But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.—The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 edition.
Sin. It’s such a delicious word. A ripe fruit, twinkling in the morning dew, the rays of the new sun painting it bright orange or yellow or neon pink, its juice bursting into your mouth with a sweetness that overwhelms your senses, trickling down your throat, filling your whole body with happiness. One of the ancient Hebrew creation stories, preserved in Genesis, chapter 3, has the first woman on earth, Eve, picking a fruit just like that, and eating it, and finding out that it was just wonderful as it looked. And not just that, she found out that Yahweh was holding out on humanity: the fruit contained all the knowledge of good and evil and in eating it, she became a complete human, which is to say, a God-like being. But that’s when Creation went all to hell.
Because afterwards, when she gave some of the forbidden fruit to her mate Adam, who munched as happily as she, something sinister happened: the two discovered that they were, as ZZ Top sang, buck nekkid out there in the Garden of Eden. Then Yahweh, who had not yet developed into the omniscient, omnipotent God he would be later in the Bible, found out during his walk later that afternoon what they had done and, in a fit of pique, threw them out of Eden, cursed them and the earth itself, along with the talking serpent who encouraged their fruit-snatching.
Yahweh reveals the reason he’s so pissed off: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” Let’s forgo the discussion of why Adam takes all the blame here or to whom Yahweh is ranting, and get straight to the point: the Deity doesn’t like competition. The humans have figured out sin and purity and pretty soon they are going to figure out the secret to living forever, and we just can’t have all that, especially since the world is barely a week old, and everything is already a bloody mess.
The Bible is full of stories of people doing terrible things to one another. Which is to say that it’s about longing: for wisdom, for love, for happiness, for eternal life, for riches, for power, for glory and the doing of whatever it takes to get those things, whether stealing one of God’s own fruits or some other guy’s wife. It’s also full of strange and wonderful God stories, where Yahweh is like some petulant child or even a raging psychopath, ordering the deaths of thousands of people because of where they lived or the imperfection of their prayers, or because their parents were married to somebody else. Even while Yahweh is slaying people he doesn’t like, he’s kind and tender to those he does like, even when they are petulant children or raging psychopaths. In other words, the Bible gives us a picture of humanity that is essentially God-like and a God who is essentially human-like. It’s not quite that simple, of course, because nothing is, especially in religion, where uncertainty and layering, myth-making and martyrdom, failure and faithfulness all intertwine.
But the Divine, being the Divine, and infinitely more complex than we puny, fruit-snatching humans, holds the trump-card: only God can forgive sins, except for the people who stand in for God, like everybody ever who has had someone do something horrible to them. They can forgive the miserable offenders who have screwed up their world, and make things right again between them.
That’s you and me, fellow God-like being. We love sin, we love how it tastes, how it shines, how it smells, how it makes us feel.. But we hate it when somebody sins against us. So, unless we want this whole offend-offense business to find the secret of eternal life and screw up the entire future of our hearts and minds—our very souls—we have to forgive those miserable offenders. Have your little fit of anger, throw them out of the Garden, order their deaths in your heart a thousand times, but in the end, love them and forgive them. That’s called mercy, and it is, according to the Bible, way more important than religion. Or as a certain Jesus of Nazareth put it: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Lent is a good time to start learning that.