Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 14: Disobedience to God

Continuing to look at the Mystery of Sin (numbered sections 14-18), Pope John Paul II dedicates most of that first section to the notion of Disobedience to God. Perhaps the impulse to provide for one’s children and the weaker members of society in a dangerous world is understandable, even virtuous. The context of Genesis 11 is that the impulse to make that place for themselves was first, selfish, and second, to be done without God. That becomes a problem in the post-Flood, ancient world:

A first point which helps us to understand sin emerges from the biblical narrative on the building of the tower of Babel: The people sought to build a city, organize themselves into a society and to be strong and powerful without God, if not precisely against God.

On occasion, Pope John Paul II would drop an extended footnote into the narrative. His interpretation is that the sin of Babel could be interpreted in different ways. Offending God seems to be a pagan old-school thing, back in the days when people imagined divinities in the likeness of petty, selfish, and arrogant human beings. From the beginning, Israerlites imagined God as having very human inclinations–emotions of anger, allowing bad things to happen, or being open to negotiation.

(The terminology used in the Septuagint Greek translation and in the New Testament for sin is significant. The most common term for sin is hamartia, with its various derivatives. It expresses the concept of offending more or less gravely against a norm or law, or against a person or even a divinity. But sin is also called adikia, and the concept here is of acting unjustly. The Bible also speaks of parabasis (transgression), asebeis (impiety) and other concepts. They all convey the image of sin.)

Getting to the point, Eden and Babel have one commonality:

In this sense the story of the first sin in Eden and the story of Babel, in spite of notable differences in content and form, have one thing in common: In both there is an exclusion of God through direct opposition to one of his commandments, through an act of rivalry, through the mistaken pretension of being “like him.”(Genesis 3:5: “And you will be like God, knowing good and evil”; cf also v. 22) In the story of Babel the exclusion of God is presented not so much under the aspect of opposition to him as of forgetfulness and indifference toward him, as if God were of no relevance in the sphere of (humankind’s) joint projects. But in both cases the relationship to God is severed with violence. In the case of Eden there appears in all its seriousness and tragic reality that which constitutes the ultimate essence and darkness of sin: disobedience to God, to His law, to the moral norm that he has given (people), inscribing it in (the human) heart and confirming and perfecting it through revelation.

In atheism, I think there is a distinction between a person who, from the start, goes it alone with God, and a person who perceives God has abandoned them first. Truthfully, it can take a good dollop of spiritual heroism to stick with God when things get really bad. We read of such people who do–usually they are saints. While I know we are all called to be saints, in the accumulation of decades of martyrdoms, it can be even more difficult to remain faithful than when facing a relatively quick death for the faith.

Exclusion of God, rupture with God, disobedience to God: Throughout the history of (humankind) this has been and is, in various forms, sin. It can go as far as a very denial of God and his existence: This is the phenomenon called atheism.

True, but let’s be realistic: atheism has many motivations.

It is the disobedience of a person who, by a free act, does not acknowledge God’s sovereignty over his or her life, at least at that particular moment in which he or she transgresses God’s law.

This last bit is the essence of disobedience. Matthew 21:28-32 shows that Jesus acknowledges there’s a difference between lip service for or against God and the ultimate direction of one’s life. It’s a tough point for the elder siblings of the Church, but it is a reality of God’s plan. And if some otherwise good Christian discredits that vector, well, they’ve just engaged their own version of overtaking God’s authority. Genesis 3 or 11 all over again.

Disobedience and sin: tough things, aren’t they? Thoughts?

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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