What prevents God's mercy from healing the wounds caused by sin? Only you.

When I was living in Mexico a few years ago, the following encounter was not uncommon when I met people living in the streets. At times we would meet people who had a serious injury, a large cut or broken bone, for example. After just a brief look it was clear that this individual needed to see a doctor otherwise there was no hope that they would get better. We would always tell the person this fact, and explain that we would take them and cover the expenses. The strange thing is that some would refuse to allow us to bring us to the hospital. They would tell us that their injury was not that bad and that they would get better on their own. I was reminded of these experiences when I was reflecting on the reading of today. These people never accepted the severity of their wound and as a result, they could not be helped to find healing.  A similar dynamic is at play in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In this parable we meet two people who respond very differently to the reality of sin in their lives. The Pharisee and the tax collector were in stark contrast in the way they viewed their own sinfulness.  One message of the parable is straightforward: each of us, without exception, is in need of God’s mercy. Taking as an analogy my experience in Mexico, we could say that each of us is seriously wounded as a result of sin and we require God’s healing. But here’s the point: in order for God to heal us, we must first recognize that we are wounded and ask for His help. Just as we could not force anyone to go to the hospital, God cannot force His mercy on those who do not think they need it. The Pharisee and tax collector were both sinners. The Pharisee is at least guilty of the sin of pride and despising others. Quite probably the sins of the tax collector were greater. He was cooperating with a foreign oppressor and had stolen from his countrymen. The way the two see the reality of sin in their lives makes all the difference. The Pharisee is convinced that he is not in need of God’s forgiveness because he follows the law perfectly; he is blind to the severity of his wound and therefore does not ask God for healing. The tax collector, on the other hand, is well aware of his need for God’s mercy and calls on God for healing. At the end of the day it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who is made right with God. This is all because the two men respond in a very different way to the reality of sin in their life.

In our own life, we can easily downplay the severity of sin. It is easy to forget the wide-ranging effects of our own sins. None of us would go as far as the attitude of the Pharisee, but isn’t it easy to think along these lines, “in comparison to other people my sins are not that bad … I haven’t robbed a bank or killed anyone!”?  Indeed, some sins are more serious than others. We should not, however, brush off our sins as “no big deal”. Often the full effects of our sin are hidden from us. Let me illustrate this with a story. Last week I was visiting my family was getting ready to return to St. Matthew’s as it was getting late. As I gathered my things from the table where I had placed them when I came in, I noticed that my keys were missing.  At first I was calm and I started to search under some other items on the table. As time went on I became more frantic. These weren't just any keys, these were the keys to the Church and the School! I knew if I lost them it would be bad news. My search became more serious. I called everyone who was at the dinner to see if they had taken them by mistake. I started to search with a flashlight down the heating ducts. After an hour of searching I had just about given up hope when I saw a large bowl full of decorations sitting on another table. I figured it was worth a shot. I started digging my hand into the bowl and low and behold … my keys were there! At that very moment a thought struck me: my niece! I have a five year old niece and though I couldn't prove it, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was responsible for hiding my keys. The next day, my niece was asked if she had hidden my keys. Her response: “aahhhhhh yes”. Why did she do it? “I was trying to be sneaky”, she said. This story illustrates well what happens when we sin. Like my niece, we know – at least to some extent -  that what we are doing is wrong. At the same time we are not usually aware of the full effects of our actions. My niece had no way of knowing much stress her action would cause me or what would happen if the keys went missing altogether. She was just trying to be sneaky! Likewise when we sin we forget that it always hurts us, others and our relationship with God. The full consequences of our sins are often hidden from us. As a result, we can tend to downplay the severity of sin in our life.

