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The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Gospel, First Reading & Psalm


Second Reading


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GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

In this case, what happens is, while all this is going on, the elder son comes in from the field. So what’s he doing out in the field? Well, he’s working, because he works for his father on the family land. What is his response to the repentance of the younger son? It’s not mercy, it’s not compassion, and it’s certainly not joy. It is anger. He is angry, and he’s so angry at what has happened that he refuses to go into his father’s house. Now notice, notice the parallel between this and the younger son. Earlier, when the younger son asks for his inheritance, he leaves the father’s house and goes to another land. It kind of symbolizes his exile from his father, his breaking of that relationship. Now, the elder son refuses to go into his father’s house. So what does that signify? Again, a kind of brokenness in the relationship; he won’t go into his father’s house, and the father has to come out to him and say what is happening. He explains how the brother’s come home and they’re rejoicing because he’s safe and sound.

Now, in this case, notice what happens here. When the older brother begins to speak to his father, and the father is entreating him, begging him, “Come in, rejoice with us”, what does the older son say? “Lo, these many years I have served you and I’ve never disobeyed your command.” Pause there. How does the older son see his relationship with the father? Even though he’s a son, he sees himself as a slave. He sees himself as a servant. “I’ve worked for you, I’ve served you all these years, and I never broke any rules.” Now, I want to stress here, being a slave or a servant of God is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s required. We are required to obey the commands. Paul (the apostle Paul) calls himself a “servant of the Lord” or a “slave of Christ” over and over again in the New Testament. So service to God and obedience to God isn’t a bad thing. But if all you see yourself is as a slave, what you’re saying is, “I’m not a son.” There’s an antithesis here that the elder son is revealing that he only sees his relationship with his father in terms of his work and his obedience. But you can serve someone and obey them and not love them. That’s very easy to do. It’s kind of like a window into the son’s heart. “I’ve done all this, I never broke any rules, I’ve served you all this time, and you’ve not even ever given me a kid,” (which doesn’t mean a “kid”, it means a goat), “to sacrifice and make merry with my friends.” Notice, the elder son wants to celebrate with his friends, not with his father. Notice, the next line, and then he says “When this son of yours comes, you kill the fatted calf.” Notice he does not say, “When my brother comes.” Not only does his refusal to go into the house symbolize that he’s cut himself off from the family, but when he speaks to his father, he says “this son of yours”. So he cuts himself off from his brother as well.

This reminds me of something that has happened in my own household. Sometimes when (and I’m sure parents can identify with this), say one of the kids is bad, or they’ve been bad that day, me and my wife might say, “You want to know what your son did today?” or “Do you know what your daughter did today?” It’s a kind of way of like distancing yourself from the kids because they’re bad. I’m like, “Hold on a second, I think the child belongs to both of us.” But that’s the way we use language. Now obviously that’s in jest, it’s in joking, but the son here is in earnest. “This son of yours”, he has cut himself off from his brother and, in a sense, cut himself off from his father in saying that this way. How does the father respond to the elder son? Notice, he refuses to accept the image that the son’s painting of himself as just a servant. He says, “Son, you are always with me. All that is mine is yours, but it was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this, your bother (See? Your brother) was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” So there we have it again, he’s calling the elder son into joy over the repentance of the younger one.

Why does the parable end this way? I think it takes us all the way back around to the very first verses. What was the setting of the parable in which Jesus delivered it? It was in the context of the Pharisees and the Scribes, who saw themselves as keeping the commandments and as serving God, being angry that Jesus was offering mercy and compassion and salvation and the opportunity for repentance to sinners. They are, in this sense, the Pharisees and the Scribes who feel that way about Jesus eating with sinners are like the elder son, who instead of feeling joy at the repentance of a sinner actually feels anger. They’re repelled by the compassion and the mercy of God. And that’s a real easy thing, to just ascribe to the Scribes and Pharisees of the 1st Century, like “Oh they were self-righteous and that kind of thing.” But, if you search your own heart, you’ll see, that that’s a very easy temptation to fall prey to. Like Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, “Are you angry because I am generous?” (in The Parable of the Talents), Why does God let some people in at the ninth hour to the kingdom and they receive everything that the people who’ve been working all day do? That doesn’t seem fair It’s easy to feel a kind of spiritual envy toward that (or spiritual anger) about the kind of seemingly irrational and unjust mercy and compassion that God will show on a sinner who repents, even after the worst sins. And so, Jesus is using this parable here to teach the Scribes and Pharisees about the kind of God the father really is, and about the mercy and compassion of God that we ourselves are to emulate in loving God and loving our neighbor.


SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

Let’s unpack a few elements of it. First thing you’ll notice, Paul’s emphasis on:

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation…

This is extremely important in the writings of Paul. I mention this on other videos, that one of the central concepts in Paul’s thought — if not the central concept — is the idea of being “in Christ”, en christo in Greek. The idea that we belong to Christ, we’re part of His Mystical Body… that those who believe in Jesus, confess Him as Lord and Savior, and are baptized, that have faith… become a member of His Mystical Body. They’re not just members of an institution known as the Church; they actually are in a new sphere of reality. They are in Christ.

And for Paul, what he’s saying is, when that happens — when a person through faith in Baptism is in Christ, is incorporated into Christ — he actually becomes “a new creation.” There’s an ontological change, so to speak, that takes place invisibly. You don’t see the difference, but there’s a real change that takes place so that the old has passed away and the new has come.

And this is a very powerful and important point that Paul is going to make over and over again throughout his letters. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, where Paul thinks of all of reality as two spheres. You have the old creation and the new creation. And in Jewish Scripture, it was very clear that one day, the old creation — this sinful, fallen world — was going to pass away. It was going to be dissolved. It was going to come to an end, and it would be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth — Isaiah chapter 64-66 talks about this — this new creation where righteousness would dwell, and there’d be no more crying, and there’d be no more suffering, and there’d be no more sin anymore.

And according to ancient Jewish eschatology, there would be a sequential element here. So you’d have the old creation, it would pass away, and then it would be replaced by the new creation. But according to Paul, something unexpected happened. In Christ, these two spheres of reality overlap, so that when Christ died, was buried, and rose again, He was the beginning — in His own person — of the new creation. He inaugurated the new creation in His own resurrected body.

And so what happens is, after Christ ascends into Heaven, everyone who on this world believes in Him and is baptized into Him, actually becomes invisibly a member of the new creation. He is made new, so that he is incorporated into Christ, and he or she becomes a member of His Mystical Body.

So Paul is beginning here by emphasizing that whoever you are, if you’re in Christ, you’ve already been made a new creation. The graces, the gifts, that would have ordinarily been associated with the new creation, the end of the time — the gift of the Holy Spirit, for example, the gift of righteousness — these have already become accessible in the present through faith and through Baptism.

So Paul here is trying to teach the Corinthians that although you look the same after Baptism, you should not live the same, and you in fact aren’t the same, because whoever is in Christ is a new creation. The old has passed away, and the new has come.

And all this, this mystery of the new creation:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… (2 Corinthians 5:18)

So the primary dimension of this entry into the new creation has to do with the forgiveness of sins. Because the primary problem with the old creation is not that it wasn’t good. God makes it good in the book of Genesis. The problem with the old creation is that it was fallen, and that through sin — the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3 — death enters into the world. And as Paul will say in Romans:

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses… (Romans 5:14a)

In other words, there’s a dominion of sin, a dominion of death, that’s part of the old creation, in which everyone who lives in the old creation is subject to. And so the principal problem with the old creation is the problem of sin.

