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The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 4: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Power and Might"


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When He considered the various options or ways the redemption could be accomplished, our Father picked the one that was richest of all for us, one that quite literally went beyond infinity in worth. His love for us led Him to go so far. But, as we have already mentioned in passing, there is another dimension, one which has been forgotten today, or, more accurately, discarded by theologians. It is that of His concern for the objective order of goodness and holiness. If we overlook it, we will be lacking greatly in our understanding of the ways of our Father, for He pursues both goals-love of us and love of objective goodness-at the same time. There is no conflict between these, except where we humans deliberately resist His generous plans.

It is of great importance for us to understand this love of order/holiness correctly. We do not mean that He simply demanded reparation for the offence against Himself; He could rightly do that, and we note that the offense was even infinite, since the Person offended is infinite-not to forget the incalculable total of all sins of all ages. However, an objection is often raised against the thought of reparation: we humans do not always demand reparation for offenses against us. So, the objection says, could not God just let it go without reparation, as good people often do? The objection forgets the infinity of God, the immeasurable distance between creature and Creator, and, more importantly, His love of Holiness/goodness in itself.

When we speak of His concern for the objective order, we mean His concern for Holiness, for what is morally right in itself. Whereas some charge lack of generosity-falsely-in the fact that God might rightly ask reparation for the offense against His majesty, they cannot really object to His unselfish concern for what holiness calls for, for morality as such.

The Scriptural picture of God was a striking one to the contemporary world in which Scripture first appeared. For the gods of Greece and Rome were described in the literature of those nations as not so much immoral as amoral.1 That is, they acted as if there were no such thing as morality at all. So in their own lives, they did what we rightly call sinful things: Zeus committed adultery many times with human women, and would have done it much more often had not his wife Hera been trailing him. But her objection was not based on morality-she knew nothing about a moral law-she was just a naturally jealous wife. Further, what the gods did in their own lives, they fully ignored in the lives of people: they cared not at all if men and women committed adultery, if they lied, if they stole, if they committed murder. Yes, there were some lesser beings, the Furies, who seemed to resent murder, and to try to drive the killer insane. But the great gods paid no attention to murder at all, or to most other sins. They would enforce honor for themselves, and were thought to care for a few isolated points of morality, chiefly, a dutiful attitude towards country, home, guests, and suppliants coming with the proper ritual in the name of Zeus. But other things meant nothing.

In sharp contrast, the God of the Old Testament is sadiq, morally righteous, and He loves what is morally right, as Psalm 10:7 sings: "God is morally right, and loves things that are morally right."

This attitude of His absolute Holiness shows all over Scripture. Already in Genesis 15:16 we meet with a remarkable statement. On that pivotal day in history when Abram believed God's promise of a progeny as numerous as the stars, and God counted his faith for him as righteousness (Gen 15:6), Abram was told to arrange a mysterious form of sacrifice. Then when the sun was setting and a deep sleep came upon Abram, God foretold that he and his descendants would possess the land of Canaan, but added that they would not get it at once: first, they must be in servitude in another land, Egypt, for four hundred years (Gen 15:l6). "But in the fourth period they will return here, for not yet is the guilt of the Amorites complete."2 Later, Deuteronomy 9:4-5 insisted that Israel was not getting the land because of its own righteousness; rather, because of the wickedness of the nations had the Lord driven them out.

Here is a remarkable concept indeed. Could not God at any time give any land whatsoever to whomsoever He willed? Of course, He is the absolute Master. What we call "rights" are in reality only claims that He wills to give us to have or to do things. But we see that His Holiness wills to observe right order in everything: hence He did not expel the Amorites until their wickedness had reached its fulness.

Here our Father was not only observing the moral order, He was showing the maximum tolerance in waiting, so that a people should not be despoiled without having most fully earned it.

That same concern for what is right in itself shows even more dramatically in a number of other Scriptural incidents. In chapter 12 of Genesis we read how Abram, after entering Canaan for the first time at God's command, continued on to Egypt, for there was a famine in Canaan. When he was near the border of Egypt, he told his wife Sarai that he feared the Egyptians might take her to the Pharaoh, but would kill him if they knew she was his wife. Therefore they agreed to say she was his sister, a name not technically untrue, since Hebrew ahoth could stand for even a fairly distant relative.

As anticipated, the Pharaoh's men did take Sarai to him. Abram was well treated, and even enriched by royal gifts. But then something happened. Genesis 12:17 tells us that, "The Lord struck Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife." We would say: Pharaoh was in good faith, he did not know he was doing something wrong in itself. Yet God's Holiness and love of the objective moral order wanted things rectified, and struck Pharaoh. As soon as the unhappy ruler learned the truth, he called Abram in and asked him why he had not told him she was his wife, and ordered him out of the land.

