This little fact, that the church is actually for sinners, could not be made more clear in today’s readings. This is not something, it would seem, that originates within Christianity as such, but instead can be traced back to the Covenant between God and the People of Israel. Moses in our First Reading (Exodus 32:7-11,13-14) is given the tremendous responsibility of trying to allay God’s frustration and anger with the chosen people, who have drifted away in their worship and belief. It is Moses, the narrative tells us, that is able to remind God of who God is — one who has promised to live up to the Divine Name as the “one who will be there for us.” And with this, God relents.
Similarly our Second Reading (1 Tim 1:12-17) focuses on the inadequacies of being a faithful follower of Christ. St. Paul this time is the one who offers his own sense of sinfulness to Timothy, reminding him and us that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and not cater to those who were without need of a physician (to borrow a term from Luke’s account of Jesus’s own words!). Paul’s personal story is offered as a sign of God’s tremendous mercy and forgiveness. We know, as Paul and Acts of the Apostles recount, that Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian community. What could be more sinful? What could be more unforgivable in the eyes of the church? Yet, he proclaims, “for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.” Amen.
Then we turn to our Gospel, lengthy though it is, it contains two of the most famous pericopes in all of scripture: the lost sheep and the “prodigal son.”
To cut to the chase: we are the Pharisees and scribes who complain — like the older son in the latter parable — saying “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” whenever we judge the status of another person, whenever we look down on those whose actions or words we account as below us, whenever we think that we are really Christian because we ______ (go to church, pray, believe the ‘right things,’ etc. etc.) We — so many Christians at so many times and in so many places — we are the ones Jesus is chastising here.
Pope Francis has a great homily from the papal mass during which he assumed the “chair of the Bishop of Rome” in which, speaking of this parable, he said:
I would like to emphasize one other thing: God’s patience has to call forth in us the courage to return to him, however many mistakes and sins there may be in our life … Maybe someone among us here is thinking: my sin is so great, I am so far from God as the younger son in the parable, my unbelief is like that of Thomas; I don’t have the courage to go back, to believe that God can welcome me and the he is waiting for me, of all people. But God is indeed waiting for you; he asks of you only the courage to go to him. How many times in my pastoral ministry have I head it said: “Father, I have many sins;” and I have always pleaded: “Don’t be afraid, go to him, he is waiting for you, he will take care of everything.” We hear many offers from the world around us; but let us take up God’s offer instead: his is a caress of love. For God, we are not numbers, we are important, indeed we are the most important thing to him; even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart.
How true this is.
For some, it might be coming to terms with the fact that God’s love, mercy, and patience — like that which Paul experienced or that which the Father in the Gospel demonstrated — is so far beyond our comprehension, that we need to trust in the embrace that awaits us, despite what we might think of ourselves or our pasts. For some, it might be coming to terms with the fact that we are not the judges of others and that the “true judge,” who is God, does not abide by our personal legal systems and standards of “fairness.”
God is the loving Creator who goes above and beyond for the smallest, most vulnerable, most forgotten, and ignored. God is the one who leaves those sheep that are “following the way” good enough to seek the one who has lost her or his way. God is the one who forgives what we consider the most unforgivable. God is the one who keeps all of us, individually and uniquely and personally, closest to the heart.
Can we accept that love, patience, forgiveness, and embrace of God? Perhaps more importantly, can we recognize that love of God for others and celebrate the rejoicing in heaven that marks the return of those who feel lost and broken? Or are we like the pharisees, scribes, and the older son — are we just angry, bitter, and appalled that the love of God isn’t a special gift reserved for “good girls and boys” alone?
Remember: the Church is for sinners!