Posts Tagged ‘guilt’

MARK 6:14-29

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

King Herod suffered from the chronic pangs of a guilty conscience. He had played into an underhanded scheme to dispose of John the Baptist, consenting to the prophet’s unjust execution rather than humbly retracting a foolish promise made in the flush of excitement. John had been a tireless critic of Herod’s illicit relationship with his brother’s wife – reason enough to put John in chains, but not enough to take his head.

The progression of Herod’s guilt is instructive. His affair and unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, was his second decision, following his willingness to entertain the fantasy of it in the first place. For a while after having committed the act, he could get away with it. But when John got wind of the deed and started confronting Herod on the legal and moral demerits of his behavior, the king shifted into a mode of self-justification. “Because I’m king, that’s how!” or “Philip doesn’t love her anyway” or “that law is so antiquated!” might have been declared in his own defense.

Finally, in putting John away Herod was attempting to remove the voice of moral judgment entirely. Locking the prophet away in prison is really a reflection in the outer world of what Herod had already achieved in his inner world, by throwing his own better judgment behind bars. His supposed ‘slip up’ in making such an outlandish promise to his daughter managed to further compound his existing guilt with yet another guilty act.

Behold, the tangled web.



Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
    You gave me room when I was in distress.
    Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
    How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.

There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
    Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
    more than when their grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.

One essential aspect of religion is the human awareness of being morally accountable before God. Apparently there is a deep inner sense that awakens in us fairly early, that something is being asked or required of us. Conventionally this is represented in the form of commandments handed down by God, but it can also be understood as our innate sense of the human ideal within us, as capacities and virtues needing to be unlocked and released in the progress of our maturity.

The adolescent crisis is properly named “the guilty conscience” due to the conflict experienced between the natural impulses of the body and the cultural norms of society which exist for the sake of promoting the animal self to a fully responsible human person. And even though this crisis is most tumultuous in our adolescent years, the conflict between flesh and spirit remains a moral concern throughout our lives.

One thing we need to learn, though, is that there is a “grace greater than all my sin,” as the old hymn goes, and that God remains faithful and forgiving on our worst days. All that is required is our turn to God in surrender, devotion, and thanksgiving – a kind of waking to grace.

PSALM 118:1-2, 14-24

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

2 Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever.”

14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
    he has become my salvation.

15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16     the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
    the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
    and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18 The Lord has punished me severely,
    but he did not give me over to death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This passage from the Psalms would become one of those privileged texts that early Christians used as  “prophecies” of Jesus. “I shall not die, but I shall live” and mention of a rejected building stone becoming the chief cornerstone are references vague enough to be applied in any number of ways, which is a virtue that makes them readily adaptable to a variety of situations.

The theme of being punished by God was another feature with direct transfer value to early Christian theories of atonement – of how Jesus’ suffering and death was somehow instrumental in world salvation. An assumption that reality is moral in nature is deep in the cultural DNA of ethical monotheism, which is behind the Bible’s heavy accent on obedience, responsibility, justice and equality – but also our perennial struggle with guilt, forgiveness, retribution and punishment in Western society.

For the longest time, and still for a large majority of  believers, “steadfast love” and “punishing severity” were held in tension in the orthodox concept of God. It was not an overt contradiction to regard the same personality (divine or human) as compassionate and merciful one moment, vengeful and punitive the next. This bi-polar tension in theology worked its way out as alternating anxiety and despondency in the human psyche – or perhaps the conflicted human psyche projected this bipolarity into the nature of God.

Still, by the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century CE) this internal conflict was driving denominational development. Martin Luther’s evident concern over the security of salvation was answered by John Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the perseverance of the saved. And across all denominations the belief in God’s universal and irresistible grace has run up against the conviction that unrepentant sinners (that is, those able somehow to resist God’s grace) will suffer everlasting punishment.

Jesus would later proclaim a radical revision to this ethical concept of God, with his gospel of unconditional forgiveness. Sadly, Christian orthodoxy buried his teaching under layers of interpretation that effectively canceled out his message and reaffirmed God as a retributive deity who used redemptive violence (in Jesus’ death on the cross) to “save” the world.