And so what happens is God sends Christ into the world in order to reconcile the world to himself, and then He gives the apostles — as well as Paul, who is unique among the apostles, because the risen Christ appears to him — the ministry of reconciliation. Paul’s principle task, the apostles’ principle task, is to reconcile sinners who live in this fallen world to God… to solve the problem of sin through the ministry of reconciliation. And so that’s why he says:

… not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

…that God was in Christ, reconciling not just people to Himself. What did Christ reconcile to Himself? Look at it — He reconciled the world to Himself. So Christ comes in not just to redeem human beings. He comes to redeem the whole cosmos. He comes to inaugurate a new creation, and His resurrected body for Paul is the beginning of that new creation. He has put the old to death on the cross and raised it up in the new.

And now the apostles’ mission is to bring that message of reconciliation to the whole world, so that through faith and Baptism, every human being might become a new creation in Christ. So Paul says:

So we are ambassadors for Christ… (2 Corinthians 5:20a)

Just like an emperor would send out ambassadors on behalf of the empire to bring the rest of the world into subjection to the emperor (that’s what they did), so too Christ as the emperor of the kingdom of Heaven, sends the apostles as His ambassadors. But His message isn’t one of political subjugation or military occupation. His message is one of reconciliation. He’s the emperor who wants to reconcile the world to Himself and make them His subjects by forgiving their sins and making them new creations in Christ.

So, in this beautiful description of the Gospel, Paul says:

…God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20b)

And then in this last verse, Paul makes this stunning statement which has puzzled readers literally for centuries and centuries. Great theologians, great preachers have puzzled over this next line, trying to figure out exactly what Paul means when he says:

For our sake he [meaning God] made him [meaning Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve heard this passage read at Mass, I don’t remember the specific occasion, but I can remember hearing that read, that Christ was made sin and wondering, “What does that mean? How could Christ, who is without sin — who is sinless — become sin?” What does that mean? Is Jesus ontologically changed into sin? Does Christ become sin? Because sin is evil. What does that mean, he became sin who knew no sin?

Well, this is a great example of where when you come across a passage in the New Testament in the Bible that is difficult or hard to understand, it’s wonderful for you to wrestle with it on your own, but it’s also crucial to ask, well, how have other people interpreted this? How did ancient Christians interpret it? How did the saints and Doctors of the Church interpret it? What is the tradition of interpretation that has been handed down to us over the centuries.

And in this case, if you go to the Church Fathers, and you look at how they interpreted it, you’ll recognize that there are two different streams of interpretation — two different traditions about how to interpret this. Well, let me begin with the one that they don’t say.

The Church Fathers do not say that what Paul means here is that Christ became evil, that He was actually, in a sense, transformed into sin or made ontologically into evil. Because remember, Christ is not just fully human; He’s also fully divine. So He doesn’t become evil, but what does it mean to say He was made sin? I mean, it sounds like that’s what he’s saying.

So, two traditions are there. First, one tradition is that what Paul means is that Christ took the place of sinners. So Paul, when he says He was made sin, what he means was, He was made a substitution for sin. You’ll see this reflected, for example, in the writings of the fourth century Church Father St. John Chrysostom. St. John Chrysostom was the greatest preacher of his day, and he’s also one of the most famous eastern Church Fathers who was the bishop of Constantinople. And in his commentary on this text — he wrote homilies on 1 and 2 Corinthians — he says, listen to this:

“God allowed his Son to suffer as if a condemned sinner, so that we might be delivered from the penalty of our sins.”

So in other words, Chrysostom is saying that when Paul is describing Jesus being made sin, what he means is that He was made to appear a sinner, because what happened to Him? First of all, He suffered the curse of crucifixion. So this was a very shameful death. He was executed in public. And if you go back to the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, it says:

… for a hanged man is accursed by God… (Deuteronomy 21:23c)

So there was this belief, certainly by the first century AD, that anyone who died by crucifixion or who was hung, was cursed by God. So in other words, the very form of Jesus’ death makes Him appear to be cursed. It makes Him appear as a sinner. And John Chrysostom is saying is, God allowed Christ to suffer as if He were a sinner, so that we who are actually are sinners might be delivered from the punishment for sin. So this is the idea of Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice of atonement.

