The following is taken from the seventh article of The Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas Aquinas:
Now, against this fear of the judgment we ought to have four remedies:
- The first is good works: “Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same” (Romans 13:3).
- The second is confession and repentance for sins committed; and this ought to include sorrow in thinking of them, feeling of shame in confessing them, and all severity in making satisfaction for them. And these will take away the eternal punishment.
- The third is giving of alms, which makes all things clean: “Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwelling” (Luke 16:9).
- The fourth is charity, viz., the love of God and our neighbour, for “charity covereth a multitude of sin” (I Pet 4:8).
Easy, right? Four little steps to avoid judgment.
Ha! I wish four steps made it easy. Heck, I’d settle for just easier.
The fact is, saying, “I am sorry,” is hard. It is even harder when we have to say it to God for transgressions against his law, which are really transgressions against his love.
I was reminded of that yesterday upon hearing the Gospel reading. A paralytic on a mat is lowered into the house where Jesus is staying (creative friends, huh?). Upon seeing their faith (of the paralytic’s friends, not the paralytic himself), Jesus says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” What a strange thing to say.
The legalistic scribes get angry, charging Jesus with blasphemy, and ask, “Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus didn’t say, “I forgive your sins,” he just said they were forgiven. There is a passive voice in the Greek verb used which could easily allow for the assumption that God forgave the paralytic’s sins. The issue then may be the scribes were angry at Jesus for declaring only what God could know or a priest could proclaim.
There is an emphasis in the story that Jesus knows the hearts of the people surrounding him, especially the hearts of the scribes. But Jesus is no ordinary man. He is divine as he shows several verses later by curing the man of his paralysis. But his divinity remains hidden from those who will later condemn him and put him to death. The scribes in the story didn’t recognize that the source of humanity’s salvation was standing in their midst.
But where in the story are Aquinas’ four steps? The paralytic doesn’t do any good works; he doesn’t confess or repent; he doesn’t give alms, nor does he perform any acts of charity. In fact, the story doesn’t even say the paralytic has any faith, just that his friends do. This paralytic seems to get a “free lunch” (i.e. forgiveness of sins and physical healing).
I brought these two items (Aquinas’ catechism and the story of the paralytic) together not to illustrate someone stepping through Aquinas’ steps, but rather something quite different, something that may strike a little closer to our experience.
In his commentary on Psalm 41, St. Augustine interprets the psalmist’s “bed of sorrow” or “sickbed” as our sinful condition.
The LORD sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness thou healest all his infirmities (Ps 41:3)
The bed of sorrow is the infirmity of the flesh; lest thou shouldest say, I cannot hold, and carry, and tie up my flesh; thou art aided that thou mayest. The Lord help thee on thy bed of pain. Thy bed did carry thee, thou carriedst not thy bed, but wast a paralytic inwardly.
Here is a little help dealing with the Old English translation: The “bed of sorrow” is our sinful condition (infirmity of the flesh). Augustine doesn’t want us to say we can’t resist the temptations of the flesh (hold, carry, tie up) because God will help us (thou are aided). Now here is the kicker (in translation): you only “appear” physically paralyzed (thy bed did carry thee). You are actually paralysed inside.
Did you get that?
All of us take our turn, laying on our mat, much like the paralytic in Mark’s gospel, and bemoan our condition; we feel that God is not near to help us. We lay there paralyzed, not by an actual disease or by our sinfulness, but by recognizing the inherent difficulty in getting up and having to say, “I am sorry.” The cause of our paralysis (i.e. fear, stubbornness, resentment, etc.) may not only prevent us from moving, it may “blind” us too, like the scribes who didn’t recognize Jesus’ divinity.
The significance of the connection I am making between the section I pulled from Aquinas’ catechism and yesterday’s gospel story can be summed up in this: unless you have four friends who are willing to carry you across town, bully through a crowd, haul you up on the roof of a building, and lower you inside, you are probably going to have to take some initiative to get up off your “bed of sorrow” and make things right (no “free lunch”). That means YOU will have to say, “I am sorry.” Your very salvation may depend on it.
Not sure how to go about that? Refer to the four steps above!