Accept the Forgiveness of God
September 12, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14) Reading II (1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Gospel (St. Luke 15:1-32)
In all the readings today, we hear about the mercy of God. In the first reading, we see the high priest, Aaron, making a golden calf and all the people bowing down and worshiping the golden calf and saying, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!" The golden calf was a god of the Egyptians. He was the god of the desert. He was also a god of rain and fertility and so on, but primarily the god of the desert, which is why they would have been worshiping a golden calf: so that they would be able to be taken care of out in the desert. Now anyone can look at that and say, "What is a piece of metal going to do for you? What is something that is made in the image of a beast that does not even have an intellect going to be able to do for you?" But since that is what the people had come out of, how easily and quickly they had fallen back into the exact same sin.
And so as Moses stands before the Lord on Mount Sinai having just received the two tablets of the Ten Commandments from the Lord, God puts him to the test. He tells Moses about what the people are doing and if you look at the wording of it, it is very intriguing. The Lord says to Moses, Go down to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt. He tells him that they have become depraved and says to him, Stand aside so that My blazing wrath will rise up. I will wipe them out and make of you a great nation. Moses, whom Scripture tells us was the meekest man on the face of the earth, a man of humility, a man of prayer and righteousness, rather than getting puffed up with pride and saying, "God will make of me a great nation and won’t I be a great one," instead he turns and says, They are Your people whom You brought out of the land of Egypt. Not mine – they’re Yours! Remember the promises that You made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that You would make of them a great nation. So Moses, being the mediator, had passed the test, and God from that point on was able to tell the people of Israel that it was because Moses stood in the breach otherwise the people would have been wiped out.
When we look at our own sins, of course we realize that we too should be completely exterminated. We have no right in and of ourselves to come before the Lord; we have sinned. Maybe we have not made a golden calf for ourselves but we certainly have our own idols that we bow down before: money, the TV set, prestige, position, title, whatever it might be. Just take a look at your own life and ask yourself, "What is my little false god? What is it that I have set up in place before the Lord?"
But we recall toward the end of the Book of Deuteronomy that Moses made a promise to the people that God was going to raise up a prophet like himself. And so we hear about Our Lord. Saint Paul, as he writes to Timothy in the second reading, tells all about how Jesus Himself is now the One Who has redeemed us. He did the exact same thing as Moses: He stood in the breach so that our sins could be forgiven.
Now Saint Paul, looking at himself, says, I was arrogant. I was a blasphemer. I persecuted the Church. Of everybody who is a sinner, I myself am the foremost. I think that any of us, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, would probably have to say that we could give Saint Paul a pretty good run for his money. When we look at who the worst sinner is, we would all like to be able to point our finger at somebody else; but the reality is that if we are going to be honest and we are going to be humble at all, we have to come before the Lord and say, "I myself am the worst." But Saint Paul points out to us that it was so Our Lord could demonstrate His patience and His mercy. It is for this reason that He took the one who was persecuting the Church, the one who was the most notorious in all of Israel for what it was that he was doing, and that was the one He chose to be one of His apostles.
I find it fascinating, when we look at the readings today, some of the correlations that are there. Saint Paul would have been (for lack of a better term) the "Ultimate Jew", the "Ultimate Pharisee". He even tells us that there was nobody who surpassed him when it came to righteousness according to the Law. Remember that Saint Paul was taught by the greatest rabbi of all time, Rabbi Gamaliel, and Saint Paul was his star pupil. So of all the Jews who were alive at the time of Saint Paul, according to the Pharisaical way of looking at Judaism he was the top. There was no one who was better. What that meant is that anyone who was not a Jew would have been seen in the eyes of Saint Paul as being nothing, and in fact less than that. So it is rather fascinating then when we read about the Prodigal Son, how he hires himself out and is sent to the swine, because that is how Saint Paul in his former days would have looked at the Gentiles. They were unclean. They were low-life. They were like the swine to a Jew. And he is sent to these people whom prior to that he would have assumed there was no hope. He would have assumed for these people that they were going to be condemned to eternity apart from God. But the Lord showed him that His love extended even to these people, that these too were His people. And to show the depth of His love, He sent Saint Paul to the very people that previously he [Saint Paul] would have condemned.