Think here of the suffering servant, for example. You go back to Isaiah 53, famous prophecy of the suffering servant. Isaiah 53:4 says:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

So the idea is that although the servant is righteous, we are sinners, and he takes our sin, our suffering, our sorrow upon himself — to the extent that he actually looks like he’s stricken by God. He looks like he’s accursed by God, when in fact he is the one, ironically, making us righteous, bringing healing to us.

So one interpretation is that when Paul says:

For our sake he made him to be sin… (2 Corinthians 5:21a)

… means He made Him to be a substitution for sin, a sacrifice for sin.

The second interpretation is one that I wasn’t familiar with at first, but when I got to dig into the Church Fathers, really struck me as powerful. According to the second view, when Paul says that Christ was made sin, he actually means that Christ was made a sin offering, which was one of the kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament.

Now, in order to understand this, you have to go back and read the book of Leviticus. Good devotional reading, if you have some time. Just read through the first four — no actually, the first seven — chapters of Leviticus, and it will give you a description of the different kinds of sacrifice. So for example, you have the burnt offering (sometimes called the holocaust), you have the bread offering (sometimes called the cereal offering, the minkhah), you have the peace offering (sometimes called the shelamim — or not sometimes, that’s what it means in Hebrew, shelamim or the peace offerings). You’ve got these different sacrifices. You’ve got the guilt offering.

And then there’s another sacrifice called the sin offering in the book of Leviticus, chapter 4. And what a lot of us don’t realize — this is fascinating, but really important — in the original Hebrew and in the original Greek of the Septuagint, the name for the sin offering is just the sin. There is no word “offering” in Hebrew or Greek. We add that in the English translation. But listen to this literal translation of the Greek describing the sin offering in the book of Leviticus, the offering offered to atone for sin. This is what it says:

Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin [offering] (Hebrew chatta’th; Greek hamartia)… [S]o the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin (Hebrew chatta’th; Greek hamartia), and he shall be forgiven.

So the word sin there in Hebrew is chatta’th. In Greek, it’s hamartia. And the word for sin offering in Hebrew is chatta’th, and the Greek is hamartia. It’s the same word. So in other words, in the Old Testament, the word “sin” isn’t just used to describe a transgression of a law or the breaking of a commandment. It’s also the word used to describe the kind of sacrifice you use to atone for transgression of the law or breaking the commandment.

So according to various ancient Church Fathers, what Paul actually means here would be accurately translated in this way:

For our sake he made him to be [a] sin [offering] who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

So for example, there’s an ancient commentary attributed… it was often, it was for centuries believed to be written by St. Ambrose, the Latin Church Father through whom St. Augustine was converted. Scholars have called that into question, so now it’s referred to as Ambrosiaster. So… I laugh at these names — so if it’s not Ambrose, who are we going to call it? We’ll call him Ambrosiaster, so it’s like Ambrose but not actually Ambrose.

But it was a very famous commentary on the letters of Paul. And Ambrosiaster says this:

“it is not wrong for him to be said to have been made ‘sin’, because in the law the sacrifice which was offered for sins used to be called a ‘sin’.”

So this is not some newfangled idea. This is just ancient Latin — even Latin Fathers recognize this. So in this view, Christ became a sin offering, even though He knew no sin, for our sake, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

Now the Church doesn’t have an official position on how to interpret this verse, but in my opinion, the more compelling translation is the second one — or the most compelling interpretation is the second one — although it doesn’t actually rule out the first one, because sin offerings function as substitutionary sacrifices for sin. So it’s probably a case of both/and, rather than either/or here.

