Know the Sinner
September 12, 2004
God does not want us to be sinners, but that is what we are. Now fortunately for most of us, we are not terrible sinners. We are not murderers or embezzlers or those who ruin the reputations of others. But the basic meaning of the word “sin” applies to us all. The Hebrew word for “sin” comes from a verb which means “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” All of us fall short from being the people we are called to be. We are often ungrateful, taking our blessings for granted, complaining even though we have so much. We are sometimes indulgent, wasting our time and our resources on ourselves when so many others are in need. We can be lazy, refusing to take care of our own health, assuming a careless attitude towards our responsibilities. Often we are prejudiced, impatient and nasty with those we love.
Now these flaws are not criminal acts, but they certainly “miss the mark” of goodness. So what should our attitude be to these imperfections, to these sins which are an ongoing part of our lives? I think it would be a mistake to define ourselves in terms of our sinfulness, to conclude that we are worthless, or to beat ourselves up about our poor decisions. But I also think it would be a mistake to treat our sins too lightly, to brush them aside saying, “This is just a part of life.” In fact, a good case could be made that acknowledging our flaws can make the life we live stronger, that mourning our sins can open the door to growth.
Acknowledging our imperfections, allowing ourselves to feel the damage that results from our poor decisions can lead to two positive results. We can have a clearer understanding of God’s love and we can treat others with more compassion.
It takes a sinner to understand the love of God. Those who are blind to their imperfections or ignore the weight of their sins completely misread God’s love. They assume that God is loving them because they are good. They do not understand that God’s love does not result from what they do. God loves them because God is love and God chooses to love. It takes a sinner to understand the truth of the two parables in today’s gospel, to understand why the shepherd goes out to seek the lost sheep, why the woman carefully cleans her house to find the coin. It is a free decision to seek what is lost, a choice to love without any regard for the merit of that which must be found, a decision to act which is independent of a person’s virtues or vices. Those who acknowledge their own sinfulness are those who understand the depth and the freedom of God’s love at once.
So owning our imperfections allows us to see God correctly. It also gives us a new orientation towards our neighbor. It allows us to see others with compassion. When we know that we are not perfect, we have greater patience with others who are also weak. When we realize our own flaws, we have greater understanding towards all the other flawed individuals around us. Those who are always criticizing and judging others are those who are blind to their own sins, those who do not appreciate the damage that their poor decisions have caused.
To be a sinner is our distress. To know that we are a sinner is our hope. Because acknowledging our sinfulness can allow us to appreciate the freedom and depth of God’s love and to treat each other with compassion. So do not deny your flaws, do not to pretend that your sins do not exist. We are called to admit our sinfulness, to own it, and to realize the damage we have done, so that we might for the first time really understand why God loves us, so that we can with compassion deal with all the other sinners around us.
God does not want us to be sinners. But that is what we are. So there is nothing wrong in claiming the truth. We do so not so that we can become depressed and dejected, but rather so that we can love God and neighbor in a deeper, truer way.
God’s Promise to Come
September 16, 2007
Luke 15: 1 – 32
A young family with four children decided to take a camping trip in YosemiteNational Park. The scenery was breathtaking and it was wonderful having the family together for vacation. Their only concern was that the youngest child, a boy of 8 years old named Peter, was a bit too anxious to explore the park. Whenever he would see anything that was unusual or different he would want to run over to examine it more closely. Now his parents warned him how dangerous it was to wander off on his own, and the boy tried to obey their directions. But one morning as the family was enjoying a particular beautiful mountain meadow, they realized that Peter was not with them. Immediately they began calling his name and searching for him in ever widening circles. But they had no success. They notified the park rangers and soon there were 15 – 20 people combing that region trying to find the boy. With each passing hour the parents became more frightened as they imagined what had happened to their son. But just before sunset one of the rangers saw the boy sitting on a rock by a waterfall and he called out his name. Peter had his head in his lap crying. When he heard the call, he looked up and the first thing that he said to the ranger was, “Are you here from my father?”
“Well yes,” the ranger said, “there are many people looking for you and your parents are very concerned. What have you been doing?”
“Waiting,” the boy said. “Waiting for someone to come. My father told me that if I ever got lost I should find a safe place and wait. And he would come for me.”
“You must have been frightened” said the ranger.
“Very,” said the boy, “but my father promised he would come, and my father doesn’t lie to me”.
This simple story of Peter might help us appreciate the dramatic claim that Jesus makes in today’s Gospel. He promises us that when we are lost, God will come for us. Like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, like a woman searching for a lost coin, God will never rest until God finds us and saves us.
