Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap, as the saying goes. The Lord is more than willing to bestow blessings and mercy upon us, but we also have a role to play in his divine plan; we have to make efforts and fulfill responsibilities. Jesus granted a great blessing, a physical healing, to a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years (see John 5:1-15). We see from this event that it is much easier to heal a body than to convert a heart, because the latter is dependent upon human free will. So the Lord said something to this man that He didn’t usually say to people whom He had healed of some bodily affliction: “See, you are well! Sin no more, lest something worse befall you.”
Jesus could see the heart of the man, who evidently had not a good character. The man had begun to complain when Jesus first asked him if he wanted to be healed, and then he became an informer for the Pharisees when they wanted to know who that Sabbath-breaker was. In fact, certain traditions indicated that something worse did indeed befall him. In some icons of the Dormition of the Mother of God, we find a curiously incongruous figure reaching out to disturb the bier of Our Lady. Immediately on the spot is an angel with a sword, slicing off the hands of the impious troublemaker. Tradition has it that this man is the former paralytic, and that this was the worse thing that befell him. Whether or not that is historical fact, Jesus’ warning is still valid for all ages.
Even in one of the most stunning (and scandalous to some) examples of Jesus’ mercy—the forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery—we find a similar admonition. Jesus knew that the woman’s weakness and passion was a lesser evil than the hard-heartedness of those who would condemn her to death (their supposed law-abiding righteousness a convenient door for their own skeleton-filled closets). So He challenged them, and they backed down. The woman, still in her sin, looked at Jesus, who declared that He would not condemn her for her sin—but He added, “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus was not saying: it’s nothing; I just look the other way. He was rather saying: though your sin is great, my compassion is greater. You are free from the burden, but do not tempt the Lord your God by returning to your sin.
We cannot take God’s mercy for granted, or think that there are no consequences for sin. The sacrament of confession is a great gift, but sometimes it too is taken for granted. Have you ever committed a sin with the thought in mind that you’ll go to confession sometime afterward? We cannot manipulate mercy in that way. If we think we can get away with sin just because there’s a convenient remedy at hand, we had better think again. For something may befall us that we’d rather not, even if we’ve been forgiven. Absolution takes away the guilt incurred by sin, but the psychological and emotional (and perhaps even physical) effects of sin may remain with us for a long time. If you have sinned repeatedly and formed an evil habit, just going to confession is not going to cure the habit. You’ve got a lot of work to do before you are free! Sin is never a neutral or harmless matter; it always has bad effects, in one way or another. That’s why, in his love and care for us, the Lord has to say: Sin no more!
It may seem morally impossible for us to avoid forever even the slightest offense, but that’s not the point. We must make our best effort, in constant prayer and reliance on God’s grace, to turn away from all temptations to sin, and thus to live in a manner that is fully human, that is, fully in accord with the image of God in which we were created. The Lord will always be merciful, but his admonitions will also be stern. For much is riding on our fidelity. Let us welcome healing and forgiveness, and in gratitude attain a true change of heart.