After recognizing the wounds our sins cause, it is crucial that we trust in God’s mercy and pass this mercy onto others. A fundamental Christian attitude is to recognize that we are sinners in need of Gods mercy and that we need to spread this mercy to others. This message, which is at the heart of the parable in today’s gospel is expressed strongly in the message and devotion of. This devotion spread particularly through the writings of the Polish nun, Saint Faustina Kowalska. In the 1930’s she wrote a diary of about 600 pages chronicling revelations she had received from Jesus about God’s mercy. The message of Divine Mercy was not all together new, but rather a powerful reminder. Through St. Faustina, Jesus wanted to remind the world that His mercy is always greater than our sins so long as we call upon Him in trust, receive His mercy, and let it flow through us onto other. In the parable we heard today, we have to avoid thinking that the Pharisee is the villain and the tax collector is the hero. The hero of the parable is God and His mercy. For those to whom Jesus initially told this parable, it was shocking to think that this tax collector could return home justified. The one thing he did right was call on God’s mercy. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was blind to his need for God’s mercy. In addition to not asking for mercy, he did not show mercy to others. Instead he judged and despised the tax collector.  The message of Divine Mercy as promoted by St. Faustina can summarized just by remembering “A-B-C”. A: Ask for God’s Mercy. God wants us to approach Him in prayer, asking for mercy for our sins and that His mercy flows over the whole world. B: Be merciful. God wants us to show mercy and forgiveness to others. C: Completely trust Jesus. God wants us to know that the graces of His mercy are dependent only upon our trust. The more we trust Jesus, the more mercy we receive. The Divine Mercy message sums up wonderfully the fundamental Christian attitude promoted by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and we need to spread this mercy to others.

Going back to my experience in Mexico, it was always sad when people refused to recognize the extent of their injuries and accept help. Their continued suffering seemed so senseless. Let us not make the same mistake in our spiritual life by shutting ourselves off from God’s mercy by not recognizing our need for it. Remember that allowing the healing rays of God’s mercy to enter our souls wounded by sin is as simple as A-B-C: A) ask for God’s Mercy, B) be merciful and c) completely trust Jesus. 

Are you a committed Catholic? Take this simple test and find out.

If you are able to remember your High School chemistry class, perhaps you can recall something called a litmus test.  This is a very simple test in which you take a strip of special paper and dip it in a liquid. Depending on what color the paper turns, you know right away if the liquid is acidic, basic or neutral. It is such a quick, simple and accurate test. What if I were to tell you that there is a kind of litmus test that will tell us immediately if we are a committed follower of Jesus Christ or not? You would probably want to test yourself, wouldn't you? Well, I think that there is such a test and I will tell you what it is … just not right away. Let’s try to figure out together what this litmus test could be. We will begin with the incredibly loaded question that Jesus asks at the end of the gospel.

“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth”? Jesus wonders aloud if, upon His return to earth at the end of time, He will find people of faith on the earth. This question is the key to understanding the parable we heard in the gospel. At first glance it seems that the message of the parable is this: keep asking God in prayer for what you want and eventually He will relent and grant you your request just as the unjust judge did to get the widow off His back. There is a problem with this interpretation, however. God is not an unjust judge. The question cannot be whether God will grant us what we ask for in prayer. God is a loving Father, He always will give us what we need; we don’t need to wear Him down. The question is not whether God will be faithful but whether we will remain faithful to Him. The question is whether, through all the ups and downs, struggles and joys of life, we will continue to have faith in God, trust Him, pray to Him and desire a relationship with Him. Jesus holds up the widow as an example for us because she did not grow weary, she preserved and did not give up. When the Son of Man comes, will He find people like this widow? Will He find faith on earth?

When we look at the world today, the answer does not seem very promising because the number of those possessing the faith of the widow is decreasing in many places. In fact, we can become discouraged because it can appears that the longer Jesus waits to come back, the less faith He will find on earth. We have all probably heard stories in the media telling us that religious practice is on the decline. When we look at the numbers, we find a more complicated picture. Globally the number of Christians is increasing. In 2010, the number of Christians in the world grew by a net 28 million. Looking closer we find that the Church is growing in the global south while it is shrinking in the West. Let’s discuss Vancouver in particular. When the archdiocese of Vancouver did a census in November 2012, it was found that just under 100,000 people were attending its 77 parishes. This makes Catholicism this region’s largest religious group by far. Many parishes are in fact growing in numbers, particularly as a result of immigration. But there is another side of the story. Though about 100,000 Catholics were counted at Mass on a given Sunday, there are approximately 250,000 baptized Catholics in the Vancouver region who do not practice their faith with any regularity(more). I do not mention this to depress us. It is however the reality and should get us thinking and hopefully move us to action. The numbers lend an urgency to Jesus’ question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth”? When we look around, especially in the West, the answer does not seem very encouraging.

