Summary: The fundamental problem of humanity never hits the headlines, never comes as a blast e-mail to our computers. But we know what it is.
What is the fundamental human problem? We can’t get the answer from commentators or the mainstream media, or even most of the alternate media. The fundamental human problem is not poverty, or migration, or nuclear weapons or climate change. Those may be difficulties that rise to the level of problems that need to be solved. But the fundamental human problem impacts on all of them, and it is sin.
Let’s take the climate change debate, which has been going on for most of my adult life. If we are threatened by a rising global temperature, and we caused that to happen by our use of fossil fuels, then that is being made worse by the success of fracking, which is lowering the price of those fuels, and the folks who are being made rich by oil and gas production are sinning. On the other hand, if fossil fuel usage has nothing to do with a natural warming of the climate, then those who are claiming otherwise are lying, and that is a material sin. That’s simple logic.
Sin has been a part of the human condition ever since the first man and woman rebelled against God’s plan. St. Paul tells us that all have sinned, including me and you. Jesus, of course, being the God-man, is not a sinner, and ancient tradition teaches us that His Mother was preserved from sin by her Son’s sacrifice. But all the rest of us are sinners, victims of original sin and perpetrators of our own intentional sins, both venial and mortal. So sin is the fundamental human problem, and it is a problem for which God has given the remedy.
In Leviticus we first read about the Mosaic remedy for sin. The one who sins, for instance for misusing the name of the Lord, recognizes and confesses his sin, and then makes a sin offering at the Temple. The same action happens regardless of the sin; only the offerings are different. But we know from the NT that the holocausts and other sacrifices did not atone for sin. Only the passion and death and Resurrection of Jesus had any atonement effect at all. So what did the sinner do that brought forgiveness? It was the act of repentance and confession that opened up the sinner to the grace of Christ, even in the OT times.
In the psalm we pray today, we are one with King David, who is confessing his horrible sins of adultery and murder and cover-up. He thought he had gotten away with it all, but the prophet Nathan confronted David with the truth: “you are the man,” he said. And, his cover being blown by the Holy Spirit, David confessed and repented on the spot, and God forgave him. But then he suffered multiple pains, including the death of a child and the rebellion of his son, Absalom, whose rebellion was ended in a bloody battle in which the young man was himself killed. David repented, and was forgiven, but had to endure a huge temporal punishment.
David’s psalm, numbered 51, calls for a complete cleansing of his soul from his sin. But he longs for more than forgiveness. He wants to be spiritually renewed, made whiter than snow. He wants a new heart, a clean heart full of joy and gladness, with a new, righteous spirit inside him. He wants to be a new man, praising God all the time and doing always what is right. He wants to put the selfish David behind him, and be renewed in mind, heart and spirit. He knows that the offerings he makes before the altar–all the burnt offerings–are useless, and shares with us the insight that the true sacrifice is “a broken spirit, a broken, contrite heart.”
In the New Testament, which revolves around the person and ministry and mystery of Jesus Christ, we learn that the sacrifice that does atone for sin is the passion and death of the Son of God. David’s broken heart and broken spirit was not enough, because it was a sinful heart and spirit. It was a heart and spirit that had deserved to be broken. Only a pure sacrifice could atone for sin, the sacrifice of a heart that had never done evil, had only done good for others, a divine heart and spirit. And that would have to be the heart and spirit of the Son of God.
So you are the man. I am the man. You are the woman. All have sinned, but all are offered forgiveness. What we have to do is very simple. All of us have the same challenge. First, I must acknowledge my sin. The Liturgy has, at every Eucharistic celebration, that acknowledgment up front. We say “mea culpa.” “ I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” At the same time, the second part of our confession is being sorry for the sin, and having what we used to call a “firm purpose of amendment.” That is, we have to stop whining about being made to change all the time, and we must really change our minds and hearts about that sin. It needs to be repulsive to us. If we get drunk regularly, we need to give up alcohol, join AA. If we verbally abuse a relative or friend, we need to put on their minds and realize that we are acting like a jerk. We need to hate the sin and resolve not to do it. And, finally, we need to confess our sin.