This week’s story is not at all as simple
and straightforward as it may seem.
I think that the John the Baptist character
functions as an invitation to change our
mind, as it were, change our mind and
separate what we think from who is thinking.
We are told that John the Baptist preached
“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness
of sins.” Repentance is about our minds,
what we think and how we think, it does not
refer to atonement for sin but re-thinking
I do not think what is going on here is an
outer world confession of “sins,” behaviors,
that we have been told are wrong or sinful
as we might have in our modern experience of
I am not disparaging our modern-day
interpretation of the Sacrament of
Reconciliation but as there is no evidence
of that practice in the New Testament we
have to begin with the text and try and
understand what it was intended to mean by
Luke, the Gospel writer.
In this passage, sin is not a transgression
against a law that has been taught to be
offensive to God as we might understand sin.
The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, has
zillions of lists of actions that had come,
for one reason or another, had come to be
considered offenses against God, and Jesus
breaks a whole lot of laws, mostly on
Sabbath Days compounding the so-called
The Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is in conflict
almost from the beginning with the Priests
and Levites of the Law, so something new is
going on here.
Re-thinking what we might mean as sin is the
task that Jesus proposes because as Gabriel
makes clear in Luke, this child to be born
to Mary will be called Jesus, which means,
“the salvation of the Lord,” which Matthew’s
Gospel renders as, “he will save his people
from their sins.”
So, what is it that Jesus will save us from
and how will that happen?
Our minds have, as Father Rohlheiser
suggested last week, the drive to hold
tightly to the negatives in life. Our minds
grab at hurts, remember tenaciously past
offenses against us, cling to our
consciousness of retribution and revenge
like flies in honey.
Our memories make available to us real and
perceived hurts far more quickly and far
more easily than good deeds done to us, kind
words spoken to us, kindnesses shared.
What Luke is offering here is a pathway out
of that trap, not an easy path but a path,
The negativity that undermines our happiness
can take all kinds of forms, all manner of
distortion most especially of our self-
understanding, our self-esteem. We need
self-forgiveness, but we don’t know how to
do that because we don’t really understand
the inner workings of sin.
There is a subtle working of the mind, but
when we have been hurt or slighted unless we
are very, very careful we, in turn, will
hurt and will slight. Our mind tells us that
“giving as good as we have gotten” is the
Now, a most dangerous consequence of being
sinned against is that, somehow, our mind
convinces us that we deserve it, we earned
it. We did or did not do something that
caused us to be hurt.
When this happens people either way too
easily forgive who hurt them and set
themselves up to be a punching bag,
literally or metaphorically or they bury the
shame and the insults and pretend that they
did not happen.
Either way, the “sin” lurks at the edges of
our consciousness ready to pounce when we
least expect it and this can do great damage
to everyone. It is the person who does this
that is likely to act out terrible
destruction in irrational displays of
The condition of chronically being at war,
making killing a form of employment albeit
in the military, turning young people into
perpetrators of “sanctioned” human
destruction has terrible consequences in our
midst, as we see daily.
300,00 veterans of the recent war making
suffer from PTSD, one active duty serviceman
a month commits suicide, domestic violence,
ruined marriages, all kinds of suffering
rooted in unforgiven sin.
Quite frankly, I think much of what we call
entertainment or recreation is repressed
violence that is given permission to be
accepted as legitimate when it is in reality
a distortion and a deceit.
Many video games, certainly football as it
is played today, and aspects of other, so
called, sports, are nothing but collective
negativity projected on otherwise innocent
people by terribly damaged individuals who
have been hurt and violated many times in
You don’t get to be a college or
professional athlete these days, given the
money at stake, without taking in an awful
lot of other people’s aggression, usually
from a person called, a coach.
Like most things really evil, we hardly
notice it because it is so normal, such a
part of our ordinary lives, banal, but, so,
so subtle lurking in the shadows of our
The sexual abuse of young people is a
pandemic, crossing all
categories and groups because it can so
easily be gotten away with.
Even now with what may be hyper-awareness
and sensitivity, to such kinds of behavior,
legions of children and young people are
being abused in their own homes by family
members, by trusted coaches and trainers, by
friends, by employers, by bosses, by
This is a crucial developmental task of
separating what our minds focus on and our
deepest and truest self actually is but most
people are never told or taught that they
are separate from their thoughts and
feelings as powerful as they may be that is
why John the Baptist and Jesus in Luke’s
Gospel are two steps in a process, why John
defers to Jesus, why John has to come first.
I want to emphasize that, the possibility of
separating what we are thinking from our
self that is actually doing the
thinking. John the Baptist calls for a
moratorium from obsessional thinking and
tries to teach us to be mindful of our
self not our thoughts.
As I understand this text, it is a
pre-requisite for us to detach ourselves
from the negatives that our minds
tenaciously attach themselves to. And
embrace the idea that we are forgiven by God
no matter what we have done and are, in
fact, a beloved child.
This is a very, very difficult undertaking,
one that we hardly ever accomplish once and
for all but might have little moments of
respite now and then and when we have those
respites, we encounter Christ.