The Church has a mission to ensure that when Jesus does return He will find that there is still faith on earth. The Church exists to evangelize. We have the job to help increase the number of people who have the faith of the widow in parable. Certainly as Catholics we want to nurture those already within the Church, but if we stopped here we would not be fulfilling the mandate of Jesus to make disciples of all nations. This Sunday we celebrate World Mission Sunday. As Archbishop Miller wrote in his letter we read last Sunday, today the global Church has the opportunity to recommit itself to its task of bringing the gospel of Jesus to all people, both those who have never heard it before and the baptized who are inactive in their faith. Today we have the opportunity to support missionaries, both with our prayers and with financially in the collection. Today we are also reminded that we are called to bring others to know Jesus Christ. Again, the Church exists to evangelize – it is our reason for being. We have a mission to ensure that when Jesus returns He finds that there is still faith on earth.

As Christians we should have a natural desire to evangelize. If Christ is the center of our lives then we should naturally want to lead others to come to know Him. The world “missionary” sometimes brings to mind the negative image of a Bible thumper, someone who uses guilt or fear to get people to go to Church, someone who shoves their beliefs down other’s throats.  True evangelization is not like this.  I think of it this way. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that you enjoyed so much that you couldn't stop telling people about it? Don’t we go around telling people, “listen you have to watch this movie or you have to read this book”? If we have experienced in our own life a glimmer of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and what it means to be part of the Church, will we not want to do the same? Being a missionary is not about imposing our beliefs on people, it is saying to people “listen, we have something truly incredible here, come, join us and share in it!” This doesn't have to be intimidating or scary. It can be as simple sharing with people your own experiences of faith in a truthful, non-judgmental way. You can talk about your struggles of faith, how you trust God to help you change in your life or how you are really trying to live like Jesus even though you fail. Or it can be as simple as asking people the right questions to get them thinking. Maybe ask them what they do when life gets hard. Or if they share some struggle or joy, ask them where they see God in all of this. Evangelizing doesn't need to be complicated but it is not optional. When we encounter something truly good in our lives we have a natural tendency to want other to share in this. If we never feel a desire to lead others to come to know Jesus then we should stop and ask ourselves why that is. If our commitment to Jesus is true, then we should have a natural desire to evangelize.

There is really a simple litmus test that can help us determine whether we are really committed to Christ and His teaching. No one else can do this test for you and in the end the results are just between you and God. If we feel we fail the test, we should not get discouraged; we are all really a work in progress. At least we know that something needs to change. If you have not guessed what the test is by now, here it is. To know whether we are in fact committed Catholics I think we only need to ask ourselves two questions. Do I have the desire that those around me have a relationship with Jesus? Am I taking some practical steps to make this a reality?

Gratitude's luminous power

One of my favorite stories is the Lord of the Rings.  The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was a committed Catholic and filled the story with many Christian themes. One powerful image is the contrast between light and darkness, a metaphor for the conflict between good and evil. Throughout most of the story, darkness is spreading throughout the world called Middle Earth. The darkness is ominous; it threatens to engulf the whole world and block out any light. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I suggest that a similar darkness can spread can spread across our hearts.

The sufferings and difficulties we encounter can be a darkness that engulfs our existence if we are not careful. The negative things that happen to us can spread and cover our whole life like a fog so that it is the only thing we see and focus on. One of the most interesting things about suffering I read in a book by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and holocaust survivor. In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl records his experiences living in a Nazi concentration camp and some of the observations that he was able to make about human nature. The whole book is very powerful, but I was particularly struck by his reflection on suffering. Suffering, he said, is like a gas. If you take a certain volume of gas and place it into a container, the gas will expand to fill the whole container. This happens regardless of the quantity of gas. Regardless if the quantity is small or large, the gas will expand to fill the entire container. Suffering behaves the same way in our life. Suffering will always spread to fill however much space we give it in our life. The suffering can be great, like in a concentration camp, or smaller, like the daily inconveniences of life. Regardless of the objective amount of suffering we experience, if we are not careful this suffering will expand to fill our whole life so that it is the only thing that we see and focus on. If we let it, the negative things that we experience in our life will be like a darkness that spreads over us so that it is the only thing that we can see.

