meant it is in His power, in His love, in His caring, in His… the fact that He is God, that He forgives.

And what does He forgive?

He forgives everything. God forgives. God creates. God loves. God forgives.

And it is never spoken of forgiveness of a human being, because what sin really means is not breaking a law, it’s breaking a heart. When we say we sin, what we mean…

Well, before I tell you what it means, I’ll tell you a story.

When I was a little boy, not so little, old enough to steal, and I was, kind of got into the habit of it. Nothing too serious, but if you lived in Brooklyn, you learned all kinds of things. And one of the things, you learned how to steal. What I did, I was a petty thief, in a way. And I think my parents knew it, but they didn’t say anything.

But, anyway, one day my father had put some chocolate bars to surprise us at night time. He gave us a bar of chocolate every night. Sometimes he gave up his lunch money to buy this bar of chocolate. But it was just like Holy Communion, you know. Every time, every night, we had a little bar of chocolate.

And he was in the kitchen and he called out to us. My two sisters and I ran into the kitchen. He said, “Did any of you take one of these chocolate bars?”

Well, my older sister was an angel, so everybody knew she didn’t take it. And my little sister was very small, and everybody knew she couldn’t even reach that high. So he looks at me and he says, “Denis, did you take it?” I said, “No.”

But the time when I said no, a great pain was in me, not because I still had that chocolate bar in my room, but I felt that I not only broke a rule, but I could see in his eyes that I had betrayed a love and a trust.

You see, when God speaks of sin, He is speaking of we are breaking His covenant, His loving relationship. We are before Him who has given us everything: His love, His caring. Everything that we have is His. And, suddenly, we turn around and we betray Him with a lie, or we betray Him with doing something that goes against love.

But, basically, a sin is a refusal to love. Sin is an act that goes against love. Because love goes out. And love cares. And this is God. But when we sin everything comes to us in our selfishness, in our carelessness, in our unconcern for others. We are breaking not the law, but we’re breaking a heart.

And that’s why one day Jesus himself comes and he tells us what our sins have done, not only to God, but to the people that He loves. For to commit a sin is to betray a trust. And to commit a sin is very often to break a heart.

On the cross, though, on the cross, when we see the truth, as we all know. When somebody asks us, “Why did he have to die? Why was he was crucified on the cross?” the answer is always, “He died because of our sins. He died to make up for our sins by an act of love, making up for an act of betrayal.”

And this is a very, very strong idea that runs through all of the Catholic world. We are the forgiven sinners. We are the ones who are pledged to love, loyalty and trust, to the goodness of the love and loyalty of God Himself.

Lent then, Lent is easily explained as not a season to do penance…

I remember when I was a child, when Lent came, my mother would say, “Now, remember, no more movies.” Wow, that was one half of my life. “No more chocolate.” That was the other half. And anything that was good and wonderful and beautiful to a child is taken from you. And I was so happy I didn’t live in a time of television, or they would have taken the television away from us, too.

And it was always based on what you’re going to give up, what you’re going to give up. And you do it because Jesus gave his life for you. That’s very strong.

But I was slow to understand the deep meaning, and so I used to dislike Lent.

But now I like Lent, because I know more. I know it is a way of learning how to love, learning how to love the way God loves, learning how to love the way Jesus loves.

And he is with us to teach us.

And it doesn’t matter if you fail, if you fail and fail and fail.

And your goal is to learn how to love as God loves.

But every failure is another reason to give joy to God, for this is the only way you learn. You only learn by failure.

And so, as Lent approaches, we should think of this. It is a season in which, together and individually, we learn how to love. And we learn how to be true and faithful to the love of God and His Son Jesus, and to live in their spirit, which is a giving, not a receiving.

It is a constant effort, but it becomes quite easy, because as born into this world sometimes we say, “Why am I here?” and there’s a million responses to that word and that enquiry and that question, but the only true response is, “We are here to learn how to love.”

To close this, I’d like to read a reflection on forgiveness. This was written by an Irish priest (Father Flor McCarthy, SDB):

Forgiveness is like the child’s dream of a miracle.
Through forgiveness what is broken is made whole again,
what is soiled is made clean,
and what is lost is found.
Nothing greater can happen to a human being
than that he or she is forgiven.
Those who are forgiven are no longer trapped in their past.
They are set free – free to move forward again.
The Lord not only forgives our sins,
but helps us to learn from them.
We learn about our own weakness.
We learn about the goodness of God.
And we learn to be compassionate towards others who sin.

And one final word.

We should always remember that when we say, when Jesus says, “Go into the whole world and forgive everyone,” what he means is not with your forgiveness, because Jesus gives us the forgiveness of God.

And with great joy and great faith it is this which we use to forgive others.

And sometimes you say, “It’s so hard to forgive.”

Only if the forgiveness comes from you and me, because we’re just little people.

But if we have been given the forgiveness of God Himself, and this is all we are asked to do, not to stand in the way of the goodness and forgiveness of God to reach every human heart, and then it’s a lot easier to forgive as He forgave, because this kind of forgiveness leads to peace and leads to joy. 

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