It is important for us to be able to see these patterns because there are many people who struggle with the concept of the forgiveness of their sins. We hear what Our Lord tells us, that there is more rejoicing over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine people who have no reason to repent. We see the mercy of God when someone stands in the breach to be able to turn the wrath of God away from us. As I was saying before, Moses promised that there would be another prophet like him. It is Our Lord Himself Who stood in the breach to turn away the justice of God so that we could have forgiveness, so that we could receive the mercy of God and our sins could be forgiven. It is difficult for us when we look at ourselves and say, "I am the worst. I don’t deserve to be forgiven." That is true. We are the worst and we do not deserve to be forgiven. What that means is we have done absolutely nothing to earn it or to deserve it. And we can do absolutely nothing to earn it or deserve it – it is a gift. Again, just look at the first reading and ask yourself, "What did Aaron and the people of Israel do to deserve not to be exterminated? What did they do to earn the mercy of God?" Absolutely nothing. They deserved to be completely wiped out. But because of the righteousness of Moses, God extended His mercy to the whole of the chosen people.
Now if that is the case with Moses, how much more with Our Lord, Who is God Himself, Who came into this world to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, Who continues even to this day – and indeed to this hour – to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, Who continues – as is a scandal to many – to enter into the houses of sinners and eat with them, in this case to enter into the very heart of a sinner and be eaten by him. God has humbled Himself to the point of being willing to enter into our hearts to be able to help us to understand just how much He loves us and how much He wants to forgive us. We have done absolutely nothing to deserve this. Would any one of us actually have the arrogance to stand up and say, "I have every right and I deserve, after all, to be able to come to the communion rail and receive God into myself because I am so righteous all by myself that I deserve it after all." I do not think there is any one of us who would even dare to make such a suggestion. We acknowledge right before receiving Communion that we are unworthy, and it is true. But it is God Who has made us worthy. It is not ourselves who have done it – it is He. How grateful we have to be.
But the forgiveness of sin is also not something which is automatic; we have our part to do in order to be forgiven. Again, when we look at the Gospel reading about the Prodigal Son, we are told as he is off in his sinful exploits that when he came to his senses he said, "I will get up and go to my father. I will say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and I no longer deserve to be called your son.’" So he gets up and goes to his father. And even though the father has already rushed out to greet him, to embrace him, to forgive him, the son still has to make the confession of his sin. The father did not stop him. And it was not until after the son confessed his sin that the father looked to the servant and said, "Quickly, bring out the finest robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Kill the fatted calf." Is it not interesting that they worshiped the golden calf but now they are killing the fatted calf to be able to celebrate that someone had returned to God, that someone had come home? The very thing that they worshiped became the sacrifice to be able to celebrate the reunion with God. So too for us. God is going to require that we make a confession of our sins and then He will put upon us once again the very finest robe – that is, sanctifying grace, the very life of God Himself – to restore us to the family, to make us His children. And He is going to ask of us to sacrifice the very thing that we were worshiping. What is your sin? Offer it in sacrifice to God. There is great rejoicing in heaven when one sinner converts.
When we realize and are really willing to admit that we are the worst, it does not mean necessarily that we ourselves have done the very worst thing that possibly could be done, but we do have to admit that if the people who are doing the very worst things that we can imagine were given the grace that we have been given they never would have done those things. In fact, if we had been given the grace that they have been given, we would probably be doing even worse than they. That is where we realize that even though we maybe have not done the very worst things possible, we have not cooperated with God’s grace and we are the least and the worst. If those people had been given the grace we have been given, they would be saints. What about us? Most of us would probably have to admit that we are very far from being the saints God wants us to be, and look at all the grace He has given us. Are we not the prodigal children who have squandered all of the inheritance our Father has given us? Yet He is right there to rush out to us, to embrace us, to accept the confession of our sins, and to restore us to His family. As Saint Paul reminds Timothy, This saying is trustworthy that Jesus Christ came into this world to save us from our sins. That is what we have to recognize.
It does not matter what your sin is. It does not matter how big, how shameful, how heinous it may be, it is tiny compared to the mercy of God. If there is something standing between you and God, and the devil is right there to tell you that you should not confess it, that you either cannot be forgiven because you are too horrible or because it is too shameful and you should never confess that to a priest, you tell that vile creature to go back where he came from. Tell him he is a liar and that the mercy of God is infinitely greater than the malice of Satan. Come before the Lord. Get down on your knees and beg Him for the humility to, number one, confess your sin, and number two, to accept His mercy. Allow yourself to be forgiven. Accept the forgiveness of God. Accept that you are a child of God, not that we deserve it but it is by God’s decree, and that He has clothed us with His sanctifying grace so that we could be restored to the family. If there is something between you and God, read the Gospel again. This is the One Who comes to sinners and eats with them. Just think about the joy you are going to cause in heaven when you come before the Lord to confess your sin. That is what we need to focus on. Do not look at the sin; look at the mercy. Look at the grace of God that is available to you. Humble yourself, confess your sin, and be restored to your place in God’s family.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording with minimal editing.