ISAIAH 50:4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8     he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

Chapters 40-55 are believed by scholars to have been written during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE), after the southern kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and a significant population of its capital city of Jerusalem were taken in chains to Babylon.

As the siege was about to befall Jerusalem, there had been a few prophets who assured the people that God would protect the holy city and its sacred temple. So when it actually came to pass, and now in the distant land of their captors, not a few were ready to assign blame – not to God for failing his people, but to the exiles themselves for sinning against God. Some even suggested that the catastrophe was God’s retribution on the sinful nation.

But others didn’t buy it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel did their best not to place blame, but instead looked to a future of resurrection (Ezek 37), return and restoration (Jer 31). For his part, the “Second Isaiah” (as this author is known) chose not to look outside the suffering of his generation for its possible meaning or purpose. Rather than interpret it as punishment for sin, however, he reframed the experience as redemptive in its own right.


Every so often, a system in dynamic balance will begin to experience feedback in the form of “vibration,” “heat,” “wobble” or “noise.” At such times the system needs to be reset in order to recover its center and balance. If the feedback is allowed to persist unchecked, it can amplify to the point where the system cracks up and breaks down.

Second Isaiah didn’t dispute the theory that Jerusalem had fallen because the people had lost their center. The devastation and exile indeed represented a major breakdown of the system, precipitated by the amplifying feedback of false hope, lost focus, and moral indifference. Not this generation, born in exile, but those before it had allowed things to fall off course. 

His creative contribution was to see the generation in exile as bearing the consequence, absorbing the shock of the tragedy, and symbolically taking the nation’s guilt on its shoulders. His generation’s suffering was redemptive in the way it removed this guilt and recalibrated the system. Second Isaiah and his fellow captives were not suffering to pay for sin, but to restore righteousness (balance and wholeness). They were not the shame of their nation, but its hope!

Much later on, some followers of Jesus would use this metaphor of vicarious suffering through the bearing of a burden to understand his death as a turning-point in redemption history.

HEBREWS 2:10-18

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again,

“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

As “the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people,” Jesus’ suffering and death are being interpreted by the author as having accomplished the reconciliation of the world to God. How is that?

The imagery and its meaning is fairly straightforward. In the ritual of atonement as described in the book of Leviticus, the dynamic of reconciliation is represented in two separate but essentially related “episodes.” In the first, a goat (selected by the casting of lots) is sacrificed and its blood used to sanctify (make pure) the communal space between  God and the people. This was understood as God’s provision and initiative (since it is the first of the two episodes) on behalf of human salvation.

Following this, a second goat was brought before the people. The high priest placed his hand on the head of the animal and confessed the collective guilt of the community, effecting a transaction whereby the goat was made to carry this burden of guilt into the outlying wilderness and away from the people. This, then, was the response of the people to God’s provision of grace and forgiveness. God acted first and the people responded. Grace was revealed, guilt was confessed, and reconciliation was accomplished.

In using this ritual of atonement as a paradigm for the interpretation of Jesus’ passion and death, the New Testament authors were offering a lens into its meaning for human salvation. His blood sanctifies the place of contact (the cross), and our confession places the burden of our guilt on his body in order to receive a forgiveness already accomplished.


Whereas early Christian reflection upon the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ centered its attention on his atoning death on the Cross and the Resurrection mystery, later generations expanded the frame with the symbols of Nativity and Ascension (the coming and return to God) of the world savior, and still later with Incarnation and Pentecost (the embodiment of the cosmic-creative Word in Jesus and the indwelling Spirit of Christ in the disciple community of the church).

A responsible theology will not simply throw these concepts under a common category, but will search out the evolution of Christian experience by following their expansion as symbols in the growing traditions of the New Testament.

And throughout, we must keep our eyes on the figure who is the axis around which all these symbols turn: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived among us, proclaimed the New Reality, reached compassionately into our pain, confusion, fear and need, suffered our rejection but came back every time with forgiveness and the promise of authentic life.

In the end, the full meaning of his life eludes the grasp and control of our rational minds. Jesus revealed something, and in Jesus something was revealed that escapes the logical formulas of dogmatic orthodoxy, something that instead invites us to ponder its mystery and contemplate its meaning for the adventure of our human journey into God.