As a result, chapter 4 of Leviticus gives detailed rules for sacrifices to be offered in case a man violated any of the laws of God without knowing it. Of course, such violations were far less than sins committed knowingly. They were in a basically different class. Yet the concern of the Holiness of God for what is right insisted that even sins committed in good faith called for satisfaction: the moral order must be rebalanced.

Not surprisingly then, soon the concept of sin as debt that must be paid emerges. The Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, used the verb aphiemi to mean forgiving sin. But that word carried the connotation of remitting a debt. Still more clearly, the Hebrew hobah, debt (and Aramaic hoba) was often used in the intertestamental books of the Jews, written between the end of the Old and the start of the New Testament.3

This debt concept does not appear explicitly many times in the New Testament, yet the places it does appear are most significant. In the Our Father, Jesus Himself taught us to pray: "Forgive us our debts"-for that is the exact translation of the Greek opheilemata.

Similarly, St. Paul speaks of Jesus as paying "the price" of redemption (1 Cor 6:30 and 7:23), and tells the Colossians that the Father who raised Christ from the dead, made you (Col 2:13-14) "alive together with Him, forgiving you all your transgressions, wiping away the bill that was against us, with its claims . . . nailing it to the cross" as if marking it "paid" by the price of redemption. Similarly, Gal 3:13 says that "Christ bought us from the curse of the law" (cf. Gal 4:5).

The theology of the Rabbis, in which St. Paul was trained, expressed this idea with the image of a two pan scales. The sinner takes from one pan something he has no right to take: the scales is out of balance; the Holiness of God wants it rebalanced, so the sinner should put it back if he still has a stolen item. If he has stolen an illegitimate pleasure, he should in compensation give up something he could otherwise have properly had. Thus Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, quoting Rabbi Meir (a disciple of the great R. Akiba, and the most eminent of the Tannaim, born not far from 110 A. D.) wrote:

A man has carried out one commandment. Blessings [on him]. He has tipped the scales to the side of merit for himself and for the world. A man has committed a transgression. Woe [to him]! He has tipped the scales to the side of debt for himself and for the world.4

We notice that Rabbi Meir teaches that we are all interdependent: a sin of one harms all. Even if it be a so-called "victimless crime" it does tip the scales unfavorably. In a parallel way, St. Paul expressed this same idea in his image of the Mystical Body of Christ, in which (1 Cor 12:26) "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it."

Christ, the Head of this Mystical Body, did the chief, the essential, really infinite work of balancing the scales.5 Without Him it really could not have been done fully. For sin, under one aspect, has an infinity about it: the Person offended, God, is infinite. Hence there was an infinite imbalance, which could only be rectified by an Infinite Person. Given the fact that the Father decided, as we saw before, on a complete rebalance, only by the Incarnation of a Divine Person could it be done.

A major constitution of Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, explains this well:

Every sin brings with it a disturbance of the universal order, which God arranged in His inexpressible wisdom and infinite love. . . . So it is necessary for the full remission and reparation of sins . . . not only that friendship with God be restored by a sincere conversion of heart, and that the offence against His wisdom and goodness be expiated, but also that all the goods, both individual and social, and those that belong to the universal order, lessened or destroyed by sin, be fully reestablished, either through voluntary reparation . . . or through the suffering of penalties.6

So again, there are no such things as victimless crimes. The sin of one harms others, just as the holiness of one helps others. Within this framework belong the expiation and the righting of the universal order accomplished by the death of Christ, who not only (Phil 2:7-9) "emptied Himself," giving up the honor and comforts that He could rightly have had as God, but even "humbled Himself becoming obedient, even to death, death on a cross." Sinners take what they have no right to from the scales; Jesus put it all back, most abundantly.

However, as St. Paul teaches, it would be strangely incongruous if Christ our Head were a suffering and atoning Head, while we, His members, would do nothing, would live lives of comfort. Hence we are called on to be like our Head in this. As St. Paul told the Romans, we are fellow heirs of the mansions of the Father with Christ (Rom 8:17) "if indeed we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." For we are saved and made holy to the extent that we are not only members of Christ, but are like Him, especially in His reparation, in His obedience even to death.

This condition is stern indeed, but is also most comforting, for St. Paul continues in the next line (Rom 8:18): "I judge that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us." For the more like Him we are in the first phase, His life of hardship culminating in death on the cross, the more shall we be like Him in the second and final phase, that of unending glory. We are to share in His glory in the measure in which we shared in His suffering. In fact, we are repaid with more than interest, for St. Paul assures us that even (2 Cor 4:17) "what is light and momentary in our troubles is producing us, beyond all measure, an eternal weight of glory for us."

