forgive

The Voice of Jesus, Grammatically Speaking - Guest Post

Virginia Parrish (@texpatnj) is among the intelligent people I know. I asked if she would write about the grammatically passive voice of Jesus in the Gospels. What follows is a theological and philosophical exploration of the additional meanings found in the voice of Jesus, grammatically speaking of course. (I added the image and all underlines and bolds to the text.)


How can we make war not war?

How can we make war not war?

            I’m a language person, as you know if you’ve seen my Twitter rants on the incorrect usage of words like notorious and fulsome. Words matter. Not only that, but the arrangement of the words matters, giving us that thing we call grammar. I love grammar, partly because I like the orderly structure of it, but even more because grammar allows us to be precise in communication. Grammar is about things like tense, which tells us exactly when something happens. I eat cereal and I’m eating cereal are both present tense sentences, but the first is the simple present and the second is the present progressive. If your friend calls in the middle of breakfast and asks what you’re doing, you automatically respond with the second, even if you never heard of the present progressive tense. Grammar is hardwired into our brains, and we make grammatical choices every time we open our mouths.

            We now also have computer software that checks our grammar, just in case we don’t have English-teacher friends to do it for us. When I write something, I always run a grammar check, just to be sure everything is clear. It usually reminds me not to start sentences with conjunctions. I know that’s incorrect. But sometimes I want to emphasize a point. My grammar check may also tell me not to use sentence fragments. Seriously, though?

            One thing almost everybody gets snagged on with grammar check is the use of passive voice. Most grammar software programs hate passive voice. If you’re not a grammar person, you probably aren’t sure what passive voice even is, but it just sounds like it must be weak writing, right? You don’t want to be a passive person. Software seems to look at sentences as if they were people – let’s make sure they all stay active!

            Except sometimes keeping all sentences in the active voice is ridiculous or impossible. Here’s a sentence in the passive voice, taken from an HGTV show today:

The house was built in 1890.

            It’s passive because the subject of the sentence, the house, performs no action. The actors – those doing the building – aren’t in the sentence. That may well be because we don’t know who they are. If I try to change the sentence to the active voice, I get

Some people whose identities are unknown built the house in 1890.

            That’s a silly sentence, so HGTV’s original passive-voice sentence works much better, and they’re right to use it. When we’re writing sentences about houses, it seems logical not to expect them to be active, but what about human beings?

            There are times when there is a good reason that a sentence focuses on the person receiving the action rather than on the actor.

Thousands of soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.

            That headline and others like it in 1940 gave hope to those at home. Later, maybe, they would hear about how the rescue took place and who performed it, but their immediate need was to be reassured that thousands of soldiers, their loved ones, were safe. In that moment, those who had been rescued were the most important.

            Here’s another use of the passive voice.

Stones and bottles were thrown during the demonstration.

            Now things get a little murky. This sentence uses the passive voice to focus on stones and bottles without saying who threw them. We’re writing a journalistically neutral story, and we don’t want to place blame. Besides, it looked like everybody was throwing stones and bottles, so how can we know who started it? The grammar is correct, but the ethics? Maybe not.

            Later, maybe the follow-up story on that demonstration will say things like.

A man was injured.

Arrests were made.

Laws were broken.

            Grammatically, the subjects of these sentences did nothing; something was done to them. They did not act; they were acted upon. We don’t know who injured the man, who made the arrests, or who broke the laws. The passive voice can be a convenient grammatical hiding place. Listen to how often a politician on the news says, “Mistakes were made.”

            In the Gospels, Jesus uses the word forgiven nineteen times; in eighteen of those instances, he uses the passive voice.

You are forgiven.

Your sins are forgiven.

Their sins will be forgiven them.

            There’s no question about who is doing the forgiving. In each instance, Jesus could have said, “I forgive you.” Why did he hide himself grammatically? When he could have been naming himself as the divine actor, he instead excluded himself from the sentence, pointing us back to ourselves.

            We have adopted that use of the passive voice. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are blessed. But have we taken what Jesus did and turned it backward? In grammar, as in all things, God has acted, and we have received. Jesus made us the subject of those sentences, and we accept that gratefully in our repetitions. The difference is that Jesus spoke in the second person – you – and we repeat in the first person – we. Jesus kept himself out of the sentence to focus on us; our repetition in the passive voice focuses us on – us.

