Sinfulness & Forgiveness

On July 22nd we celebrate the feast of St Mary Magdalene who loved Jesus with a passionate love. For a long time in the Church there was this unquestioned belief that she was a prostitute. Even though certain gospel texts may bias us towards that assumption, it was Pope Gregory the great that firmly established this stereotype. In his Easter sermon he applauded her conversion from being a sinner to becoming the “apostle to the apostles.” She was the first one to encounter the Risen Lord and He entrusted her with the earth-shaking truth of His resurrection. We will not know for sure whether she was a sinner or she was a pious woman who ministered to Jesus from her resources. One thing is, however, certain: she loved the Lord passionately. She stood by the cross while His disciples ran away. She sought to anoint his body on Easter Sunday and was distraught because she could not find Him. It is her passionate love for the Lord that made her one of the most important figures of the Early Church.

One of the gospel passages that have swayed some to look on her as a sinner is found in Luke 7:36-50. People have identified the sinful woman in that story as Mary Magdalene, rightly or wrongly. The story itself underscores a fundamental message that as disciples we should not ignore. It offers us a lesson that we should appropriate for ourselves and pass on to our children. That lesson is pure and simple: All of us are sinners, but our God offers His forgiveness without question.

Luke has more stories about women than any other gospel. He portrays women in a positive light and it is in his gospel that Mary emerges as the first and best disciple. He contrasts two individuals: Simon, the Pharisee, and the sinful woman. In the eyes of the respectable guests at that dinner Simon was the man of good repute who was worthy to sit at table with Jesus. The woman, on the other hand, had a bad reputation in that town. She was not even worthy to stand in the presence of that exalted group.

Touched by the woman’s courageous gestures of love, Jesus forgives her. She acknowledges herself as a sinner and as a result, she receives forgiveness. Moved by Jesus’ forgiveness, she loves Him all the more. In contrast, Simon does not consider himself to be in need of forgiveness and hence he is unmoved by sitting at table with Him. Unable to recognize how much the Lord was ready to forgive, he fails to feel any love for Him. In the encounter of these two opposing individuals, the words of the Master ring true: “He who is forgiven little, loves little.” In other words, our path to grow in our love for the Lord lies in our recognition of ourselves as sinners and in our realization that we have been forgiven much, very much.

That is why great saints saw themselves as great sinners. They were not pretending; they were speaking the truth just as they saw it. When King David acknowledged his great sin before Nathan, the prophet, he wrote that immortal Psalm 51 which resonates with the heart of true repentance. Every one of us is capable of praying the words that David wrote: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness, and blot out my offence. My sin is always before me. Create in me a clean heart, O God!” Paul who persecuted the Church before his dramatic conversion wrote again and again in his letters: “I am not worthy to be called an apostle.” The great St Francis of Assisi said: “There is nowhere a more wretched and a more miserable sinner than I.” He meant those words and he was not saying them for dramatic effect or for other people’s sympathy.

The declaration of our sinfulness is not meant to get us bogged down by guilt or to make us hang our heads in shame. It beckons us to lift our gaze towards heaven, towards the hill of Calvary where the Son of God categorically offered forgiveness to all. The cross of Christ asserts that no sin of man is greater than God’s love, that in Jesus our sins are washed away. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Within such a perspective, the Sacrament of Reconciliation becomes less about ourselves and more about God. Confession is no longer the Express Laundromat where we rush in to have our dirty linen cleaned. It is about encountering the mercy of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not about becoming “more perfect” but about delighting in the Lord’s unquestioning offer of pardon and about growing in our love for this God.

John Newton, a former slave driver, became a preacher of the gospel. He is gratefully remembered for the unforgettable hymn that he wrote. The first lines of that hymn move us every time:

 Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.

Let us join with the Sinful Woman of Luke’s gospel as we profess our deep love for our Savior because we have been forgiven much. Let us stand shoulder to shoulder with the great sinners who became great saints – Peter, the apostles, Paul, Augustine, Dorothy Day and Merton – and thank our Lord for His “amazing grace.”

Do not forget to go to confession and taste the Lord’s mercy. Enjoy the summer!

Mission Statement: As children of God, living in a Catholic community of faith, we are united by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Aware that all we have is gift and grace from our Heavenly Father, we strive to give of our time, talent and treasure to build His kingdom on earth. We live this mission, challenged by the Word, nurtured by the Sacraments, and enlivened by the Spirit, to serve our brothers and sisters in peace, justice and dignity. All are welcome on this journey.

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St. Paul of the Cross

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