Still further, St. Paul knew that if one member of Christ was remiss in doing his part in the work of rebalancing the objective order, someone else could make up for him. As a shepherd of souls, Paul felt that that was part of his assignment (Col 1:24): "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up the things lacking of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh for His body, which is the Church."

St. Paul knew too that he should not lightly dismiss even involuntary transgressions, committed in ignorance or "good faith." So he told the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:4): "I have nothing on my conscience, but not thereby am I justified." That is: I am not aware of committing any sin, but perhaps I did something unknowingly. In this spirit, a prominent Jewish scholar, A. Büchler, reports that ". . . the ancient pious men brought every day a doubtful guilt-offering, to clear themselves from any error of a grave religious nature possibly committed on the previous day."7

Even today in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, there is a prayer before the Epistle: "Forgive us every offence, both voluntary and involuntary."

In his first Epistle, St. John wrote (1 Jn 4:8): "God is love." As we saw in our first chapter, it can be said that we finite creatures have love. That implies a duality: we and our love. But God is supremely one. So He does not just have love, He is love, is identified with it.

Now we can see a tremendous further truth: just as He does not have love, but is love, so also, He does not have justice, mercy, holiness and other attributes-He is justice; He is mercy; He is holiness. Being holiness itself and justice itself, we can understand how He insists on the observance of complete holiness, including balancing the objective order of morality.

A still further mystery appears; if He is justice, and is mercy-then justice and mercy must be somehow identified in Him, for they are identified with Him, and so must be the same. To our eyes, justice and mercy often seem not only different, but opposite. No wonder Dionysius wrote, as we saw, that God is best known by "unknowing."8

Though we cannot completely comprehend how He can be both mercy and justice, we can make a start. Suppose we think of a man who has never been drunk before, but Saturday night he gets very drunk. On the next day, among other effects, he will have guilt feelings. Why? As it were, there are two voices in him. One voice, that of his moral beliefs, says it is very wrong to get drunk; the other voice, that of his actions, says it is all right. This clash is upsetting. Our nature dislikes such tension, and so in time something must give: either he will bring his actions into line with his beliefs, or, gradually, over a period of time, his beliefs will line up with his actions. He will no longer be able to perceive clearly that there is anything wrong in getting drunk. If we call him on it, he will be apt to say: "A man has to have shum fun!" Further, over a longer time, his other moral beliefs may be strained. The total result is that his ability to register religious truths becomes dimmer.

This gradual blinding is a just punishment for his sins; but it is also a mercy from God. For the more clearly we see religious truths, the greater our sin if we still do sin. So in one and the same act God is showing both mercy and justice.

Conversely, if a man acts vigorously according to his faith, if he acts on what St. Paul tells us, that the things of this world, though good in themselves, are still only dung compared to the things of eternity-he will find his faith growing stronger. It is just that he should grow in spiritual vision, as a reward for his good life. Yet, in the most basic sense, everything we have from God is simply His gift, and so the man's gain is also a matter of mercy. Again, in one and the same act, God exercises both mercy and justice simultaneously.

Matthew, Mark and Luke9 report that Jesus at first spoke openly to the crowds, but later He turned to parables (Lk 8:10) "so that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand." We have rendered the Greek construction as expressing His purpose; it would also stand a translation of mere result; "so that seeing, they did not see, and hearing they did not understand." In either case, we have another instance of mercy-justice. Many in the crowds were ill disposed. To speak to them in such a way that their lack of disposition would prevent understanding was an act of just blinding, earned by their perversity. Yet it was also an act of mercy, for thereby He refrained from increasing their responsibility for continuance in evil, which He foreknew. Even today, and in any century, similar conditions appear in those who read Scripture. Scripture in general is not easy to understand; even if we allow for the differences in language and culture, we still have a measure of unexplained difficulty. This is probably divinely intended to produce the same sort of effects we saw with the parables, namely, those well disposed would be more able to perceive spiritually: this is just reward, but yet, basically, all we receive is God's mercy. Again, those who are ill disposed by lack of faith or evil life will be less able to understand. Their dim eyesight is a just punishment, but also mercy, for then their responsibility is not increased by better understanding of the word of God.

So now we can begin to understand how in God Himself mercy and justice can be identified with each other, for in so many of His dealings with us, He exercises both virtues in one and the same action.