Now that is a beautiful and important insight but it requires faith to believe it. Anyone one of us can find ourselves in a situation where we feel lost, where we feel there is little hope, where we feel abandoned and alone. In those situations it is difficult to believe that God is coming for us. It is difficult not to conclude that God is passive or unconcerned. But instead believe that God is active and on the way to find us.
Like Peter what we need to do is wait and watch for God’s coming. Perhaps there is some issue in our family, at work, or school that troubles and dismays us. We keep asking ourselves why is this so difficult why can’t this be different? Of course we are always required to make our best decision to attempt to resolve the difficulty. But even as we do our best, we must also watch for God’s arrival. Somehow in that trouble or issue God has promised us to come and show us the way. Perhaps we have been hurt by loss or rejection. We feel empty and alone. We say to ourselves, why can’t I get beyond this? Why am I stuck here in my grief and my pain? Even as we do our best to find the way forward, our faith tells us that we must also wait and watch for the particular ways in which God will come into our loss and show us life. Perhaps we are worried about someone we love, someone whom we are afraid is going to make a disastrous decision, someone who is sick, someone who seems unable to respond to our love. We feel helpless. We know that there is nothing we can do on our own to turn that situation around. Even as we watch for a time and an opportunity in which we can do something positive, we are still asked to believe that God loves the people in our life even more that we do, that God is on the way to find them and to save them.
Now this arrival of God in our lives is not magic. It seldom comes as a lightening bolt, crashing in to our life and eradicating all trouble or fear. But as people of faith the Gospel challenges us to remember that God will not forget us. Even in our darkest moments we must be on the watch for God’s arrival which can bring us some courage, some insight, some growth, some joy. It is easy to believe in God’s love when everything is going well, when one good thing follows another. But it is a challenge to believe that God is actively coming to us when our life is falling apart, when we see little hope, when we feel alone. But it is in those moments that we are challenged to believe and to trust that God is on the way.
It today’s Gospel Jesus makes an important promise, He assures us that God is coming and we must watch for God’s arrival. We might be frightened and discouraged but we are challenged to believe that God has promised to come and find us—and our God does not lie.
The God Who Finds Us
September 12, 2010
Luke 15: 1-32
When I was in the second year of my seminary formation I was assigned to field education at St. Brendan’s Parish in North Olmsted. My supervisor at the time was the Pastor, John Kenney. John Kenney was Irish and he was proud of it. He was also warm, witty, and wise. I learned a great deal that year shadowing him during his pastoral duties. But in some ways the most significant thing I learned was in the first week that I was at the parish. During a social parish function a concerned mother ran up to Father Kenney and began to unload. “Fr. Kenney I am so glad I ran into you. I am worried about my son Matt. I think he has lost his faith. Now we did everything that we could. We sent to Matt to Catholic schools. We went to church as a family. We prayed at home. But once he graduated high school and went into college, his faith was gone. He will not go to church with us now, and he will not even speak about anything religious. Father, I love my son and I do not know what else to do. I just want him to find God.”
Fr. Kenney sighed deeply. You could tell that he identified with the woman’s pain. Then he said, “Linda, you’ve done everything that you could. Matt now is an adult, and he will have to make his own decisions. But don’t give up hope. Give it time, and never forget this. Matt might have no desire to find God, but God has a burning desire to find Matt.”
Those words of John Kenney were true wisdom and true faith. We do not believe in a God who sits back and waits for us to come. We believe in a God who is active, who reaches out to seek and find us. That is what the two small parables in today’s Gospel are telling us. Like a shepherd who searches for a lost sheep or a woman who searches for a lost coin, our God is active, searching for us, finding us, and bringing us to life and to joy.
The parable of the woman and the coin is very helpful here. It is a strange parable. What is it about this woman and the coin? The text says the coin is a dracma. This was a small little silver coin. It was not worth much. You could not buy much with it. Yet this woman lights a lamp and sweeps her house to find this little coin. How can we explain her desire to find it? One way is by realizing that there was at the time of Jesus a custom in Palestine that a woman on her wedding day would wear a special headdress on which silver coins had been attached. Those coins then became a symbol of the love and commitment of her marriage – much like a wedding ring is for us today. So if we imagine that the woman’s lost coin is one of her wedding coins, the parable teaches us an important lesson. The woman is so anxious to find that coin, not because of its monetary value—that was small. She searches for the coin because of what that coin meant to her. That coin was a part of her marriage and a part of her life.
The parable tells us that God is like the woman in the parable. God is committed to find us, not because we are so holy or perfect or successful but because we mean so much to God. God has freely chosen us to be daughters and sons. This truth is good news for us. It means that there is nothing that we can do to stop God from saving us. God reaches out to find us not because of our love for God but because of God’s love for us.
