David and Mary Magdalene: Erroneous and True Conscience

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time 2013

Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’… Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

One of the frequently noted religious developments in our day is the loss of the sense of sin on the part of so many people, including many people who think of themselves as very religious Christians.

A clear indication of this loss of the sense of sin among the Catholic faithful is the great downturn in the practice of confession. It’s not uncommon today that Catholics will live in ways that are directly contrary to the moral teaching of the Church, and yet think little of it, as if things like fornication, drunkenness, adultery, contraception, even abortion, are not serious sins, regardless of the constant teaching of the Church to the contrary.

For instance, the former Speaker of the House often publicly declares herself a devout Catholic when defending her political activity as one of the biggest promoters of abortion in the congress. Such blindness is truly biblical in its proportions. With such attitudes, these “Catholics” see no need to go to confession for the remission of these sins, since their private conscience tells them that these things are not sinful, and private conscience for them trumps the teaching authority that Christ gave to the Apostles. In short, these Catholics are in fact neo-Protestants, and they are not good Protestants who would never contradict the Scriptures on these matters of conscience.

In today’s first reading we see that David was in this situation. He had not only committed adultery, but had arranged for the husband to be killed in battle by a dirty trick. But his private conscience didn’t bother him at all because he was blinded by his desire for the beautiful Bathsheba whom he lusted after. But then God sent Nathan to enlighten David’s conscience. Speaking for God, Nathan says to blind David, “You have despised me.” David was blind because he despised God, that is, he ignored God’s clear commandment against adultery, which David certainly knew was part of the Law. But his lust had blinded him to the Law, and all he could see was the beauty he lusted after. Then, after he sinned, he thought that he could cover it up, not from God who was not even in David’s thoughts just then, but from the people. He wasn’t even thinking about God or the law, or his conscience, but only the public disgrace if it was made public.

Then comes Nathan who opens David’s eyes by preaching the truth, and only then does David become conscious of his sin and repent. And then note what David says, “I have sinned against the LORD. Surely David had done wrong to Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, but first he had sinned against God. Sin is not just a breaking of a commandment, an abstract rule, but it is a personal offense against God: “you have despised me.” And David recognizes the sin only when he sees it as a personal offense: I have sinned against the LORD.

The loss of the sense of sin means precisely this, that one has lost the sense that by this act I am guilty of a personal offense against God and against my conscience where God speaks, if I let Him. Sin in its deepest reality is not the mere violation of an abstract ethical code, like breaking the laws of the state; sin is the despising of a person, a despising of God, whose commandments are an expression of His will, that is, of Himself.

We see the contrary of David’s willful blindness of conscience in today’s Gospel, and we also see the truth that sin is truly acknowledged only when it is seen as an offense against our personal God. There is no blindness in Mary Magdalene who publicly seeks forgiveness from Jesus for her many sins. She does not enter into an ethical discussion or debate about here private conscience, nor does she simply reject her actions as contrary to societal norms, an embarrassment. She virtually made a public confession and act of repentance. She wept at his feet, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with costly oil.

All of this was done to Jesus, and why? Surely she knew her sins and she believed that Jesus could forgive her. She would not miss her chance to receive his mercy, regardless of the public spectacle. Indeed, her actions could be seen as a public act of reparation addressed to a person, to the person of Jesus for she knew, in some mysterious way, that her sins had personally offended His goodness, His person. I am not saying she knew clearly that He was God, but she knew that her sins were not mere mistakes, not mere violations of some abstract law; she knew that they were personally offensive to God, and that God was acting through this holy man. And since she could not touch God directly in a personal act of repentance, she showed by her actions toward His chosen one, what she would like to do, if it were possible, before God. And the truth is that she really did do it for God, in doing it for Jesus. She believed it when he taught that he had come with God’s mercy not for the self-righteous, but for sinners, sinners like her. Like the blind man at Jericho, she would not miss her chance to receive his mercy, regardless of the shame it cost her.

Jesus would support this truth, that what we do before Him we are doing before God, when he said that whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do it for me. And here we can say that what this woman did for Jesus, she truly did it for God. She had a deep sense of her sins. She was not like the blind guides who were in that room, who thought they had no need of God’s mercy, since they were blind, like David, to their sins and need for God’s mercy. They were like modern men who have lost the sense of sin, and their blindness to their sins made them blind to the one who was in their midst, who had the power to forgive them. They didn’t even offer him the common courtesies of Jewish hospitality.

The loss of the sense of sin is a most dangerous thing. It does not mean you are without sin, perhaps serious sin, even if your conscience doesn’t bother you when you break God’s laws. Like David, we all can become blind to our true spiritual condition. We too can blind our conscience in order to justify our sins, at least to ourselves. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned us about this terrible spiritual blindness that makes us unaware of the peril of our sins. He says,

Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7: 21-23)

The loss of the sense of sin is largely the result of a false notion of private conscience which leads us to a spiritual blindness, to a terrible self-deception, and it will leave us defenseless “on that day,” which is the day of judgment. We can fool ourselves, and many do so, including clergy and religious, but we cannot fool God. It will do us no good to protest, “But I thought that the Church was wrong when she condemned homosexual acts, contraception, abortion, etc.”

God sent Nathan to correct David. But David did not say that Nathan was mistaken, that his conscience is clear; but rather he confessed immediately, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Jesus sent the Apostles, and will we say that the Church’s teaching authority transmitted by the Apostles is wrong because it conflicts with our private consciences? Indeed, the teaching of Christ, now taught authoritatively by His Church, is much more authoritative than the voice of Nathan. The teaching Church has been sent by God to correct the blindness of men today, to correct their self-serving, erroneous consciences, just as Nathan corrected the blindness of David. Repentance is the only corrective for sin, and the path to repentance begins by recognizing the voice of the teaching Church as the voice of God.


Categories: Homilies

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