In the Book of Acts, King David receives a supreme tribute directly from God “who testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart…’” What could be more of a blessing then that divine affirmation? And yet in today’s first reading we read something quite disturbing about this same king of Israel who is reprimanded by Nathan for his terrible sins.
David had not only committed adultery with Bathsheba, but he compounded his sin by arranging for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle in a truly evil plot. In all this, nonetheless, neither of these sins seemed to bother David’s conscience at all until Nathan the prophet was sent by God to reprimand him. The truth was that David’s conscience was blinded by his passionate desire for the beautiful Bathsheba, a married woman. And so he took here in adultery and then had her husband killed to cover it up, and none of this seems to have struck his conscience. How can this be? David was a man after God’s own heart, but he was also a man subject to temptation and quite capable of darkening his conscience to cover his sins.
However, God in His mercy sent Nathan to enlighten David’s conscience, and, speaking for God, Nathan says to a blinded David, “You have despised me.” David was blind morally because he despised God, that is, because he ignored God’s clear commandment against adultery, which David certainly knew was part of God’s moral law. However, his lust had blinded him to the moral 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 of course, who was not even in David’s thoughts just then, but from his people, by having Uriah killed and taking the pregnant Bathsheba as one of his wives. He wasn’t thinking about God or the law, or his conscience, but only about the public disgrace if his sins were made public.
So God sends Nathan to opens David’s eyes by preaching the truth, and only then does David become truly aware of his sin and truly repent. And note here what David says to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD. Obviously David had done wrong to Bathsheba and to Uriah, her husband, but first and above all he recognized that he had despised and sinned against God. So sin is not just the breaking of a commandment, of some divine rule, but it is a personal offense against God: “you have despised me” says God. And David truly recognizes his sin only when he comes to see his action as a personal offense against God: I have sinned against the LORD.
Yet none of this prevents David from being truly a man after God’s own heart because David is not just a sinner but a deeply repentant sinner who hates his sin because he loves God more. He is a son of Adam, a sinner, but he is also a child of God, a just man by the grace of the Lord of Mercy who will be one of his descendants, the Lord Jesus, who is both Son of David and Savior of David. God loves a repentant sinner, the sheep who has gone astray but who is carried back on the shoulders of the God Shepherd.
We see a similar conversion story in today’s Gospel, and again we also see the truth that sin is only truly acknowledged when it is seen as a personal offense against our loving God. There is no blindness here in Mary Magdalene who publicly seeks forgiveness from Jesus for her many sins. This is a very personal encounter with her savior and she holds nothing back in her public repentance. She weeps at the feet of Jesus, dries his feet with her hair, and anoints them with costly oil. All of this is a deeply personal encounter with Jesus? But why Jesus? Surely she knew her sins had offended the One whom He called His Father, and she truly believed that Jesus could and would forgive her. So she would not miss her chance to receive his mercy, regardless of the public spectacle she was making of herself. Indeed, her actions can only be seen as a public act of reparation addressed to a holy person, to the person of Jesus, for she knew, in some mysterious way, that her sins had personally offended His goodness, His person, and His Father.
I am not saying that Mary knew clearly that Jesus was God, but she certainly knew that her sins were not mere mistakes, not mere violations of some abstract law. Mary 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, directly before God. But the truth is that she really did do it before God, in doing it before Jesus. She believed Jesus 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 later declare this truth, that what we do for Him, we are doing for God, for 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 and sinfulness. She was not like the blind guides who were in that same room, who thought they had no need of God’s mercy, since like David they were truly blind, blind to their own sins and their desperate need for God’s mercy. These men were like modern men who have lost the sense of sin, whose consciences are by their own actions distorted and blinded. And their blindness to their own sins in turn 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 always. It does not mean you are without sin, perhaps even serious sin, because your conscience doesn’t bother you when you break God’s laws. It only assures you won’t seek forgiveness like David or Mary Magdalene. Like David, we all can become blind to our true spiritual condition. We too can positively 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 self-induced 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 in our day, with its darkening of conscience, is largely the result of a false notion of private conscience which leads us to a spiritual blindness, to a terrible self-deception, which will leave us defenseless on the day of judgement.
We can fool ourselves, but we cannot fool God. It will do us no good to protest then, citing our good deeds while we say “but my conscience judged that the Church was wrong in her moral teaching when she condemned as serious sins things like homosexual acts, contraception, abortion, fetal stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, etc. etc. etc.” God sent Nathan precisely to correct David’s lax conscience. And David did not say to Nathan “but you are mistaken, and my conscience is clear.” Rather he confessed immediately, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Jesus also 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, handed on authoritatively by His Church, is much more authoritative than the voice of Nathan. The teaching Church has been sent by God to precisely correct the blindness of men today, to correct their self-serving, erroneous consciences, just as Nathan corrected the blindness of David. In the end, repentance is the only corrective for sin, and the path to repentance begins by recognizing our sins in light of the voice of the teaching Church, recognized as the voice of Christ, the voice of God.