            Maybe Jesus put us in that grammatical place because it’s usually the subject that performs the action. His use of you as subject moves us into an active role. If we are forgiven, loved, blessed, it’s because God has acted on our behalf. If Jesus makes us the subjects, it’s because we are to act in his name. We forgive. We love. We bless.

No, Jesus Does Not Pay Our Debt

The story is preached from the street corner to pulpits around the world: Humans are sinners all sin demands repayment (justice), but the "good news" is Jesus paid the debt. It is a fine story. But it is not Gospel. 

Photo by  Ruth Enyedi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ruth Enyedi on Unsplash

When framed this way, Christ does not forgive the debt of sin but only pays it off. Meaning that God is still a God who demands a tit-for-tat. Every sin requires a payment. Every debt is due. At the end of time, all accounts will balance. This sense of balance is often described as justice, which makes us feel good, but it is not Gospel. 

Rather than paying the debt, Jesus forgives the debt. To forgive a debt means that the debt that was owed is erased. To pay the debt means the debt is still there but now it is balanced. God who demands the debt to be paid is not the God of the radical grace and love that Jesus points us to. This pay-the-debt god is a false idol that we place our trust in because it "makes sense" that every debt is to be paid. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that does not "make sense" in so many ways. The Gospel is one that proclaims that there is no debt to pay off. It is, and you are, forgiven. If you have to have a ledger page to show it, the debt line has been erased - as though it was never owed to begin with. 

It is a nice story, Jesus pays our debt, but this story maintains a social order built upon score keeping, grudge holding, and gracelessness. It is not Good News. 

Jesus Did Not Die to Forgive You

Just a reminder that Jesus did not die to forgive you. While Jesus did die, and while you are forgiven, the Good News is that one is not contingent upon the other. The Good News is that you are forgiven. Jesus' death is the thing that proclaims this Good News most loudly. 

I love my sons. I don't hug my sons as a condition to love my sons. I hug my sons as a proclamation of my love for them. 

Jesus did not die to forgive you. You are already forgiven. 

Can we accept/receive that Good News or do WE need Jesus to die so we can more easily accept we are forgiven?

Forgive, Judge, and See - Stepping Away From the Fires of Hell

Picking up from the previous post "COMMENT, COMPLAIN, CRITIQUE, CONTEMPT - THE SUBTLE STEPS TO THE FIRES OF HELL," I offer up a way to think about moving away from contempt. 

recent email newsletter from Fr. Richard Rohr said Pope John XXIII had a motto which was translated as, “See everything; overlook a great deal; correct a little.” Rohr refined this motto to read: "See everything; judge little; forgive much." It is this three fold pattern that might give us the tools to step away from contempt. First the visual then a bit of explination:

Contempt is among the most difficult things to step away from. Moving away from contempt requires dramatic action. We may not desire dramatic moving away when we are close to contempt toward another. Specifically, we are to forgive much. Forgive wholesale and trust that you will have time to sort out the specifics later. Like running from a fire, the first thing to do is get to safe ground before you assess what needs to be done next. Contempt is a fire that can consume all things and so running from it by way of forgiving wholesale is the first step. Assessments can be made on the way forward. 

If you find that you are close to criticism toward another, then it is important to judge less. Remember we all see only through a mirror dimly and what we see in another person is only a small slice of the whole pie. There are situations going on in their lives that you are unaware of that are contributing to actions you don't understand. Notice that it is not "do not judge" but rather "judge little." While the ideal may be to not judge at all, humans are not able to do this. It is more realistic that we aim to judge little.

Finally, if you find that you are close to complaining, then open your eyes and see more. Not only are we not seeing the other clearly, but we also tend to see ourselves in pure and sinless light. We are the "gold standard" by which we think all things should be judged. We often overlook our own failings/shortcomings. See everything means examine your own motives and actions. 

The goal is to bring us back to comments. Comments are without judgement and are seeking clarification. Despite the "comment" section of most online platforms are full of critique and contempt, comments are the clay that we can use to shape healthy relationships.