Monday, November 1, 2010

The God of Sinners

One of the strange things about our faith is Christ’s declaration that there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over 100 righteous men. Now you can wash this over some way or other by saying, “Oh, well, everyone is a repentant sinner if they’re in Heaven,” which is true, but I don’t think that it really gets at what Christ is saying here. The implication, the pretty clear and strong implication, is that the person who humbly makes his way through his life, tending the fathers fields, doing what the father says, never even asking for a goat so that he can have a party with his friends, doesn’t cause as much rejoicing as the one who goes off, squanders his inheritance on street boys and gypsy dancers, sits around in gambling houses laughing his head off at raunchy jokes, and then, through a sea of pig-shit and suffering, finally makes his way back to the father’s house.
Why? From a literary perspective the answer is pretty obvious. Try sitting down one day with those first long, drawn out, tedious chapters of Les Miserables, where Hugo is just going through and recounting all the good deeds and charity of the Bishop of Digne. Yawn. No one is interested until the wild-eyed theif shows up and yoinks the poor Bishop’s silverware in the middle of the night. Or leaf through a book of the lives of the Saints. There are literally hundreds of Saints whose lives read something like, “She lived in obedience to her parents throughout her childhood, and wanted to enter the convent at the age of thirteen, but she had to stay home and look after a sick sister, so out of filial piety she put aside her dreams and stayed home until she was 22. Then she entered the Order of X, and founded 700 orphanages, and cared for the sick and dying until she died at the age of 45 holding a crucifix and smiling on a picture of the baby Jesus.” I’m sure that there’s more to the stories of these women: I’m sure that there are fabulous interior exploits, and struggles with sin, and all sorts of juicy literary grist that was hidden from the world. I’m sure they’re not actually boring. But let’s be realistic here, the average reader, if they’re going to bother with the lives of the Saints at all, wants the ones with sin and blood. The ones where the heroine was the most horrible sinner in the world, and then went out and blackened her skin for fifty years in the Egyptian desert, doing penance and fighting with demons. We want the descent into darkness, and the miraculous conversion, the soul rising up out of the depths of Hell to seize the light with all its strength.
Does Heaven want this as well? Apparently. Why? My best guess is that God has a finely tuned sense of narrative, and sees the wonderful symmetry in having the entire salvation history of the race acted out, like a fractal equation, writ small, writ large, writ in blood and in tears, in the individual lives of each of His human creatures.

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