Updated: Nov 13, 2018
Jesus said to his disciples, "Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, 'I am sorry,' you should forgive him."
And the Apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." The Lord replied, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."
There are two things about sin which Christ makes very clear today. On the one hand, He vehemently declares the gravity of causing others to sin. On the other hand, He encourages to forgive the others their sins. Both affirmations regard our attitude toward the sins of our neighbors. And what shines through is that those foreign sins are not simply other people’s affairs; in a certain sense, they have to do with us. How so?
To cause someone to sin is like pushing him into the mud. To forgive someone’s sin, on the other hand, is like pulling him out of the mud. All human acts are socially connected. One cannot understand a person while only considering him individually. One must always see him as part of a web of relationships. The acting person is the responsible subject of a sin because the rejection of God, which is the essence of a sin, happens in his or her heart. However, like every other action, sin is woven into that aforementioned web. Thus, our presence in other people's life can either contribute to more “mud” or to less.
At the heart of our social nature is the hope that we will make each other better. That hope, that possibility is made a reality by means of the web of relationships. In order to fulfill this possibility, a human relationship is more than some patch on our surface; it reaches deep and transforms us. This is why a relationship can only truly happen when you open your heart at least a little bit to your neighbor. Otherwise, his presence will be a patch on your surface, nothing more. When the hearts are open, when there is trust and a true encounter takes place, a human relationship evolves; one of those bonds which are destined to make you better. We need human connections to become the best versions of ourselves.
Now, precisely because we need each other to become better versions of ourselves; precisely because our inner self is made in a way that can and must open up to the world, and namely to the persons around us; precisely because we are social creatures and are internally transformed by the encounters with the external: that relational constitution in us can backfire. If our open hearts are fed with sin, they turn sour; if our relationships introduce evil in us, they make us worse; if our neighbor sins, it affects us too.
Hence the importance of good friendships, true support, and a healthy culture in which society raises and shapes its members. This importance cannot be the sole conclusion of this reality, however. For where could we find a sin-free culture? How could we find immaculate friends? And, even more importantly, how could we assume the responsibility of being real friends ourselves, considering our own sinfulness? This relational web in which we live and through which we are supposed to thrive: is it not destined to fail? Well, yes it is. At least if we think of it as a social structure which could lead mankind to ultimate fulfillment. The reality of sin in our history has led to the undeniable fact that man cannot become who he is supposed to be by human means alone. Man cannot redeem himself. Nor can one man redeem another. The improvement effect of human relationships will never live up to its inherent hope.
This is why the focus on healthy relationships is at the same time hugely important and eminently relative. We ought to ensure environments as free of sin as possible. At the same time, we ought to be able to forgive the sins of our neighbors instead of simply avoiding or marginalizing them. Jesus points out both realities because one without the other must lead into a conundrum which would freeze all our relationships. Jesus demands mercy without embellishing the gravity of sin. Since we live in a world of sinners, this balance is imperative. Our neighbors, their virtues and vices, influence us. And our sins or good deeds influence them. However, this social dynamism is not able to lead us to ultimate fulfillment. Only the relationship to a truly pure, perfect, and sin-free person could fulfill the hope that lies in our relational constitution. If we opened our heart to such a source of goodness, we could thrive indefinitely.
Let us summarize the considerations: One, in order to become our best version, we need relationships; sin will turn that need sour so we ought to seek a truly pure “other” to whom we can open our heart unconditionally. Two, each human relationship will always bear the smudge of sin to some degree; your neighbor might wrong you and “you should forgive him;” in consequence, the aforementioned need for a purely good “other” must necessarily be frustrated among sinful humanity. Three, you are a sinner yourself; while you have a responsibility to make your neighbor’s life “better” through your virtue, you will never be yourself the ultimate source for goodness in his life; you are not the Savior.
These three conditions shape the Christian understanding of community and communion. In their light, the fundamental relationship of our lives is our communion with Jesus Christ, the only source of pure goodness. The relationship to Him is active in us through the presence of His Spirit, the Holy Spirit; the relationship is called “grace.” Grace fulfills the hope which is inscribed in our relational constitution: to become our best version thanks to a deeply fulfilling encounter. Yes, this is what grace does to you. All the other relationships remain a natural and thus necessary part of the human condition. Men influence each other to the better or to the worse as their relationality triggers and demands the opening of hearts. If you live in grace, that is, if the fundamental relationship of your life is the one with Our Lord, you become a beacon of goodness in the social web of relationships. The goodness which you drink in from the source can power all your “secondary” relationships; notwithstanding your weakness and sinfulness, you can thus make lives better. And despite the sinfulness of the world, you can encounter it with an open heart because Christ rules there and protects you. The deeper you are connected in Christ, the more freely you can bring light into the darkness and forgive your neighbor’s sins. You can so become Christ’s presence in the world.
You form part of a web of persons. Each one of them is infinitely loved by Christ. His Holy Spirit in you will power your relationships, your actions, and your forgiveness. His presence will allow you to make your neighbors better, to augment the light in their lives, to motivate them to follow Christ. At the root of that dynamism stands your fundamental relationship with Christ. Pray daily for an increase of your faith so that you can “uproot” the sins around you like the mulberry tree and “transplant” them into the redeeming sea of His mercy. That mercy lives in you thanks to the grace of your relationship with Christ. Your heart, when connected to Him, is a power plant of mercy and love and light for this world.