When one goes far enough on the evil spiral, there comes the "loss of the sense of sin" which was lamented repeatedly by Popes Pius XII and John Paul II.10 People lose the ability to see that sin is an offense against God, against His Holiness. Yes, it is true that sin cannot touch or harm God, but it can harm those whom He so loves, His children. And it can upset the holiness of the objective order, which He likewise loves.

When the process goes on far enough there comes real spiritual blindness, even to the point of the sin against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven (cf. Mt 12:32 and parallels) precisely because the blindness makes repentance impossible. When one repents, he looks back on his sin and says to himself "I should not have done it; I wish I had not done it; I do not intend to do that anymore." But blindness from loss of the sense of sin prevents his seeing that, and so it prevents repentance. Hence the sin can never be forgiven, since there can never be repentance. (We will see further details on how this comes about in chapter 19.)11

We can understand something else better now. We said in the introduction that there are two poles in our relation to God: that of love, closeness, warmth, and the pole of a sense of awe, reverence, feeling of the presence of immense Majesty. The one corresponds to the fact that God is our good Father, who in planning our restoration went literally beyond infinity in His desire to make everything as rich as possible for us. The other reflects the absolute Holiness that He is, a Holiness which insists on fully balancing the scales of the objective moral order out of love of Holiness.

Yet there are not two Gods, but one, who simultaneously is Love, and is Holiness, in whom these are not different, but are fully identified.


1 Yet, the literature is not fully consistent: some literary texts picture Zeus as guardian of justice. And Socrates surely held up and lived a most high moral ideal, so that in Plato's Republic, the conclusion is that one should observe justice even if he could get away with injustice. On the Mesopotamian gods, cf. Thorkild Jacobsen, "Mesopotamia. VII. The Good Life" pp. 202-19, in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, edd. H. & H. A. Frankfort et al. University of Chicago, 1948.
2 God's concern for the moral order shows especially also in Romans 3: 24-26: during the Old Testament period, God might have seemed to others not to be concerned about the full restoration of the moral order. He did punish sin, even openly, but that punishment was not a full restoration. So the Father sent His Son to fully rebalance. We get justification without earning it, yet, the moral order is preserved: Rom 3:31, since Jesus fully did make the restoration: "Do we then destroy law [concern for the moral order] through faith [the teaching of justification by faith, gratuitously]? Banish the thought: We establish law." For we have shown that the order is fully reestablished by Jesus.
3 Cf. S. Lyonnet-L. Sabourin, Sin, Redemption and Sacrifice, Rome, Biblical Institute, 1970, pp. 25-26, 32. Cf. George F. Moore, Judaism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1927, II, p. 95; M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, Pardes, N. Y. 1950, I. pp. 428-29. A similar attitude shows in Testament of Levi 3. 5; Psalms of Solomon 3. 7-8; Testament of Zebulon 1. 4-5 and Slavonic Enoch 30. 16; 31. 7.
4 Tosephta, Kuddishin 1. 14.
5 A few of the Fathers had thought the "price" of redemption (cf. 1 Cor 6: 20) was paid to satan-thus Origen, On Matthew 20:28 and St. Ambrose, Epistle 72. But St. Gregory of Nazianzus rightly saw that it would be a "mockery" to say the price was paid to satan: Oration 45, on Easter 22. We solve the dilemma by showing that the price was paid to the objective order-for the word price is of course a metaphor.
6 Paul VI, Indulgentiarum doctrina, Jan 9, 1967. AAS 59, 7.
7 A. Büchler, Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century, Ktav, N. Y. 1967, p. 425.
8 Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystical Theology 1. 2. PG 3. l025
9 Mt 13:14; Mk 4:12; Lk 8:10. For the Hebrew pattern in which it is said God positively does things when He only permits, cf. 1 Sm 4:3 and Ex 9:12.
10 Pius XII in a Message to the National Catechetical Congress of the U. S. Oct 26, 1946 said: "The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin." Pope John Paul II said the same in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliatio et paenitentia Dec. 2, 1984. AAS 77 (1985) pp. 225ff and in his encyclical Dominum et vivificantem May 18, 1986, #47.
11 Can the merciful blinding mentioned above save one from all guilt? We note that degrees of guilt can be varied, and can diminish at varied points on the spiral. Yet the person can be responsible at an early point for what is done in blindness later. Cf. St. Paul Rom 1:31: "They, having known the justice of God, that they who do such things are worthy of death, not only do them, but approve of those who do them." We note two stages-formerly they knew, later they lost that knowledge and called sin good. We recall too such texts as Genesis 12:17 in which God punishes even involuntary sin-not as severely of course as voluntary sin. Cf. the whole concept of involuntary sin described earlier in this chapter.

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