We can be embarrassed and discouraged by the sins that we have committed, by the failures and mistakes that we have made. But none of those sins or failures will stop God from reaching out and drawing us close. We might be lost in depression or in addiction to alcohol or pornography. We might be caught in a hurtful relationship that is consuming us alive, and we might not ever think of God or pray to ask for help. But that will not stop God for coming towards us like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, determined to bring us home. We might be worried about a son or a daughter, a family member or a friend who is miserable and seems to have no faith from which to draw strength. But we believe that even as the person we love is caught in that paralyzed and painful state, God is already acting, searching like a woman searching for a lost coin because that coin has value for her.
Now of course it is always better if we welcome God’s approach, if we know our need, if we ask for God’s help. God’s coming to us is much easier whenever we are open to it. But even if our hearts are closed, even if selfishness has blinded us, even if we are lost and we do not even realize we are lost, God still wants to seek us out and find us. And what God wants, God usually gets.
September 15, 2013
Luke 15: 1-10
Sheep Number 98 turned to Sheep Number 99 and said, “They’re baaack.”
Sheep 99 looked up from the grass on which he was munching and saw their shepherd coming towards them. On his shoulders, joyfully placed, was a tattered and somewhat still panicked Sheep Number 100. Sheep 99 shook his head. “It’s always the same story. No matter how often Sheep Number 100 gets lost, he never learns, and our shepherd goes searching for him. The problem with Sheep Number 100 is that he doesn’t listen. What is the basic rule of our flock?”
All the sheep around him lifted their heads and cried out “Stick together!”
“Right.” said Sheep Number 99, “Stick together. That’s what our shepherd asks of us. But Sheep 100 never obeys. He simply does what he wants to do.”
Sheep Number 98 said, “I’m fed up with this. Let’s go talk to the shepherd.”
So the two of them went over to the shepherd. They found him seated still picking thorns and brambles out of the fleece of Sheep Number 100. “We’re unhappy,” they said.
“Really?” said the shepherd. “What’s the problem?”
“You’re never around anymore. You’re always going looking for Sheep 100. You know he’s never going to learn.”
“I have my hopes,” said the shepherd, placing Sheep 100 back on the grass and giving him a light pat on the rump.
“But what are we supposed to do while you’re out on the hills searching for the lost sheep?”
“Do you have food to eat?” asked the shepherd.
“Yes,” said the sheep. “But a wolf might come.”
“Has a wolf come?” asked the shepherd.
“No, but it could. We just don’t understand why you keep going out searching for Sheep 100.”
“I love him,” said the shepherd.
“Well, what about us?” said Sheep Number 98 and 99.
“I love you too.” said the shepherd. “I hope you know that.”
But Sheep 98 and 99 would not give up. “It’s because you love us and because we love you that we want you here, instead of out on the hills looking for Sheep 100. He has you all the time. What do we have?”
The shepherd sighed. “I haven’t forgotten you. I thought the gift that I gave you was obvious. . . .You have one another.”
There are times when you and I mess things up, times when we get lost in all kinds of nonsense. On those days we are Sheep Number 100. But on most days, we are among the 99. We try to keep the rules. We try to be attentive to our responsibilities as parents, spouses, and friends. We try to do what is right. So it can be difficult when God seems to be paying more attention to those who do not try to do what is right. It might be someone we know who is manipulative and self-serving and yet is tremendously successful, having money and living a life style that we could never hope for. It might be someone who is phony and deceitful and yet has more friends and influence than we have. It might be someone who does not contribute, never pitches in, and yet shows up at work, school, or church for some event and simply benefits off the work that other people have done. Why is it that people who lack integrity, generosity, and charity seem to be doing fine, while we who are trying to do what is right are barely making it? When you are in the 99, it is easy to become jealous of those who break the rules and are still blessed, of those who make poor choices and still claim God’s love.
The danger of being in the 99 is that we will resent the love and blessing that God gives to others and forget the love and blessing that God gives to us. The fact that God is caring for those who broke the rules does not mean that God has less love for those who keep the rules. The fact that God is searching for the one who is lost does not mean that God has forgotten those who are faithful.
Therefore the challenge for us is that instead of resenting what God has given to others, we should be thankful for what God has given to us. Our shepherd has provided for us. We have food. We have safety. And, yes, we have one another. Moreover, if we are successful in being people of integrity, generosity, and service, then those are gifts from God as well. When we truly recognize and are thankful for what we have been given, we have no reason to complain.
We will never stop God from going after those who are lost. That simply is who God is. But finding them is not forgetting us. We must remember that God’s care and love are infinite. So there is always enough love for those who wander, and just as much for those who remain.
