September 16, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on September 15, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; Psalm 51; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; and Luke 15:1-32.
If you walk into the confessional here at St. Austin, you’ll see that the Bible is usually open to today’s gospel passage. That’s because it’s my favorite passage in the entire Bible!
We’ll hear the entirety of Luke’s fifteenth chapter today. In it, Jesus explains how much God loves each and every one of us. We are worth more to God than if we were one of a hundred sheep he tended, more than if we were one of the ten coins he possessed, more than if we were one of two children born to him.
No matter how terribly or how frequently we’ve sinned, all we have to do is hesitantly turn in God’s direction, and God will race down the road and enthusiastically embrace us. As Pope Francis has said repeatedly, “The name of God is mercy.”
Last Sunday, our graduate students and young professionals discussed a topic we called “Spiritual Leniency vs. Scrupulousness: When Are We Being Overly Self-Critical?” I insisted that for the vast majority of people in GAP, they suffered from being overly self-critical, rather than from not being self-critical enough. A few of them were shocked that I would make such a blanket statement.
In this day and in this culture, we complain that not nearly enough people are behaving in ethical ways. We lament that people are overly hedonistic, overly materialistic, and overly self-centered. Too many religious websites write articles as if their audience were people living in total depravity, when in reality, the vast majority of people reading articles on religious websites are people who are trying to living an ethical life.
I would suggest that each of us hearing this homily right now are much more likely to be overly critical of ourselves than overly lenient. When we broke into small groups for faith sharing on Sunday night, the members of GAP discovered that almost everybody else there was overly self-critical, too!
If I’m celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation with someone who has gone for more than two years without a confession, I will likely say, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people.” For someone ashamed of their sins, I tell them that God is like a woman with only a dollar to her name who loses a dime and extravagantly lights an oil lamp to sweep the house from top to bottom. When she finds the dime, she invites her friends over and presumably shares the little she has with them. And in the eyes of God, you are worth a lot more than a dime!
If you think you’ve become too lenient in evaluating your sins, you can do the same thing that everyone else should do. Make an appointment with Fr. Chuck or me for confession, or make an appointment with a spiritual director for some counseling. We’ve all studied Catholic moral theology extensively, and we’ve walked with lots and lots of people. As I assure people in the confessional, I’m qualified to call the balls from the strikes. For every time that I have to tell someone that one of their sins that they think is trivial is actually serious, there are probably twenty times that I have to assure people that God does not look on their sins as harshly as they do, themselves! So often, we make the most trivial things into stumbling blocks in our relationship with God.
If it’s been more than a few months, a few years, or a few decades since you’ve been confession, I suggest you listen to a hilarious homily I gave three years ago on this very gospel passage.
Reconciliation is much more than a sacrament; it’s a lifestyle and a spirituality. For the Paulist Fathers and St. Austin Parish, it’s our identity. All are welcome. It’s how we answer the phone: when someone calls to schedule a baptism or a wedding, we start by saying “Congratulations!” not “Are you registered?”
If you’re still scared that you’re too lenient on yourself rather than being overly critical, please consider this quotation by Missouri pastor Brian Zahnd that my friend Heather recently posted: “My recommendation is to err on the side of love. Why? Because… God is not doctrine. God is not denomination. God is not war. God is not law. God is not hate. God is not hell… God is Love.”
Back in 2015, Pope Francis surprised us all by declaring that the Church would celebrate an extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. In the official document declaring the Jubilee, he wrote: “Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive.”
I think it’s no coincidence that Pope Francis designed the Jubilee of Mercy to coincide with the lectionary year of Luke. And the logo for the jubilee? It showed Jesus carrying a person over his shoulders, reminiscent of both the loving father embracing the prodigal son, and the good shepherd carrying the lost sheep.
There have been 27 jubilee years in the history of the church, starting in the year 1300. For all of these, it was traditional for pilgrims from around the world to travel the Vatican to walk through a special holy door to receive a special indulgence. But to show how readily available God’s mercy is, Francis changed the protocol, declaring that every diocese in the world must designate at least one holy door. He wrote in the declaration, anyone who passes through the door “will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope.”
No matter how egregiously we have sinned, God is ready to welcome us back if we simply turn toward him. When it comes to expressing mercy, Pope Francis still has a long way to go to catch up with God. In each of our hearts, God has opened a door to mercy which no one can close.