HOMILY WEEK 31 04 – Year I
Saints and Sinners All
(Rm 14:7-12; Ps 27; Lk 15:1-10)
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). “I am a sinner” (Pope Francis).
Every coin has two sides. These statements, one about Jesus in the gospel, the other uttered by Pope Francis, provide a backdrop for todays’ readings inviting us to live out two sides of a coin: to both imitate Jesus in reaching out to the poor, marginalized and more obviously sinful, and also recognize our own poverty, sin and need for forgiveness.
According to The Word Among Us, Jesus knew how to upset the status quo – hanging out with sinners and worse yet, eating with them. This scandalized faithful, law-abiding Jews like these Pharisees and scribes. Their identity as God’s chosen people set them apart, in their own eyes, from the nations around them. So, fraternizing with wrongdoers would make them – and Jesus- ritually impure and unclean.
But Jesus wasn’t deliberately trying to anger people or violate purity codes – he wanted people to understand the vastness of God’s plan. Jesus had come to share his Father’s love with everyone. His mission to reach out to people who are ignored or shunned has continued in the lives of Christians over the centuries. In fact, this sacrificial and unconditional love for the outcast and the poor became one of the defining characteristics of the early Church. Tertullian (AD 160-225) expressed this pagan observation: “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another.”
In today’s first reading, St. Paul reminds us that “none of us live for oneself” (Romans 14:7). Our call remains the same, whether in the first century or the twenty-first. We were created to reach out to other people. We are full alive only to the extent that we strive to be men and women and youth for others.
The parables of the lost sheep and coin illustrate the two-sided message in today’s liturgy – to both be saints of compassion, as well as recognize our reality as sinner ourselves.
First, the shepherd does the unimaginable – leave ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek out and bring back one sheep that has strayed. And the woman in the second parable does the preposterous – turn the house upside down to find a single coin and throw a lavish party to celebrate that find. What shepherd or homemaker would do that?
These parables are intended, much like the Semitic Hyperbole or “holy exaggeration” Jesus uses elsewhere, to help us believe from the heart and integrate into our lived reality, the depth of the Father’s love for us.
Another similar parable in Luke, known as the Prodigal Son which I much prefer to entitle the Loving Father and Two Lost Sons, is also intended to underline the nature of God’s love for a humanity in need of both forgiveness (the younger son) and healing (the older son). On the Cross, Jesus would move beyond parables to bodily reveal the depth of the mystery of God’s love. On the cross, we see right into the heart of God, and what we see is humility, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, forgiveness and total non-violence. That is what we are invited to imitate in our own lives, as we reach out to show compassion to the unpopular, the homeless, the unlikeable, the difficult to love in our own lives, because God in Jesus has poured out that love upon us.
The double-sided meaning of these parables lies in the use of the numbers one hundred and ten, both symbolizing wholeness, completion, and infinity. As a puzzle is incomplete if one piece is missing, so too is a family gathering when one member is not present or not accounted for. The mother and father cannot really be at peace and celebrate, until that one missing member is heard from or is present – then the family unit is complete and celebration made possible.
That is how it is with our God, who wants every one of his wayward sons and daughters at the banquet table of eternal life, and is willing to wait patiently and try every way imaginable to entice them back freely to the banquet table. An example of this could be the Winnipeg mother who has people dragging the Red River often, hoping to find her missing and probably murdered daughter, and determined to never give up the search.
The fact that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search out the one lost sheep illustrates that side of the story. Ron Rolheiser OMI asks this question about the seemingly illogical action of the shepherd – does this mean God loves sinners more than righteous people? The answer is “no” – there are no righteous people! The ninety-nine sheep left alone in the wilderness without their shepherd, are also lost. We are all sinners, if we are truthful, and all in need of repentance and forgiveness.
Our task is to be humble, honest, make an inward journey into self-awareness, and as Step Four of the 12 Step program puts it, “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of our wrongdoing.” We need to “name it, claim it, not blame it, tame it, and then we can aim it.”
The next step is also in the same program: “Admit to God, ourselves and one other person, the exact nature of our wrongs.” And that humble, very human action, my friends, is the source of great joy and rejoicing in the heavens – angels turning cartwheels, I am sure.
We are so fortunate in the church to have the sacrament of Reconciliation, which for far too many of us, is under-appreciated and under-utilized. Perhaps this sacrament was over-stressed when we were growing up, and not really explained as an encounter with Jesus, a celebration, an experience of unconditional love as forgiveness and healing. We need to re-discover the depth, beauty, and meaning of this sacrament, and the profound impact it can have on our lives in terms of growth, release and yes, joy.
There were times when even non-Catholics came to me, especially during 12 Step workshops, full of guilt and fear, and as one person put it earnestly, “needing forgiveness”. This was genuine “repentance,” which at its deepest level, means “putting on one’s highest mind, changing, being the best person one can be, open to transformation.” That definition fits the definition of sin as “harmatia” – falling short of God’s hope and expectation of us. No wonder there is joy in heaven, and in our lives, when we genuinely repent, admit our sin, and receive God’s forgiveness and healing.
The Eucharist has a built-in dynamic of repentance in the Penitential Rite, and is also an experience of God’s forgiveness and healing, through Word and Sacrament.
May our celebration today empower us to be both saints and sinners, reaching out to share God’s unconditional love with others, as well as open us up to repent and receive God’s unconditional love through forgiveness and healing.