The main point is this: Christ is sinless. That’s very important. He’s not guilty of any sin — neither original sin nor actual sin. He’s a pure sacrifice. But God makes Him to be a sin offering to substitute for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God — the whole world be reconciled to God — and (here’s the kicker) so that just like He becomes a sin offering for us, we might become righteous for Him, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

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Gospel, First Reading & Psalm


Second Reading


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GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

In this case, what happens is, while all this is going on, the elder son comes in from the field. So what’s he doing out in the field? Well, he’s working, because he works for his father on the family land. What is his response to the repentance of the younger son? It’s not mercy, it’s not compassion, and it’s certainly not joy. It is anger. He is angry, and he’s so angry at what has happened that he refuses to go into his father’s house. Now notice, notice the parallel between this and the younger son. Earlier, when the younger son asks for his inheritance, he leaves the father’s house and goes to another land. It kind of symbolizes his exile from his father, his breaking of that relationship. Now, the elder son refuses to go into his father’s house. So what does that signify? Again, a kind of brokenness in the relationship; he won’t go into his father’s house, and the father has to come out to him and say what is happening. He explains how the brother’s come home and they’re rejoicing because he’s safe and sound.

Now, in this case, notice what happens here. When the older brother begins to speak to his father, and the father is entreating him, begging him, “Come in, rejoice with us”, what does the older son say? “Lo, these many years I have served you and I’ve never disobeyed your command.” Pause there. How does the older son see his relationship with the father? Even though he’s a son, he sees himself as a slave. He sees himself as a servant. “I’ve worked for you, I’ve served you all these years, and I never broke any rules.” Now, I want to stress here, being a slave or a servant of God is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s required. We are required to obey the commands. Paul (the apostle Paul) calls himself a “servant of the Lord” or a “slave of Christ” over and over again in the New Testament. So service to God and obedience to God isn’t a bad thing. But if all you see yourself is as a slave, what you’re saying is, “I’m not a son.” There’s an antithesis here that the elder son is revealing that he only sees his relationship with his father in terms of his work and his obedience. But you can serve someone and obey them and not love them. That’s very easy to do. It’s kind of like a window into the son’s heart. “I’ve done all this, I never broke any rules, I’ve served you all this time, and you’ve not even ever given me a kid,” (which doesn’t mean a “kid”, it means a goat), “to sacrifice and make merry with my friends.” Notice, the elder son wants to celebrate with his friends, not with his father. Notice, the next line, and then he says “When this son of yours comes, you kill the fatted calf.” Notice he does not say, “When my brother comes.” Not only does his refusal to go into the house symbolize that he’s cut himself off from the family, but when he speaks to his father, he says “this son of yours”. So he cuts himself off from his brother as well.

This reminds me of something that has happened in my own household. Sometimes when (and I’m sure parents can identify with this), say one of the kids is bad, or they’ve been bad that day, me and my wife might say, “You want to know what your son did today?” or “Do you know what your daughter did today?” It’s a kind of way of like distancing yourself from the kids because they’re bad. I’m like, “Hold on a second, I think the child belongs to both of us.” But that’s the way we use language. Now obviously that’s in jest, it’s in joking, but the son here is in earnest. “This son of yours”, he has cut himself off from his brother and, in a sense, cut himself off from his father in saying that this way. How does the father respond to the elder son? Notice, he refuses to accept the image that the son’s painting of himself as just a servant. He says, “Son, you are always with me. All that is mine is yours, but it was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this, your bother (See? Your brother) was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” So there we have it again, he’s calling the elder son into joy over the repentance of the younger one.

Why does the parable end this way? I think it takes us all the way back around to the very first verses. What was the setting of the parable in which Jesus delivered it? It was in the context of the Pharisees and the Scribes, who saw themselves as keeping the commandments and as serving God, being angry that Jesus was offering mercy and compassion and salvation and the opportunity for repentance to sinners. They are, in this sense, the Pharisees and the Scribes who feel that way about Jesus eating with sinners are like the elder son, who instead of feeling joy at the repentance of a sinner actually feels anger. They’re repelled by the compassion and the mercy of God. And that’s a real easy thing, to just ascribe to the Scribes and Pharisees of the 1st Century, like “Oh they were self-righteous and that kind of thing.” But, if you search your own heart, you’ll see, that that’s a very easy temptation to fall prey to. Like Jesus says elsewhere in the gospel, “Are you angry because I am generous?” (in The Parable of the Talents), Why does God let some people in at the ninth hour to the kingdom and they receive everything that the people who’ve been working all day do? That doesn’t seem fair It’s easy to feel a kind of spiritual envy toward that (or spiritual anger) about the kind of seemingly irrational and unjust mercy and compassion that God will show on a sinner who repents, even after the worst sins. And so, Jesus is using this parable here to teach the Scribes and Pharisees about the kind of God the father really is, and about the mercy and compassion of God that we ourselves are to emulate in loving God and loving our neighbor.


SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

Let’s unpack a few elements of it. First thing you’ll notice, Paul’s emphasis on:

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation…

This is extremely important in the writings of Paul. I mention this on other videos, that one of the central concepts in Paul’s thought — if not the central concept — is the idea of being “in Christ”, en christo in Greek. The idea that we belong to Christ, we’re part of His Mystical Body… that those who believe in Jesus, confess Him as Lord and Savior, and are baptized, that have faith… become a member of His Mystical Body. They’re not just members of an institution known as the Church; they actually are in a new sphere of reality. They are in Christ.

And for Paul, what he’s saying is, when that happens — when a person through faith in Baptism is in Christ, is incorporated into Christ — he actually becomes “a new creation.” There’s an ontological change, so to speak, that takes place invisibly. You don’t see the difference, but there’s a real change that takes place so that the old has passed away and the new has come.

And this is a very powerful and important point that Paul is going to make over and over again throughout his letters. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, where Paul thinks of all of reality as two spheres. You have the old creation and the new creation. And in Jewish Scripture, it was very clear that one day, the old creation — this sinful, fallen world — was going to pass away. It was going to be dissolved. It was going to come to an end, and it would be replaced by a new heavens and a new earth — Isaiah chapter 64-66 talks about this — this new creation where righteousness would dwell, and there’d be no more crying, and there’d be no more suffering, and there’d be no more sin anymore.

And according to ancient Jewish eschatology, there would be a sequential element here. So you’d have the old creation, it would pass away, and then it would be replaced by the new creation. But according to Paul, something unexpected happened. In Christ, these two spheres of reality overlap, so that when Christ died, was buried, and rose again, He was the beginning — in His own person — of the new creation. He inaugurated the new creation in His own resurrected body.

And so what happens is, after Christ ascends into Heaven, everyone who on this world believes in Him and is baptized into Him, actually becomes invisibly a member of the new creation. He is made new, so that he is incorporated into Christ, and he or she becomes a member of His Mystical Body.

So Paul is beginning here by emphasizing that whoever you are, if you’re in Christ, you’ve already been made a new creation. The graces, the gifts, that would have ordinarily been associated with the new creation, the end of the time — the gift of the Holy Spirit, for example, the gift of righteousness — these have already become accessible in the present through faith and through Baptism.

So Paul here is trying to teach the Corinthians that although you look the same after Baptism, you should not live the same, and you in fact aren’t the same, because whoever is in Christ is a new creation. The old has passed away, and the new has come.

And all this, this mystery of the new creation:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… (2 Corinthians 5:18)

So the primary dimension of this entry into the new creation has to do with the forgiveness of sins. Because the primary problem with the old creation is not that it wasn’t good. God makes it good in the book of Genesis. The problem with the old creation is that it was fallen, and that through sin — the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3 — death enters into the world. And as Paul will say in Romans:

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses… (Romans 5:14a)

In other words, there’s a dominion of sin, a dominion of death, that’s part of the old creation, in which everyone who lives in the old creation is subject to. And so the principal problem with the old creation is the problem of sin.

