29. Can Sinners Belong?

When Jesus invited Simon Peter to be one of his closest companions, Peter objected because he felt unworthy: “depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). But Jesus wanted Peter just the same. And that was only the start: the criticism most often leveled against Jesus by the religious leaders of the day was that he “mixed with sinners.”

Years later, Matthew’s gospel made a special feature of Jesus’ ancestry, opening with a majestic announcement: “the story of the origin of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham ...” Then it goes on to link Jesus with an unlikely lot, including liars and cheats, betrayers and prostitutes.

There is only one thing worse than allowing sinners to know they belong; it is making them feel they don't belong.

As for gloriously reigning monarchs of the house of David, of the fourteen Judean kings that Matthew lists between David and deportation, only two ... could be considered as faithful to God’s standards ... The rest were an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels. David himself was a stunning combination of saint and sinner. There was, of course, the arranged murder of Bathsheba’s husband so that David might possess the wife legally. Even more indicative of David’s shrewd piety was his personal innocence combined with mafia-like politics whereby his relatives murdered opponents for him ...

This curious story of a Davidic monarchical institution that had divine origins but was frequently corrupt, venal, and uninspiring, was also part of “the story of the origin of Jesus Christ.”
(Raymond Brown, “The Genealogy of Jesus Christ,” in Worship, November 1986)

The gospel writer could have politely skipped over some of these characters. More worthy people could have been included. But the gospel is simply comfortable with the fact that human sinfulness is not what ultimately counts. What counts is what God is doing - writing straight with our crooked lines. Human sinfulness is overturned by God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Raymond Brown further notes that in Jesus’ genealogy, coming closer to his own time, we find

a collection of unknown people whose names never made it into sacred history for having done something significant. In other words, while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God’s people to a low point in recorded history (the deportation), unknown people, presumably also proportionately divided among saints and sinners, were the ones through whom God brought restoration. This is yet another indicator of the unpredictability of God’s grace that accomplishes God’s purposes through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable.

That is how it was leading up to Jesus. And that is how it has been ever since. Sometimes people have been “scandalised” because it seemed so easy for sinners to feel at home in the Catholic Church. In spite of feeling unworthy or unholy, they have known they still belong.

Sin and failure, followed by repentance and reform, and then more sin and failure, have been the story of the Church. This goes back even to the beginning if we include Judas and Peter and Levi and Mary Magdalene. So it would be a sad day if people who are struggling with sin of one kind or another felt the Church was meant only for respectable people, and that they themselves didn’t qualify. There is only one thing worse than allowing sinners to know they belong; it is making them feel they don’t belong.

It is not as if sin doesn’t matter, or that living a good life doesn’t matter. The point is why they matter. In Jesus’ time, the religious leaders thought that through their good works and good lives they earned God’s favor. But it’s the other way around. A good life is what we want to live when we discover that we don’t have to earn God’s favor, because it is all gift. Good works are the works of faith because they come from knowing God loves us.

God, being rich in faithful love, through the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life with Christ - it is through grace that you have been saved - and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus. This was to show for all ages to come through his goodness towards us in Christ Jesus, how extraordinarily rich he is in grace. Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of our own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

Not to live that kind of life is to exclude one’s self from what God is doing in the world.

Jesus’ rejection of sin and his acceptance of sinners live on in what Catholics call the sacrament of penance, or reconciliation. This sacrament brings us to the point of confessing our sins and being sorry for them, which includes a willingness to do better and to repair any harm we have done by our sins. When you name an unpleasant truth about yourself and then find that instead of being thought less of you are received with understanding, respect, and forgiveness, you experience what others experienced when they heard Jesus say to them: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.”

In this sacrament, it is still Jesus who says this, through one who has been ordained to make present what he is doing. Knowing this is deeply reassuring, and is a reason for joy and thanksgiving. It is also empowering for the journey still in front of you:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

For Practice

Read Jesus’ daring description of God’s desire to forgive in Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal son. Reflect on a time when you were touched by the forgiveness of another.

For Prayer

I thank you, God, with all my heart,
you have heard the words of my mouth.
In the presence of your angels I will bless you;
I will adore before your holy temple.

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which are greater than all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

Psalm 138:1-3