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‘A new heart create for me, O God’

“Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offence. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.”

The familiar words of the penitential psalm express an understanding of sin and forgiveness beyond our limited grasp. Here, sin is understood in its lasting consequences. Sin so undermines the heart’s delight in God that only a new creation, far beyond any human forgiveness, can restore what has been lost. Thus the sinner prays: “A new heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.”

The incident of the golden calf, Israel’s apostasy in the wilderness, illustrates the inner dynamic of sin. The Exodus narrative revolves around the relationship established when the God of Israel looked upon the suffering of his people. He had reached out to them, entrusting himself to them as their God and saviour. They, in turn, had entrusted themselves to the God of Israel. The construction of the golden calf, however crass to our eyes, was a betrayal of trust. They had broken faith with the God who alone had the power to save. They had entrusted themselves to what they could fashion with their own hands, a world that they could create and manipulate for themselves. The same futility is at the heart of all sin: a world fashioned in the image of its own selfishness.

Our sinful humanity struggles both to forgive and to accept forgiveness. Throughout the gospels the scribes and Pharisees criticised the example of Christ’s forgiveness. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Christ’s forgiveness was not a grudging concession, it was the life-giving welcome that rejoiced at table with the repentant sinner. In our sinfulness we fear that our relationship with God, once broken, can never be restored to its former trust.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost drachma emphasise the difference between human and divine forgiveness. For us, forgiveness is frequently a reluctant concession. God’s forgiveness is a relentless love that cannot rest until it has overcome the distrust of sinful hearts. This is, indeed, a new creation, a grace that puts within us God’s steadfast spirit. As the shepherd rejoices in the sheep that was lost, so God rejoices in the wonder of a soul recreated in his likeness.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, a paradigm of God’s forgiveness, is also an illustration of sin’s dynamic. Like the sons in the parable, we have been born into the expectation of a gracious inheritance from the Father. He has entrusted his Son to us. In his death and resurrection we have received forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life. Like the younger son in the parable, our sin is a refusal to entrust our lives to the Father. Like the younger son come to his senses, we are tempted to think that there is no way back from the chaos that sin creates. The parable reaches beyond our fearful expectations. God’s forgiveness, like the abandoned Father clothing the prodigal in finery, has the power to create our hearts anew. Let us rejoice that, through God’s forgiveness, what has died in us is brought to life, what was lost in us is found. Let us not, like the elder brother, refuse to commit our lives to the joy of this forgiveness.