And so what happens is God sends Christ into the world in order to reconcile the world to himself, and then He gives the apostles — as well as Paul, who is unique among the apostles, because the risen Christ appears to him — the ministry of reconciliation. Paul’s principle task, the apostles’ principle task, is to reconcile sinners who live in this fallen world to God… to solve the problem of sin through the ministry of reconciliation. And so that’s why he says:

… not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

…that God was in Christ, reconciling not just people to Himself. What did Christ reconcile to Himself? Look at it — He reconciled the world to Himself. So Christ comes in not just to redeem human beings. He comes to redeem the whole cosmos. He comes to inaugurate a new creation, and His resurrected body for Paul is the beginning of that new creation. He has put the old to death on the cross and raised it up in the new.

And now the apostles’ mission is to bring that message of reconciliation to the whole world, so that through faith and Baptism, every human being might become a new creation in Christ. So Paul says:

So we are ambassadors for Christ… (2 Corinthians 5:20a)

Just like an emperor would send out ambassadors on behalf of the empire to bring the rest of the world into subjection to the emperor (that’s what they did), so too Christ as the emperor of the kingdom of Heaven, sends the apostles as His ambassadors. But His message isn’t one of political subjugation or military occupation. His message is one of reconciliation. He’s the emperor who wants to reconcile the world to Himself and make them His subjects by forgiving their sins and making them new creations in Christ.

So, in this beautiful description of the Gospel, Paul says:

…God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20b)

And then in this last verse, Paul makes this stunning statement which has puzzled readers literally for centuries and centuries. Great theologians, great preachers have puzzled over this next line, trying to figure out exactly what Paul means when he says:

For our sake he [meaning God] made him [meaning Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve heard this passage read at Mass, I don’t remember the specific occasion, but I can remember hearing that read, that Christ was made sin and wondering, “What does that mean? How could Christ, who is without sin — who is sinless — become sin?” What does that mean? Is Jesus ontologically changed into sin? Does Christ become sin? Because sin is evil. What does that mean, he became sin who knew no sin?

Well, this is a great example of where when you come across a passage in the New Testament in the Bible that is difficult or hard to understand, it’s wonderful for you to wrestle with it on your own, but it’s also crucial to ask, well, how have other people interpreted this? How did ancient Christians interpret it? How did the saints and Doctors of the Church interpret it? What is the tradition of interpretation that has been handed down to us over the centuries.

And in this case, if you go to the Church Fathers, and you look at how they interpreted it, you’ll recognize that there are two different streams of interpretation — two different traditions about how to interpret this. Well, let me begin with the one that they don’t say.

The Church Fathers do not say that what Paul means here is that Christ became evil, that He was actually, in a sense, transformed into sin or made ontologically into evil. Because remember, Christ is not just fully human; He’s also fully divine. So He doesn’t become evil, but what does it mean to say He was made sin? I mean, it sounds like that’s what he’s saying.

So, two traditions are there. First, one tradition is that what Paul means is that Christ took the place of sinners. So Paul, when he says He was made sin, what he means was, He was made a substitution for sin. You’ll see this reflected, for example, in the writings of the fourth century Church Father St. John Chrysostom. St. John Chrysostom was the greatest preacher of his day, and he’s also one of the most famous eastern Church Fathers who was the bishop of Constantinople. And in his commentary on this text — he wrote homilies on 1 and 2 Corinthians — he says, listen to this:

“God allowed his Son to suffer as if a condemned sinner, so that we might be delivered from the penalty of our sins.”

So in other words, Chrysostom is saying that when Paul is describing Jesus being made sin, what he means is that He was made to appear a sinner, because what happened to Him? First of all, He suffered the curse of crucifixion. So this was a very shameful death. He was executed in public. And if you go back to the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, it says:

… for a hanged man is accursed by God… (Deuteronomy 21:23c)

So there was this belief, certainly by the first century AD, that anyone who died by crucifixion or who was hung, was cursed by God. So in other words, the very form of Jesus’ death makes Him appear to be cursed. It makes Him appear as a sinner. And John Chrysostom is saying is, God allowed Christ to suffer as if He were a sinner, so that we who are actually are sinners might be delivered from the punishment for sin. So this is the idea of Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice of atonement.