September 11, 2016
We all know the parable of the lost sheep—or do we? What challenges us about this parable is that there are two versions of it, one in the gospel of Matthew and the other in the gospel of Luke. And the two are not the same. Matthew’s version is better known. In it a shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes astray. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness and finds the sheep. In this version of the parable, the shepherd is usually seen to represent God, the God who seeks out any one of us who goes astray. So in Matthew, this parable is about God seeking out what is lost.
Luke’s version, which is today’s gospel, is different. In his story, the sheep does not go astray. The shepherd loses it. Luke says, “Which one of you having 100 sheep and losing one of them…” So if the shepherd in Luke loses the sheep, he cannot represent God. God loses nothing. The shepherd in Luke’s version must represent us, because we are the ones who sometimes lose what is important to us. Luke’s parable intends to reflect upon that experience.
How does a shepherd lose a sheep? By not noticing that it is missing. It is hard to watch 100 animals, but a good shepherd knows how to keep his eye on what belongs to him. So Luke’s parable poses this question to us: What person or what thing of value could be missing from your life and you have not yet noticed that it is gone? Could it be a son, daughter, or elderly parent whose circumstances have changed and now need you in a new way, and you are still living life as usual? Could it be a friend who has lost respect for you because of a mistake or insensitivity and has now left your life, and you have not yet realized the absence? Could it be a joy that once was a part of your work or your marriage but now has gone missing? Our lives are full, as full as a field of 100 sheep, and that is why someone or something important can slip away without us noticing that it is gone.
Here is where the example of the shepherd in Luke’s version of the story is valuable. This shepherd, once he notices that he has lost something important, goes out immediately to find it. He makes it his top priority and puts everything else aside, including 99 other things which he also values. He is determined to find what has slipped away. This shepherd does not surround himself with regret, saying, “I should have noticed that she was leaving. I should have been more sensitive.” This shepherd does become stuck in self-pity, concluding, “I am really not that good a shepherd, or a parent, or a friend.” This shepherd chooses to act, to search out the one thing that is missing. He is determined to make his life whole again.
Luke’s version of the sheep story calls us to that kind of action. Once we notice the one person or the one thing that we have lost in our lives, this parable encourages us to expend all our energy to find it. Now, of course, there is no guarantee that we will be successful. Some people leave our lives, and we can never find a way to bring them back. Some blessings slip away, and we can never claim them again. But it is important to make the effort. Even if we have to leave behind 99 other valuable things, our attempt is worth it. This parable understands that when we find the one person, the one thing who has slipped away, there is a particular kind of joy. Then we will be able to say to our neighbors and our friends, “Rejoice with me, because my daughter, my friend, my joy that I lost I have now found again.”
The Lost Coin
September 15, 2019
If you listen carefully to the second parable in today’s gospel, you might be left with a question. Why is the woman so determined to find her lost coin? Your query would only be heightened if you realized that the coin was not that valuable. The text tells us that it was a drachma. It is estimated that a drachma was worth a little under a quarter. Yet when the woman finds her coin is missing, she lights a lamp and sweeps the entire house, searching carefully until she finds it. When she does find it, she does an even more peculiar thing. She invites her friends and neighbors over to celebrate. Now what would you think if your neighbor invited you to her house for a party because she found a quarter? What’s going on here?
It would help us to realize that at the time of Jesus there was a Palestinian custom that a bride on her wedding day would wear a special a special headdress. On that headdress coins were attached to indicate prosperity and good luck. Now, if we suppose that the coin in the parable was one such coin, suddenly the woman’s action makes sense. She is not looking for a quarter. She is looking for her wedding coin, which today would be comparable to a wedding ring. She is searching for it not because of its monetary value, but because what the coin means to her.
This relationship then between the woman and the coin is very similar to God’s relationship to us. In God’s eyes we are valuable because of what we mean to God. This is important because there are times when we can feel that we have lost value. Perhaps we have hurt someone deeply because of selfishness or fear, and this brought an important relationship in our life to a close. Perhaps we are struggling with a destructive habit, the abuse of alcohol or pornography. As hard as we try, we are not able to bring that habit under control. Perhaps we have less energy or ability because of sickness or advancing age. We are not able to contribute in the way in which we once could. Whatever the reason, there are times that we feel that our value has slipped, our worth is reduced, and we are not the people we can or should be. In those circumstances the parable of the woman and the coin reminds us that we still have value in God’s sight. God still cares for us and treasures us. God is committed to finding us. This is because our worth is not dependent on how perfectly we have lived or how much we are able to do. Our worth depends on what we mean to God. And we mean a lot. We mean enough for God to create us, save us, and keep searching to bring us closer, closer to the life that God wants us to live.
So, however down your spirits may be, however lost you may feel, just remember that even now God has lit the lamp and is sweeping away ever obstacle, so that he can say to the angels of heaven, “Rejoice with me, for here is my beloved daughter or son whom I have been able to bring closer to myself.”