Friday, January 13, 2006

Not the Righteous but Sinners

Jesus, the Son of God, the All-holy and sinless One, gave the lion’s share of his attention to sinners. Not that He necessarily enjoyed their company more than anyone else’s, and still less did He condone their lifestyles, but He was a Man with a mission. This mission was an expression of his everlasting love, which thirsted for the salvation of souls whom He had created in his own image, and with whom He desired to share eternal life and joy.

The concept of sin has fallen into disfavor in recent generations. All ages have teemed with sinners, but in the “old days” sinners at least accepted the fact that they were sinners, whether or not they wished to do anything about it. Nowadays people don’t even talk about it, don’t want to deal with it, want the whole idea to go away. I just read an interesting article on the “theology” of Woody Allen (despite everything, he’s one of my favorites), which presented a scene from the movie Annie Hall: “Her parents ask what his parents will be doing for ‘the holidays’. ‘We fast, to atone for our sins,’ his mother explains. Annie’s mother is confused. ‘What sins? I don’t understand.’ Alvy’s father responds with a shrug: ‘To tell you the truth, neither do we.’”

But God does. That’s why He sent his only Son to offer Himself in sacrifice for us, so that our sins might be forgiven. It’s a serious and fundamental issue. “Sin” and its derivatives appear over a thousand times in the Bible, so it is something that is a constant, both in human experience and in the divine response to it. This is why Jesus had to suffer and die for us. When He offered his Body and Blood at the Last Supper, Jesus told us the reason for his sacrifice: “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). And we say those same words every day in the offering of the Holy Eucharist. If Christ could ever be said to have had an obsession, this would be it: He had to forgive our sins. We discover this repeatedly in the Gospels.

This is what he told his “righteous” critics as He dined with tax-collectors and other sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He was eating and drinking with sinners who, within a relatively short time, would be eating and drinking the price of the forgiveness of their sins at the Eucharistic assemblies of the early Church.

In this we should take heart, that Christ came to forgive sinners and was willing to bear unimaginable sufferings so that we might not have to endure the just (and everlasting) consequences of our sins. In the book about Fr Arseny that I mentioned a couple days ago, we find two different responses to God’s offer to forgive sinners, something like that of Peter and Judas. Fr Arseny listened to the outpouring of the hearts of two criminals, both of whom had committed unspeakable crimes, repeatedly. The first one humbly confessed his sins with many tears and sincere repentance, while the other, though haunted by his sins, said, “I am not sorry. What happened, happened. There is no forgiveness for me.” The former was liberated from the crushing weight of his sins, while the other died in anger and despair.

Jesus is trying to tell us: I came for precisely this—to take the burden of your shameful wickedness upon Myself. Accept it. You are sick and I am the Physician. There is no sin you can commit that will forever drive Me away from you—except the refusal to repent. I am with you always; I love you even in your vileness, because I have created you in My image, and I can still rescue that image if you turn to Me.

Let us throw off any pretense of righteousness, acknowledge our sins and our utter need for the mercy of God every day. The Lord has come to call sinners to repentance, to feed us with his sacrificed Body and Blood, to cleanse us of our iniquities and to unite us to Himself in an undeserved communion of grace and love. Hell counts among its inmates many who considered themselves righteous. Heaven is populated with grateful, repentant sinners.