If not for sin, would God have sent his only Son into the world? Did Jesus come primarily to save us from our sinfulness, to offer atonement for the evil we have done? What if the pristine conditions of God’s original creation had endured? What if we hadn’t messed it up with selfishness and pride and envy and lust and anger and gluttony and laziness?
Our Church’s teachings have preserved two prominent ways of seeing this issue, both of which have some foundation in Scripture and in the centuries of Sacred Tradition that followed.
There are several key biblical passages that paint a picture of a hoped-for suffering servant who will rescue God’s people and pay a price for their sin (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12). In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as in Paul’s letters we can find passages that speak of Jesus ransoming us from our sin.
Many centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas would interpret these passages and conclude that the incarnation, the coming of Jesus as a man, was God’s remedy for sin. His teaching has had wide influence and even later was stretched to paint a particular picture of God who needs some sort of sacrifice to remedy the human condition.
In the generation following Aquinas, another theologian, John Duns Scotus, began to offer a different interpretation of these Bible passages as well as a look at some additional passages.
It seemed to him that the approach described above gave an awful lot of power to human sin, so much so that it could cause a change in plans from the master of the universe.
Scotus taught that the incarnation wasn’t caused by human action, especially sin. Rather, God’s intention was always to be in relationship with us in the most intimate way. God would have sent his Son into the world as a pure act of love. Saving us from sin isn’t the cause but the result.
Salvation history offers numerous testimonies to God’s desire for loving intimacy with his creatures. It can be seen in Genesis 3:8 as God is pictured walking in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve could be found. God’s desire for intimacy is seen in his appointing Moses to help set his people free from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 3:1-8).
The covenant given at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20) is a gift of intimacy, as is the promise God made to abide in Jerusalem with his people (Psalm 48). His presence with his people in exile (Leviticus 26:44) and upon their return is a testament to God’s gift of intimacy. A covenant written on the hearts of his people (Jeremiah 31) also testifies to God’s desired intimacy with us, God’s free gift of love and mercy.
The New Testament demonstrates the extent to which God will go to show his love and mercy.
John 3:16 captures this beautifully: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
St. Paul echoes this somewhat in describing God’s design: “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5).
The motivation for God’s Son to take on the human condition was divine love. This is the ultimate act of mercy ~ not simply to witness human suffering from far off, or even to remedy that suffering with a divine snap of the fingers, but to enter into our suffering as an act of love, to embody all that it means to be human and, in that unity with us, to offer redemption.
Jesus embodies the love and mercy of God in such a way that we can see how we might also enter into that love, surely surrender to it, as we turn away from sin and experience God’s mercy during this Year of Mercy
The Jubilee Year of Mercy offers us an opportunity to become merciful people, to do works of mercy, be they spiritual or corporal. Perhaps, though, we will be better equipped to become merciful if we meditate on the loving purpose of God’s mercy toward us. Then, seeking to respond to God in love, our words and deeds of mercy will flow from the same love shown to us.