Think here of the suffering servant, for example. You go back to Isaiah 53, famous prophecy of the suffering servant. Isaiah 53:4 says:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

So the idea is that although the servant is righteous, we are sinners, and he takes our sin, our suffering, our sorrow upon himself — to the extent that he actually looks like he’s stricken by God. He looks like he’s accursed by God, when in fact he is the one, ironically, making us righteous, bringing healing to us.

So one interpretation is that when Paul says:

For our sake he made him to be sin… (2 Corinthians 5:21a)

… means He made Him to be a substitution for sin, a sacrifice for sin.

The second interpretation is one that I wasn’t familiar with at first, but when I got to dig into the Church Fathers, really struck me as powerful. According to the second view, when Paul says that Christ was made sin, he actually means that Christ was made a sin offering, which was one of the kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament.

Now, in order to understand this, you have to go back and read the book of Leviticus. Good devotional reading, if you have some time. Just read through the first four — no actually, the first seven — chapters of Leviticus, and it will give you a description of the different kinds of sacrifice. So for example, you have the burnt offering (sometimes called the holocaust), you have the bread offering (sometimes called the cereal offering, the minkhah), you have the peace offering (sometimes called the shelamim — or not sometimes, that’s what it means in Hebrew, shelamim or the peace offerings). You’ve got these different sacrifices. You’ve got the guilt offering.

And then there’s another sacrifice called the sin offering in the book of Leviticus, chapter 4. And what a lot of us don’t realize — this is fascinating, but really important — in the original Hebrew and in the original Greek of the Septuagint, the name for the sin offering is just the sin. There is no word “offering” in Hebrew or Greek. We add that in the English translation. But listen to this literal translation of the Greek describing the sin offering in the book of Leviticus, the offering offered to atone for sin. This is what it says:

Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the sin [offering] (Hebrew chatta’th; Greek hamartia)… [S]o the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin (Hebrew chatta’th; Greek hamartia), and he shall be forgiven.

So the word sin there in Hebrew is chatta’th. In Greek, it’s hamartia. And the word for sin offering in Hebrew is chatta’th, and the Greek is hamartia. It’s the same word. So in other words, in the Old Testament, the word “sin” isn’t just used to describe a transgression of a law or the breaking of a commandment. It’s also the word used to describe the kind of sacrifice you use to atone for transgression of the law or breaking the commandment.

So according to various ancient Church Fathers, what Paul actually means here would be accurately translated in this way:

For our sake he made him to be [a] sin [offering] who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

So for example, there’s an ancient commentary attributed… it was often, it was for centuries believed to be written by St. Ambrose, the Latin Church Father through whom St. Augustine was converted. Scholars have called that into question, so now it’s referred to as Ambrosiaster. So… I laugh at these names — so if it’s not Ambrose, who are we going to call it? We’ll call him Ambrosiaster, so it’s like Ambrose but not actually Ambrose.

But it was a very famous commentary on the letters of Paul. And Ambrosiaster says this:

“it is not wrong for him to be said to have been made ‘sin’, because in the law the sacrifice which was offered for sins used to be called a ‘sin’.”

So this is not some newfangled idea. This is just ancient Latin — even Latin Fathers recognize this. So in this view, Christ became a sin offering, even though He knew no sin, for our sake, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

Now the Church doesn’t have an official position on how to interpret this verse, but in my opinion, the more compelling translation is the second one — or the most compelling interpretation is the second one — although it doesn’t actually rule out the first one, because sin offerings function as substitutionary sacrifices for sin. So it’s probably a case of both/and, rather than either/or here.

The main point is this: Christ is sinless. That’s very important. He’s not guilty of any sin — neither original sin nor actual sin. He’s a pure sacrifice. But God makes Him to be a sin offering to substitute for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God — the whole world be reconciled to God — and (here’s the kicker) so that just like He becomes a sin offering for us, we might become righteous for Him, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

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