The readings that we hear this Sunday, on the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, touch on some of the most difficult questions that we as Christians might find ourselves struggling with before God. These questions are: How is it possible that God allows evil to exist and grow alongside the good? Why are so many crimes left unpunished by God or treated so leniently? Why, in sum, is there this sort of permissive attitude on God’s part, as if He did not have the means to punish evil and check its spread?
I remember being asked questions like these a few years ago by the candidates to the parish’s confirmation class. It seemed at the time that the best way to answer this question was based in the answer that is always right when it comes to God, so I said “because God is love.”
As that did not seem to clear things up for them, I developed an example.
I asked the students in the confirmation class how many of their parents loved them. Happily, every student in the class put up her or his hand. I then asked how many of their parents loved their children very much. Again, every hand stayed up.
Now, knowing that all the children in the class felt and knew the love of their parents, I asked them if their parents should do everything that they could to keep them safe and protect them. They all answered “yes.” My response was, that given all the things that parents have to worry about, the only way that they could be absolutely sure they would always be well and safe was to lock them in their rooms and never let them out. This of course, would be to imprison them and take away their freedom; something that no loving parent would ever do to her/his child. When I asked them if they approved of this idea, they all gave a resounding “no.”
The situation is not too different with God our loving Father. God has created each of us in His image and likeness. He has created us in love and has an immense love for each of us. He knows the good that we are cable of and hopes that we will all aspire to the good He has placed within each of us. Out of love for each of us, He leaves our freedom in tact so that each might freely choose the good.
One of the attributes that we give most consistently to God is that God is love. It is because God is love, that He, as a loving parent, leaves you and I free and does not intervene each time we are about to make a mistake or sin by harming ourselves or another person. With the freedom that He has given us in love, comes His invitation that we use that freedom responsibly and care for the others that He has created for us to share this world with us. It is up to each of us to use our freedom lovingly to care for others and build a world that respects the gift that each person and this world is. When we fail to do this, we are sinning.
Because you and I are not perfect, God gives us time to grow and orient our lives towards Him and the offer of salvation that He has made to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. One of the best ways that we can start again and turn back to the Lord when we have sinned is to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, each of us is given a new beginning, and we return to the graces of our baptism. Because we are weak, we ought also to celebrate the Mass and receive the Eucharist as often as we can—at least every Sunday. We begin the celebration of every Mass by acknowledging that we are sinners in need of God’s love and mercy. We then hear God’s Word proclaimed to strengthen us on our journey and, as the high point of the Eucharistic celebration, receive the gift of Christ’s body and blood to help us walk with Him more faithfully. In these, and many other ways, God always shows us His patience and forgiveness.
Our God is always the God of second, third and fourth chances. He sees what we are made of, as we are made in His image and likeness. Because he has created us in the image and likeness, God believes in human beings.
I mentioned this a few weeks ago when I preached on the solemnity of our parish patron’s: Saints Peter and Paul. These two men were the most unlikely people to ever be saints on their own. Peter had a temper and was always doubting the Lord. He drew his sword when Jesus was arrested and betrayed the Lord three times. Yet, Jesus never lost hope in him. St. Paul is an even more unlikely character for sainthood. Paul was arresting Christians and turning them over to be killed or sold into slavery. When St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr was killed, Paul was standing there as Saul approving of his murder. Another great saint, St. Augustine, was a great sinner whose mother, St. Monica, prayed night and day for his conversion. It is only because of the patience and generosity of God’s mercy that these people were changed, became great saints and entered into the glory of God. Had God acted towards them in the manner that we might have been inclined to judge them, they may not have had time to change their lives and the millions of people who have come to know Christ through them might have also been lost.
I have shared with you before a saying that is attributed to St. Josemaria Escriva that says: “A saint is a sinner that keeps trying.” This saying in itself explains God’s patience and slowness to judge. God desires that we all become saints and that, unfortunately, takes time. Sadly, sometimes the only way for a person to discover the path to heaven is to try all the other paths. The great St. Augustine only learned the beauty of the Christian faith by tasting the emptiness of all of the other philosophies concocted by humanity. Some only know the freedom to be enjoyed by God’s children by escaping the many different forms of slavery that they can give themselves to through pride, addiction and self- delusion. Because God is patient, each one of us, sinners though we might be, can keep trying to be the saints that God has called each of us to be.
The lessons of this Sunday’s readings speak to us of God’s loving patience and call each of us to hope that with His grace we can change and overcome our sins. However, this does not give us permission to ignore His call or to delay in turning with endless excuses and procrastination. The day will come when the gardener will come and remove the weeds. There will be a day of judgement for all. For this reason, while we are always to live as a people of hope, turning to Lord for forgiveness, we can never give up and believe that we are evil and unworthy of salvation. Those created by the Lord must always retain their dignity and never accept that they are weeds. We must always strive to be the people God has called us to be and never accept that the devil can have the last word about our identity. We give up on God, and upon ourselves, when we let the devil and his word define who we believe ourselves to be. Those who retain their Christian dignity are those who like the Good Thief remain convinced until the end that they can be with the Lord in paradise. As long as there is breath within us or another, we must believe that salvation is possible.
The lives of the saints show us that a saint simply is a sinner who keeps on trying. Ultimately, the saints do not succeed on their own merits. Their perseverance finally breaks their hearts open to the grace of God so that He may change them and save them. Today’s first reading from the book of Wisdom speaks to us of the hope that each one of us ought to have in our struggles as we read: “and you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance of sins.” Paul tells us in Romans, that even when our sins have taken us so far away from God that we do not know how to pray, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” The parable of the weeds in the field speaks to us of the good and forgiving God proclaimed in the Responsorial Psalm, a God who wishes to give each of us time to change and repent.
The Good News for all of us in this Sunday’s readings is that no matter what our past and the sins that we have committed, God invites us to turn towards Him and claim our dignity as His children called to sainthood. The call that is given to us in these same readings is that we, like our loving Father are to be a people who are also able to forgive and allow second chances. We are to speak this message of hope to those who are lost and need to be reminded of the forgiveness and the second and third chances that God has to offer to them. Because God does not give up on us, we too must offer second chances and be witnesses of hope for others. We must never stop praying for those who appear to be lost. God has a plan to save everyone.
Jesus has taught us the most perfect prayer in the “Our Father.” In that prayer, we ask God to forgive us as we forgive those who have sinned against us. May we hear the parable of the weeds in the field and learn to give to others the second and third chances that we are always asking the Lord to extend to us.
Father Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Church—Toronto.
This week’s reflection based up the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8: 26-27; and Matthew 13: 24-43.