When this happens we easily lose sight of all the good that Jesus does for us in our life. Because we tend to focus on the suffering we experience, we are in the dark and ignore all the gifts that Christ continually gives.  Certainly we all experience suffering in our life, whether it is big or small.  At the same time, like the ten lepers in gospel, Jesus has touched our life. He has given us gifts and continues to do so. Some gifts were given long ago and we often take them for granted: our life, faith, family, friends and living in Canada. In other, simple ways, Jesus communicates His love to us, usually through other people. For example, a good conversation with a friend, a nice meal with family or a smile from a stranger are really gifts from Jesus.  Jesus is always working in our life but we often miss it. It is as though the negative experiences of life form a cover of darkness, preventing us from seeing anything else.

Gratitude to Jesus cuts through the darkness that suffering can cause in our life. When we give thanks to Christ for the gifts He gives, we break up the fog caused by difficulties and negativities that blinds us to all else. As we heard in the gospel today, gratitude is such an important virtue. Jesus expressed His discouragement that only one out of the ten lepers He healed returned to give Him thanks. Though all were healed, only the one who returned back to give thanks is told by Jesus that He was saved. It was his gratitude to Christ that saved Him. The same goes for us. This weekend we celebrate Thanksgiving. In addition to eating turkey, this holiday is a great opportunity to practice the virtue of gratitude. On this holiday we can experience something of how we are saved through gratitude to Christ.  When you are gathered with your family, when you celebrate together, when you give thanks to God for all He has given, how do you feel?  Joy? Happiness?  Isn’t it the case that you are less aware of your sufferings and difficulties at this moment? Gratitude is not just a courtesy that we offer someone who has given us a gift. When we show gratitude, we are also doing ourselves a favor because we remind ourselves of the good things in our life. Remember the analogy of Viktor Frankl. Suffering is like a gas that will expand to fill the container you put it in. Gratitude is a way to ensure that we keep our suffering in a small container. We cannot get rid of suffering but we can limit the effect it has on our life. Gratitude to Christ does this, it breaks through the darkness of suffering that can cover our life.

Being thankful to Jesus for His gifts is a habit that we need to practice daily. It is important to show our gratitude to God on this holiday of Thanksgiving, but it is really something that we need to do each and every day.  The first step in showing gratitude to Jesus is being aware of the gifts that He has in fact given us.  For myself I realize that I do a poor job of this.  At the end of the day, I easily remember all the bad experiences.  It is difficult for me to remember the good experiences. These events, which are really gifts from Jesus, are ways He shows His love. I imagine that your experience is similar. This is why it is very important for me to take a short time each night to review my day.  St. Ignatius of Loyola calls this the “examen”.  In an examen, you take 5 minutes or so to review your day. You begin by looking for 3 or so “moments of grace”, simple ways in which God was really present: a good conversation with someone, a time of peace in prayer, an unexpected compliment. When I do this I am surprised because I always remember many moments of grace that I would have completely forgotten about otherwise. The practical result is that I become more aware that God does indeed love me because He is giving me these gifts during the day. After finding these moments of grace, the second step is simple: give thanks to Jesus for them. As I continue with my examen I can go on to look for ways that I did not follow Christ as best I could that day. But the first step though is always to take the time to remember how God has blessed me and to give thanks. I find this daily habit of showing gratitude to Jesus to be very powerful.

In the Lord of the Rings there is one moment when the lead character, Frodo, finds himself in a place of extreme darkness. When this happens, he is able to pull out from his pocket an object which is a powerful source of light. When he does this the effect is dramatic.  The darkness that surrounds him is pushed back in a rapid, dramatic way. Taking the time to be grateful to Jesus can have the same effect in our life. Test this in your own life. Today before you go to sleep try to remember three moments of grace in the day and give thanks to Jesus for them. On Thanksgiving this would be a great activity to do as a family. Make a habit of this and you will notice a change in your life. Taking time each day to show gratitude to Christ breaks the darkness that blinds us to the reality that Jesus is always giving us gifts and shining His rays of love upon us.