Sunday Sermon for September 15, 2019, the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Readings: Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32
In the Gospel reading we are told that tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus. This did not sit well with the Pharisees who complained, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Many things could be said in response to this, but my response is always one of gratitude because we are all sinners. A healthy doctor welcomes sick patients, a well-educated teacher welcomes students who lack knowledge, and the Lord, Who came to save us from our sins, welcomes sinners. If He did not, He would be alone in Heaven with His Mother.
God is perfectly happy; if no one was in heaven God would perfectly happy; if every person who ever lived made it to heaven, He would not be any happier. In other words, we do not add anything to God nor do we subtract anything from Him. His desire is not His own happiness, but ours. He wants us to be completely fulfilled which can only happen when we are filled absolutely with truth and love.
Getting back to the Pharisees and their response to our Lord, there is certainly comfort in being with good people who are striving for holiness. However, it is probable that most of these people were, at some point in their lives, not so good. In other words, they needed a conversion somewhere along the line. Even if they had always believed, most people get themselves into some unfortunate situations from which they must remove themselves.
If everyone abandoned us because we had fallen in some way, there would be no hope for anyone. It may even be that some people reading this were abandoned by the people who called themselves friends; perhaps these “friends” never returned, even after we had turned around. Thankfully, other good people were there to help us get turned around and back on the right path.
For people like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel story there seems to be not only an attitude of superiority, but a disposition completely void of any compassion. Perhaps they had forgotten their ancestors are the ones we read about in the first reading: the people who made and worshipped a golden calf. If this had been the only gaffe the people of Israel made it might be easier to forgive, but the Old Testament is filled with examples of the disobedience and infidelity of the people from one generation to the next.
Contrast the attitude of the Pharisees with that of the Saints. St. Paul, in the second reading expresses his gratitude to Jesus Who called him even though he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and arrogant (his words, not mine). Even with his sins, St. Paul was treated mercifully and, thereby, understood what it means that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. St. Paul proclaims himself to be the foremost among sinners. It is because he recognized his own sinfulness that St. Paul could be so compassionate to those who did not know the Lord and to those who had fallen into sin after accepting the Faith.
Prior to his conversion, St. Paul was a Pharisee. Although nothing suggests he was among the group we hear about in the Gospel, he was cut from that same cloth. What is interesting to note is that St. Paul needed a conversion. Of course, we recognize his conversion to Christianity, but I mean that even though he was living a righteous life according to the Law, something needed to happen to change his heart. This remains the same for anyone who believes he or she is better than others, holier than others, in a word, above sinners.
If we are not sinners, we do not need Jesus; He will not welcome us and eat with us. Not because He is unwilling, but because we are unwilling. I find it interesting that every Saint believes himself or herself the worst sinner ever. Some of us who are not Saints, on the other hand, do not think we are too bad. When we think this way, we try to justify ourselves. If we recognize ourselves as sinners, we allow Jesus to justify us.
If we are among those who believe we are doing pretty well, we need to pray for a conversion of heart, not a conversion to the Faith. When that conversion takes place, then we will be the cause of rejoicing for the Shepherd Who finds His lost sheep and places us on His shoulders with great joy. Such a conversion will allow us to see ourselves as Christ sees us: as sinners who need our Good Shepherd. This, in turn, will make us humble, grateful, and compassionate to sinners who, like us, need Jesus.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.