Sep 27, 2014

26th Sunday - A culture of forgiveness

"Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you"

Ez: 18: 25-28
Phil 2: 1-11
Mt 21: 28-32

A number of years ago Pope St. John Paul II coined a phrase about the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.”  He was describing the tragedies of abortion and euthanasia so tolerated in our modern society and its effect on our culture.  To preserve a culture of life is to uphold the dignity of every human person no matter what their stage or condition in life; to see this as a primary cultural value that all would uphold. 

Alternatively, the culture of death promotes or tolerates the violation of the human person since life is no longer seen as a sacred value; life is considered dispensable and as Pope Francis termed it encourages a “throw away culture.” The moral imperative is clear for every one of us to be people of life.

Likewise, what if we imagined a “culture of forgiveness.” Maybe Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital where the wounded go to be healed would be more the norm. A culture of forgiveness might be one in which everyone has multiple chances to get things right. They are more loved than judged. There is always a time, a never too late opportunity, to seek reconciliation and healing and to change my life direction.  While personal responsibility is upheld, the opportunity to receive compassion and mercy is always available.

Such a culture should not be imaginary and it seems that our Gospel this Sunday promotes that “culture of forgiveness.”

The Gospel parable is addressed to the self-righteous religious leaders in the time of Jesus.  It is simple and straightforward in its message.  Two sons are asked by their Father to go work in the vineyard (remember last Sunday: Mt 20: 1-16). One says “no” but later changes his mind and does his Father’s will. The other says “yes” but never follows through.  “Which of the two did his Father’s will?” Jesus asks - obviously the first son. 

Then the clincher which insulted the chief priests and elders of the people: Jesus states: “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”  Wow!  How could such shameful sinners, such public immoral behavior by “those kind” walk ahead of the righteous leaders?  Because God’s culture of forgiveness is more concerned about our present lives than he is about our past. We are invited every day of our life to get things right; to come back on the mark Jesus shows us.  

In order to press his point further Jesus reminds the leaders about the preaching of John the Baptist and his call to a change of life.  In the same vein the preaching of Jesus and his call to conversion as well as the prophet Ezekiel’s words in the first reading today all imply the constant and never failing invitation to conversion from a God who longs to welcome his people.  As Jesus stated: “When John came to you in the ways of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds . . .” Ouch!  The truth can sting when it finds its mark.

Those consumed by their own vain pursuits are responsible for their choices.  The same is true when the good is chosen regardless at what time.  Conversion, a change of heart, a time to reconsider the “no” I may have said always finds a welcome forgiveness when we choose the Way that Christ shows us. 

In a culture of forgiveness we would know that change is not an optional choice.  That change of heart, turning back to God and leaving behind us sin and selfishness is God’s invitation to the right way.  God’s mercy is just waiting to be extended to everyone.  A culture of forgiveness makes that choice clear and supports the importance of changing the direction of our lives to always aim to that of Christ. 

If we choose to be a people of forgiveness and mercy rather than judgment and separation then we grow in both holiness and virtue.  Virtuous behavior completes us and deepens our sense of purpose for we are all sinners and we are all in need of mercy. Every human being is invited to this process but God respects our choice to say yes or no. 

In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel spares no words: "When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness . . . and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life . . . he shall surely live."
So, think about your marriage, your personal life, your family life, your association with friends and strangers, and your place of work. Is there in place of culture of forgiveness found in others? God touches us primarily in community life.  While the sacraments of forgiveness (Reconciliation, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick) for example are intimate moments they are offered in and through the community of the faithful. 

What can we do to institute a more forgiving, more merciful, less judgmental culture? Our parishes should be ideal models of what the larger culture can be.  If there is division, competition, judgment, selective membership or cliques that is not the work of God.

If a large group of non-practicing Catholics suddenly showed up at the Church door after living lives that were sinful or scandalous how would they be met?  With indifference, avoidance or with open arms and mercy? Where would they be invited to sit in the Church?  In the back pews or welcomed home to sit in the front?   

If we stand above others and consider that the words of the Gospel “are not for me but for them” then today’s readings must call us to task.

God help us to create a culture of forgiveness, to inspire each other to change the direction of our lives and to always be grateful for God’s never failing mercy.”