From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
Well, our first reading was from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. But we have a second reading. It is not a passage from sacred scripture, but a passage from children’s literature. Hear now the words of dear Laura Ingalls Wilder, from her autobiographical novel Little Town on the Prairie. The sisters are older at this point, and Mary is home from the school for the blind she attends.
Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different. Once Laura asked her about it.
“You used to try all the time to be good,” Laura said. “And you always were good. It made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to slap you. But now you are good without even trying.”
Mary stopped still. “Oh, Laura, how awful! Do you ever want to slap me now?”
“No, never,” Laura answered honestly.
“You honestly don’t? You aren’t just being gentle to me because I’m blind?”
“No! Really and honestly, no, Mary. I hardly think about you being blind. I – I’m just glad you’re my sister. I wish I could be like you. But I guess I never can be,” Laura sighed. “I just don’t know how you can be so good.”
“I’m not really,” Mary told her. “I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.”
“I can see what you’re like inside,” Laura contradicted. “It shows all the time. You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.”
“I know why you wanted to slap me,” Mary said. “It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”
Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that she had known that, all the time. But, nevertheless, it was not true of Mary. She said, “Oh no, you’re not like that, not really. You are good.”
“We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards,” said Mary, using the Bible words. “But that doesn’t matter.”
“What!” cried Laura.
“I mean I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good,” Mary explained.
“But, my goodness! How can anybody be good without thinking about it?” Laura demanded.
“I don’t know, I guess we couldn’t,” Mary admitted. “I don’t know how to say what I mean very well. But – it isn’t so much thinking, as – as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.”
I love this passage, and not merely because I am wildly nostalgic about my favorite children’s books. Laura and Mary’s conversation is so honest, so faithful, so real. Laura both envies and admires her older sister. As far as she is concerned, Mary is inherently good. What else could account for her maddeningly proper behavior? Laura, on the other hand, is the bad kid. Her embroidery isn’t straight; her bonnet is askew; her face is dirty; and she has a temper as short as a stack of prairie pancakes. Little siblings of the world nod knowingly: it’s hard to live in the shadow of the perfect older sibling.
But Mary swears that she is anything but perfect, and denies that she is even good. Her words probably sound a bit harsh to our progressive Protestant ears, but there you have it: “We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards.”
Laura and Mary are considering one of the biggest questions there is: are human beings, at heart, good or evil? Like a lot of folks, my own answer is this: yes. We are capable of extraordinary kindness and generosity; we create beauty and solve problems and cure illnesses and love our children so much our hearts feel like bursting. But we are also capable of extraordinary cruelty and selfishness. We can hurt one another – physically and emotionally. We have an embarrassingly limited capacity to care about calamities that do not directly affect us. We wage wars that maim men and often leave women with wounds that are invisible yet equally horrific.
It is so tempting to believe that there are two kinds of people – The Mary’s and the Laura’s, the Good People and Bad People. There’s even some scriptural precedent for this; in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of a time of judgment in which all the people are determined to be either sheep or goats. But I can’t help but think we’re all hybrids – a little bit Mary and the little lambs, a little bit Laura standing in the middle of the goat pen.
The Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the line separating good and evil passes… right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... a small corner of evil.”
I appreciate these words very much, so much so that I’m pretty sure I’ve shared them before from this pulpit, and dead certain I’ll share them again. They reflect what I believe to be deeply true about humankind. They are certainly true of me.
Perhaps Mary was overstating things a bit when she diagnosed her pride and vanity as a mark of her desperate wickedness. But I’m not so sure. Sometimes I wish we all took our sinfulness as seriously. Then again, Mary herself said it: ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I love Laura’s shock here. Surely, one should be deeply grieved to think one has even a small corner of evil in one’s heart! But Mary is able to take her sin lightly because it is no long her burden to bear. She delights in the goodness of God.
She is, in the words of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, an ambassador of Christ in the fullest sense. She no longer regards herself or her sister from a human point of view. She is in Christ; she is a new creation. Everything old – even her old need to be perceived as a good little girl – all that has passed away. And yes, as Paul wrote, all this is from God. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.
A biblical commentary I read this week referenced a powerful story. The author (Ralph C. Wood, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2) wrote,
“It is reported that Karl Barth, [the great theologian of the 20th century], was once asked what he would say to Adolf Hitler if he ever had the chance to meet the monster who was destroying Europe and would ruin the whole world if he were not stopped. Barth’s interlocutor assumed that he would offer a scorching prophetic judgment against the miscreant’s awful politics of destruction. Barth replied, instead, that he would do nothing other than quote Romans 5:8: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Only the unparalleled mercy and forgiveness of God, the instinted gladness and grace of the gospel, could have prompted the Fuhrer’s genuine repentance. To have accused him, though justly, of his manifold abominations would have prompted Hitler’s self-righteous defense, his angry justification of his allegedly “necessary” deeds.” The theologian continued, “If I were brought to a similar pass, I would hope to have the presence of mind to utter these words: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting us the message of reconciliation…We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”I hesitated to recount that story. Hitler has become our go-to exemplar of all that is evil, and for good reason. I am suspicious whenever anyone tries to prove a point by using Hitler; the last thing we need is to caricature the person who masterminded the atrocities of the Holocaust. When we hear that name, we give ourselves permission to redraw those lines demarcating evil – surely, we have nothing in common with this monster. If ever there was a heart overwhelmed by evil, it was his. Nevertheless, I found these imagined encounters with Hitler at once deeply moving and utterly scandalous. Who even wants God to extend grace and salvation and forgiveness to evil personified? Yet it is those who are corrupted by sin who need these gifts, who need to be so overwhelmed by the sacrificial love of Christ that they cannot resist the invitation to be reconciled to God.
We must hold the line where it belongs, in our own hearts. I don’t mean to sound like Jonathan Edwards with his poor sinners dangling in the hands of an angry God, but of this I am convinced: we truly must admit our own brokenness. We must pray those prayers of confession with fearless and bracing honesty, for we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. But O, my God, please don’t stop there. Don’t tune me out here. Because we are forgiven. Utterly and completely.
The Kingdom of God is like a son who cut and run with his share of the inheritance, wasted it all on worthless and fleeting pleasures, and returned home expecting judgment and condemnation only to see his father racing down the path to pull him close and baptize him with tears of joy before the son could even utter the words “I’m so sorry.”
Mary speaks the truth: our wickedness does not matter a hoot. The small corner of evil does not, in fact, remain. This is what God accomplishes in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Be sure of the goodness of God. Be reconciled to God, and rejoice.