I. Introduction: Permitting Everything, Forgiving Nothing
In his book of essays entitled, The Difference God Makes, Cardinal Francis George offers an incisive statement: “The world,” he wrote, “permits everything and forgives nothing. God and the Church do not permit everything but forgive everything.”
Simple observation of our culture confirms the truth of this statement. The culture of which we are a part continues to grow more permissive. Not to belabor the obvious—there are many examples of behaviors though to be immoral for thousands of years but which, in our days, have become as acceptable as expressions of freedom.
One might think that a permissive culture would also be a tolerant culture but, as the very thoughtful and wise Archbishop of Chicago tells us, it isn’t so. In fact, sometimes our culture has become very intolerant. The media—whether it’s the traditional media or the social media—enjoy nothing more than prying into people’s private lives—and revealing them to have feet of clay, revealing their faults, failings, and sins. For those whose lives are publicly turned inside out often there is neither justice nor mercy and certainly no absolution. Such persons are marked for life. Their sins are embedded in the cultural hard drive and endlessly re-told.
What’s true of individuals is true also of institutions so marked. We know that this has happened to our Church. To be sure, the Church is ‘sinful in her members’ & constantly in need of reform. Both the institution and its members are frozen in their sins in such a way that the Church’s teaching can be portrayed as hypocritical and severe.
II. A Creative Response
But what should our response to all this be? Should we go along to get along, or should we withdraw from public life, or should we just sit down and pout about it? I’d hope that you’d agree that none of those options is good. We are called to engage the culture with the light, truth, and goodness of the Gospel.
But first we have to be convinced of the Gospel ourselves. And one way for us to be convinced is to look at today’s Scripture readings through the lens of Cardinal George’s statement: “The world permits everything and forgives nothing. God and the Church do not permit everything but forgive everything.” Let’s see where this takes us.
In the reading from Exodus, while Moses is encountering the glory of God, the people down below are reverting to idolatry—worshipping a molten calf. Out of love, God had commanded that no one worship a lifeless object, the work of human hands, which cannot forgive or give life. Out of love, He allowed Moses to plead successfully for his wayward people in a way that foreshadows Jesus, ‘who pleads for us at the right had of the Father.’ Moses did not justify idolatry. He urged the people to repent of it even as he pleaded for them, even as he asked God’s love and mercy on their behalf.
In the second reading, a repentant St. Paul makes it abundantly clear that he was rescued from his former way of life, that of persecuting Christ’s followers, only to be forgiven by God’s mercy and called to be an apostle: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost!”
And in the Gospel, we read of the lost sheep and the lost coin, powerful images of ourselves when we stray from God’s truth and love. Neither the sheep nor the coin could find themselves; they had to be recovered. So too we cannot save ourselves or make ourselves righteous. Only the Good Shepherd and His Church, our Mother, can do that!
It is in the story of the prodigal son, however, where Jesus makes it very clear that even a deliberate decision to stray from the Father’s household can be forgiven so long as we are willing under God’s grace to reverse it. The prodigal son made a bad choice with bad consequences: he left home, squandered his inheritance, and wound up in penury. Then the young man made a good choice: obeying the promptings of God’s grace, he acknowledged the wrong he had done and he decided to return to his father who was only too happy to forgive his wayward son beyond all expectations. The elder son, like many good people, misunderstood: he equated laxity and mercy. The father had not condoned the wrong his son had done. Rather, he wanted to celebrate the change that had occurred in the heart of his son just as the Church in heaven and on earth rejoices over just one repentant sinner. Without moral truth there is no mercy, only laxity. And laxity is not love.
III. Witnesses to God’s Reconciling Love
How we should rejoice in the divine truth and love so evident in today’s liturgy and ask that it be unleashed in our hearts as we go about our daily lives. Come to think of it, this time of year has the feel of a new beginning as the summer recedes. So, it is an appropriate time for us all to welcome afresh God’s truth and mercy by frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to resolve to be a force for moral truth and reconciliation in our own culture, within our families, among our acquaintances and friends, in the workplace, and within our very fragmented culture that permits everything and forgives nothing.
When we are at peace with God and the Church and thus at peace with ourselves, then it is that we can be authentic, convincing witnesses to God’s reconciling love. Like St. Paul, we can testify by word and deed that we have been rescued by the love of Christ crucified! In the light of Christ’s love we can understand sin for what it is. Sin never makes us happy. Sin never enhances our dignity. Sin never helps us in our relationship with God and those around us. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the love of Christ crucified is applied in a very direct and personal manner to the wounds of our sins, so that we might experience healing and true freedom and authentic joy. We can say with St. Paul—‘He loves me and He gave His life for me!’
A wonderful priest friend of mine once was asked why he was so happy. Even on the worst of days, he maintained a joyful spirit. His answer, “I guess it’s because I go to confession often. If God can forgive my sins, what else is there to worry about?”
The more we experience God’s tender love, his capacity to forgive us, his desire to restore our dignity and to raise us to the heights of holiness, the more capable we will be of touching many minds and hearts with a love at once beautiful, tender, and powerful…capable of evangelizing a hardened culture from within with a joy that nothing and no one can take away from us. May we all be living signs of God’s mercy at work in our hearts—a mercy that can accomplish more than we could ever ask or imagine!
And may God bless us and keep us always in His love!