Speaking as a Sinner
“My name is David, and I am an alcoholic.” This is the prescribed introduction for anyone who participates in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-Step programs. I know that there are some here today who recognize this introduction by personal experience. But even for those of us who have never attended an AA meeting, the significance of that sentence is still evident. Ever since 1935, when Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in Akron, Ohio, hundreds of thousands of people have used AA’s 12-Step process to achieve a viable and rewarding life. AA has also given birth to a number of other programs helping people cope with the addiction to narcotics, overeating, and gambling.
The essential premise for all these 12-Step programs is enshrined in that one sentence introduction: “I am an alcoholic.” AA recognizes that things will not change, people will not grow, until they can recognize that they have a problem. Nothing is going to become better as long as people deny that there is a sickness, as long as they refuse to ask for help.
This is a profound insight into the human condition, and it is connected directly to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. There Jesus says, “I have come not to save the righteous, but sinners”. Jesus is asserting that he has come to save those who are in need, those who are sinful. Therefore, if we want to have a relationship with him, we must own our need, we must admit our sinfulness. So let’s try this sentence on for size: “My name is George, and I am a sinner”. Put your own name into the sentence and see how it feels. “My name is ______, and I am a sinner.” Do you find that there is a part of you that is arguing against this statement? Is there a piece of you that insists, “That sentence really doesn’t apply to me. I’m not really a sinner, I’m really not that bad.” In one sense, you are correct. You may not be a horrendous sinner, a murderer or someone who has ruined someone else’s reputation. But in another sense, are you saying that you have no shortcomings, that you have no needs which should be addressed? “Oh,” you say, “if that’s what you mean, of course. There is always room to grow.” That is exactly what I mean. So here is my question: If we admit that there is room to grow, if we admit that we need to change, why do we resist calling ourselves sinners?
Here is what I think: I think we believe we can change things ourselves. I think we recognize that there are places in our life where we need to grow, but we convince ourselves that they are not important enough to warrant bothering God with them. Yes, we need to be a bit more patient, or less judgmental, or more generous. It would be good if we dropped a few pounds or quit smoking. We do need to be more honest with our spouse, or spend more time with our family, or find the courage to say “no” to someone who is taking advantage of us. Yes, these are areas where we should grow, but they are really not important enough to bother God with them. We convince ourselves that we can take care of these things ourselves.
Now I ask you, what kind of thinking is this? It is denial. It is denying that we have a problem, denying that that problem is important enough to move us to change. How long are we going to wait until we deal with patience? Until we stop smoking? Until we find the courage to say “no”? It might seem polite that we decide not to bother God with our needs. But it is not polite at all. It is God’s job to meet our needs. God is our savior, and if we insist on saving ourselves, we turn our relationship with God upside down and distort our roles within it. If we think that we can solve our own needs ourselves, it is impossible to have an honest relationship with God. God is the giver; we are receivers. God is the healer; we are the ones in need. God is the one who saves; we are the sinners.
Now of course, this doesn’t mean that God works in our life in some magical way. God depends upon our cooperation, our openness, our willingness to exert some effort. But what sense does it make to have an all-powerful and loving God if we do not turn to God in our time of need? It makes no sense at all unless we want to delude ourselves, unless we want to deny that we need to ask for help.
The gospel invites us to move out of denial and to face the truth, to recognize that there is no need so small that it is inappropriate to bring it to God. Let us leave our pride and recognize our need to grow. If you need to be patient, ask for God’s help. If you need to stop smoking, ask for God’s help. If you need the courage to say no, ask for God’s help. You know what your needs are. Admitting you need help is not a failure. It is the essential step toward a richer life. We are people who need to change. The good news is that Jesus came to save sinners like us.
The Difference between Sacrifice and Mercy
June 8, 2008
“What have you done for me lately?” We have all heard this question before. Whether it has arisen in a business setting or a family setting, that question defines a certain kind of relationship. “What have you done for me lately?” defines a relationship in which we are expected to give to another, in which we are expected to sacrifice on behalf of another. In this kind of relationship, if we do not produce, if we do not do what is expected, if we do not deliver, then it is very likely that the relationship will come to an end.
Now I think that many of us look at our relationship to God in these terms. We imagine God saying to us, “What have you done for me lately? Have you been patient with your spouse, even though that’s difficult? Have you given time to your family, even though that is a sacrifice? Have you promoted justice? Have you welcomed the stranger? Are you giving yourself to build my kingdom?” But if we were to define our relationship to God in terms of those kinds of expectations, we would be doing our relationship with God a disservice.
This is not because the actions I just described are unimportant. It is important that we are patient with our spouse, that we do justice, that we welcome the stranger. Nor does it mean that those expectations are imaginary. God does expect us to spend time with our families and give ourselves to the building of God’s kingdom. But if we were to use those actions, those expectations for us, as the basis of a relationship, we would be skewing our relationship to God. Because prior to any action on our part, more fundamental than any success or failure on our part, God establishes a relationship to us on the basis of God’s free choice and God’s endless grace. God’s grace is prior to our deeds. God’s mercy is more fundamental than our sacrifice.
This truth is revealed most clearly as we watch Jesus interact with sinners. In today’s gospel Jesus calls tax collectors and sinners to himself. By so doing he is making it very clear that our relationship to God is not based upon our goodness or holiness. It is based upon God’s goodness and God’s holiness. If Jesus’ fundamental question was “What have you done for me lately?” the sinner could only respond “Nothing.” And that would be that. But as we watch Jesus’ action it becomes clear that even when we have nothing to offer, God nevertheless seeks us out and claims us as God’s own. Not because we deserve it, but because that is the way God is.
Now it is very important for us that we let this truth influence the way that we think about our faith. We must allow it to influence how we believe. When someone asks us, “Why are you a Christian?” if the first think you think about is being good, being a moral person, you are taking what is in second place and putting it in first place. What is in first place is not our moral response to God. (Indeed, we could find many people who don’t even believe in God who are better people and more moral than we are.) What is to be in first place is not our moral goodness, but God’s boundless love. When someone asks you, “Why are you a Catholic?” if the first thing you think about is rules and regulations and laws that direct our actions, you are replacing what is fundamental with something that is derivative. Because the first thing we should think of when someone asks us why are we a Catholic is that we believe in a God who created us and saved us out of love—a God who will be with us though all our phases of life, both when we are good and when we are not. That is the Good News. That is putting first things first.
In the gospel today, Jesus tells the scribes, “Go and learn the meaning of this saying ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” But it’s not only important for the scribes to learn what that saying means. It is important for us as well. We need to learn that our faith is not about our sacrifice, but about God’s mercy. A mercy that is prior to any action on our part. A mercy that is deep and lasting. And when we learn that, then we can live each day in thankfulness and hope. Because we know that our life is not founded on our successes or ruined by our failures. It is founded on God’s endless mercy. And God’s mercy is not a single action. It is the air we breathe. It is the sea in which we swim. When we realize that, then we’ll be able to say without any doubt, “God’s love is the foundation of my faith. God’s mercy is the reason I am a believer.”