March 1, 2016 // Uncategorized

He made him to be sin who did not know sin

By Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invites us to contemplate the mystery of divine mercy. This coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we have a great opportunity to do so since the Gospel reading is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, parable of Jesus about the Father’s mercy, the parable of the prodigal son. But before we hear that very familiar parable, we will hear a reading from Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that also speaks of God’s mercy. It is that reading which I wish to write about first in this column. It contains a verse that makes a quite surprising assertion: For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21).

I wish to write about this verse since there is so much theology packed into this one sentence. One author says that this verse ”invites us to tread on sacred ground.” When we consider the profound meaning of this assertion of Saint Paul, we indeed are treading on sacred ground since we are led to think about the revelation of God’s mercy in its fullness: the reality of our redemption through the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery.

It is an amazing truth to ponder that for our sake God the Father made Jesus His sinless Son to be sin. Obviously, God the Father did not make his Son a sinner. So what does it mean to say that God made him to be sin? Many Fathers of the Church interpret it to refer to the Incarnation, that the Word became flesh, in other words, the Father sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. That is what it would mean to say that the Son was made “to be sin.” Saint Augustine wrote that “on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which He came, He was called sin.” Likewise, Saint Gregory of Nazianzen wrote that “the passage the Word was made flesh seems to me to be equivalent to that in which it is said that He was made sin.”

There’s another interpretation of Saint Paul’s words that the Father made Christ “to be sin who did not know sin.” Some biblical exegetes say that Paul is using the word “sin” in two different senses in this verse. In saying that Jesus “did not know sin,” Paul is using the typical meaning of the word “sin.” Jesus was never unfaithful to God’s will. In saying that Christ was made “sin”, Paul is referring to the “sin offering.” That is one of the meanings of “sin” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It refers to the sin offering of the Jewish people, the sacrifice of an unblemished animal in reparation for sins against the covenant. Saint Paul would therefore be referring to the sacrificial death of the innocent, sinless Jesus on the cross. At the Last Supper, Jesus Himself said that His blood would be poured out “for the forgiveness of sins.” So the meaning of the verse would be that for our sake, the Father made his Son a sin offering.

However one interprets the exact meaning of the assertion that God made the sinless Christ to be sin, whether it refers to the Incarnation (taking on the likeness of sinful flesh) or to the sacrificial death of Jesus (becoming a sin offering), or perhaps to both, Saint Paul says it was for our sake, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. This is the fruit of the Incarnation and the Redemption. He gives us access to the fullness of life that comes from God. God has reconciled us to Himself and made us righteous. He empowers us to walk in the way of His Son. All of this springs from God’s mercy and love.

On Sunday, after we hear this reading from Saint Paul about God’s great mercy in making him (Jesus) sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him, we will hear a dramatic portrayal of this truth in the Gospel parable of the prodigal son. It shows God’s desire to reconcile sinners to himself. The father will race out to embrace and welcome home his wayward son. He is a merciful father who desires to save us. He desires this so much that He sent us His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh in the Incarnation with the mission of reconciliation through the suffering and death on the cross. The Incarnation and the Redemption follow the same divine logic: the logic of mercy and love.

As we proceed along our Lenten journey, let us continue to contemplate the mercy of God our Father revealed in His Son, our Redeemer. Though he was absolutely sinless, Jesus agreed to take our sins upon himself. He agreed in order to redeem us. He agreed to bear our sins in order to fulfill the mission he had received from the Father, a mission of mercy. In this season of Lent, we thank the Lord for his great mercy. And we kneel before him and implore his forgiveness. We implore his mercy for ourselves and for the whole world.

If you have not yet been to confession this Lent, I invite you to visit one of the twelve churches in the diocese where confessions will be heard during the 24 Hours for the Lord on March 4 and 5. Each of us can experience mercy in a unique way in the sacrament of Reconciliation. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “Infinite and inexhaustible is the Father’s readiness to receive the prodigal children who return to his home.” When we think about the depths of the Father’s merciful love, that for our sake he made him (his beloved Son) to be sin who did not know sin, we should be moved to gratitude and repentance. May we heed the words of Saint Paul: we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!

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