The Sense of Sin

Mgr Keith Barltrop

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B. Jer. 31: 31-34; Heb. 5:7-9; Jn. 12:20-33

In 1967, the year I left school, a pop psychology book appeared which had a big influence: “I’m OK, you’re OK”. One of its teachings was enlightening to many of us, that there are three voices within us: the Parent, representing our sense of what we ought to do; the Adult, representing the values we ourselves have come to espouse; and the Child, who wants to have fun and enjoy life. The Parent and the Child, of course, are often at war with themselves, and the Adult has to negotiate between them.

It’s an over-simplification of psychological theories, and from a Christian point of view the main thing missing is any sense of sin. As someone pointed out, the Christian position is rather, “I’m not OK, and that’s OK.” But sin is one of those religious terms we use all too easily without really understanding what it means. Perhaps the Parent-Adult-Child model can help us to a deeper understanding of Biblical passages like this one from Jeremiah, which is undoubtedly one of the most important passages of the entire Old Testament.

In it God reminds the people through Jeremiah of the Covenant he made with them on Mount Sinai. He undertook to be their God, giving them a wonderful land to live in, protecting them from their enemies and bestowing prosperity and peace upon them; they for their part undertook to be faithful to him alone, abandoning the worship of all other gods and following his teachings, especially as summarised in the Ten Commandments. Those Commandments themselves could be reduced to two, as Jesus frequently did: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. 

Jeremiah sums up the subsequent history of Israel succinctly as one of repeated failure to do just that, of continually breaking the covenant by turning aside to other gods and exploiting rather than loving their neighbour. God cannot be indifferent to this, and so he allows the people to experience the consequence of abandoning him by himself abandoning them to the oppression of the surrounding nations.

Why were the people unable to keep God’s law? Why did they bring these disasters on themselves? Yes, because of sin, but perhaps also because the old covenant remained at the level of the Parent, a voice telling us what we know we ought to do but not what we want to do, or what the Child within us wants. It’s the age-old conflict between duty and desire, and in the end desire will usually win out.

But God in his infinite wisdom and mercy has an answer to this conflict. He promises it through Jeremiah in this beautiful passage, but it is only realised in Jesus: there will be a new covenant where the law will be written, not on tablets of stone for the Parent to pontificate about, but in the heart where the Child lives.

Jeremiah announces this but we have to wait for Jesus for it to come true, Jesus the Child in perfect harmony with his Father, obeying the Father and thus undoing the sin of disobedience by which Adam and Eve lost their harmony with God. He obeyed joyfully at every stage of his life from his birth, through his childhood lived in obedience to Mary and Joseph, to his ministry when he rose early each morning to seek the Father’s will in prayer, but above all, as our second reading tells us, he learned obedience through what he suffered, so that the new covenant, as he said at the Last Supper, was indeed a new covenant in his blood.

And through his death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit he now lives in our hearts. As we open our hearts to him and receive him into our very flesh through the Eucharist, he makes it possible for us to live the life of love which the Old Testament Law was always aiming at, love of God with all our heart, and love of neighbour as ourselves. Yes, we will always fall and fail, but we know that those very failures, if we allow them, take us deeper into his heart and him into ours, for he is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.