“Whose Sins You Shall Forgive”
In this section, about 1300 words, Pope John Paul II first provides a catechesis on the one forgiving sins. Obviously, God comes first on that list. How do we know? The witness of the prophets and the Psalmist:
29. The books of the Old and New Testament provide us with the first and fundamental fact concerning the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. In the Psalms and in the preaching of the prophets, the name merciful is perhaps the one most often given to the Lord, in contrast to the persistent cliche whereby the God of the Old Testament is presented above all as severe and vengeful.
This witness counterbalances the Israelite perception of God as harsh and demanding. Most people would think of that as a reflection of the human inclination to revenge, creating God in the image of human beings, rather than the other way around.
I approve of the invitation to examine Psalm 78. The Psalmist does include episodes of divine punishment. An alternative view might be that disobedience led to natural consequences for people who strayed from an approved path. When a person runs with scissors and trips, the injury isn’t God’s punishment. Not everybody who runs with sharp objects gets stabbed. But for those who do, it is a result of dangerous behavior combined with a moment of clumsiness.
Thus in the Psalms there is a long sapiential passage drawing from the Exodus tradition, which recalls God’s kindly action in the midst of his people. This action, though represented in an anthropomorphic way, is perhaps one of the most eloquent Old Testament proclamations of the divine mercy. Suffice it to quote the verse: “Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often, and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again.”(Psalm 78:38f)
Jesus arrives in the fullness of time:
In the fullness of time the Son of God, coming as the lamb who takes away and bears upon himself the sin of the world appears as the one who has the power both to judge (Cf John 5:27) and to forgive sins, (Cf Matthew 9:2-7; Luke 5.-18-25; 7:47-49; Mark 2:3-12) and who has come not to condemn but to forgive and save.(Cf John 3:17)
What we see in the witness of the Lord and his saints is that the standard of mercy is at once lower (God forgives anything) and higher (again, many acts demand a compassionate forgiveness). Human beings, in their juridical hats, are far quicker to condemn another person. Our power is limited, and at times random and unjust. God is able to balance perfect mercy and perfect justice. People likely sense this, and their experience with representatives of the Church or the courts is colored by an often accurate sense of human injustice and resistance to mercy.
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