Mercy matters more
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, September 26, 2021:
Today’s Scripture calls to mind a story from the life of St. Jerome, the great Biblical scholar. St. Jerome was praying and wanted to offer something worthwhile to God. “Lord,” he prayed, “I offer you my life.” But, God responded, “It was I who gave you your life. It is not yours to give.” Jerome prayed again, “Lord, I offer you my heart, my love.” Again, the voice of God spoke, “I gave you those as well.” Jerome didn’t know what he could offer when the voice of God spoke again, “Jerome, why don’t you give me your sins? Your sins are all your own.”
Our Scriptures today invite us to reflect on something that we typically prefer to avoid – our own sins. Most of the time we are ashamed of our sins, or frustrated by our inability to overcome them. In the worst of situations, we have minimized them and maybe even don’t consider them to be sins anymore. We think there are people far worse than us in the world, and so, we are okay. But, what if these thoughts are actually keeping us from living our best lives, or holiest lives, the lives that God has intended for us?
Jesus tries very hard today to get our attention. He says – hyperbolically – it would be better to cut off our hand or pluck out our eye than the allow them to cause us to sin. Of course, He doesn’t mean these extreme responses literally, but He does want us to take the sin in our life seriously. His strong words today remind us that our sin can’t possibly be inconsequential.
In the long form of the prayer of absolution – the prayer that forgives your sins during Confession – the priest says, “God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His son, has reconciled the world to Himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sin.” This is the part that we miss far too often. When we take our sins seriously, we are not embracing a negative self-image, or beating up on ourselves for the things we do – instead we are connecting with the most important reason that Jesus came to us – He came not to make us feel bad about sin; but He came to set us free from it.
I had an encounter almost 20 years ago in the Confessional that I have never forgotten. A person came to me and began by going through the usual motions of a good confession. They listed all of the regular things that many people struggle with – a white lie or two, a bit of gossip, an unkind word spoken, or some prayers missed. But, as they were speaking God was placing something on my heart very persistently that I felt I just had to say. And so I said, “Can we talk a little bit about pride?” The other person looked at me stunned. “Why did you say that?” they asked. I said, “God is just placing this on my heart in a way that I can’t ignore. God wants you to be free from pride.” At that the tears began to flow uncontrollably. They said through the tears, “Father, this is something I have struggled with for many years. My pride has gotten in the way of my relationships – harming several of them. It has kept me from advancing at work because I can never admit I’m wrong. It has gotten in the way of my relationship with God because I always think my way is better than God’s way. Pride has been the thing that has put my life on hold. And every time I come to confession I promise myself that I will confess it, but I’ve never been able to say the words.” When they were done, I simply said, “Do you want to be free?” This remains one of the most beautiful moments of my priesthood.
Pope Francis said, “It is not easy to entrust oneself to God's mercy, because it is deep beyond our comprehension. But we must! We might say, ‘Oh, I am a great sinner!’ All the better! Go to Jesus: He likes you to tell him these things! He forgets, He has a very special capacity for forgetting. He forgets, He kisses you, He embraces you and He simply says to you: ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.’ Jesus' attitude is striking: we do not hear the words of scorn, we do not hear words of condemnation, but only words of love, of mercy, which are an invitation to conversation. ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’ Brothers and Sisters, God's face is the face of a merciful father who is always patient. Have you thought about God's patience, the patience He has with each one of us? That is His mercy. He always has patience with us, He understands us, He waits for us, He does not tire of forgiving us. ‘Great is God's mercy.’”
God never tires of forgiving us; and when we receive God’s forgiveness, we are set free of those things that are holding us back and keeping us down. Our sins are not something dark and secret; or something we should run from or hide away; something we should ignore and never talk about. Our sins are actually one of the greatest opportunities that God presents in our lives. When we encounter our sin – actually engage it and think about it and pray about it and bring it to God – we simultaneously have an encounter with Love. When we acknowledge our sin, we encounter a God who loves us so much that He wants to lift us out of that sin, who wants to free us from that sin, and help us to in fact become saints.
Why does Jesus have such strong words about sin this week? Because He wants us to experience the liberation that He came to bring us. To say “I have sinned” is not to say, “I’m such a horrible person,” rather it is the humble act of embracing the cross, encountering Christ there and allowing Him to raise us up from that sin and into the newness that is found in forgiveness. When we fail to seek out the freedom of God’s mercy, we leave Jesus hanging on that Cross for nothing.
Pope Francis said, “Feeling mercy changes everything. It is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient. Let us remember the Prophet Isaiah who says that even if our sins were scarlet, God's love would make them white as snow. God’s mercy is beautiful.”
God calls each of us to be holy; and so the simple message today is this: our sins matter, but God’s mercy matters more! Feeling mercy changes everything. God the Father of mercies has reconciled the world to Himself – He wants to reconcile you to Himself. Let us give God our sins; and He will in turn set us free!
May the Lord give you peace.
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