He Remembers Their Sins in Detail

(Homily for Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A)

This summer the Vatican barred a Seattle priest from ministry. The Archdiocese determined that the accusations against him were credible and felt obliged to follow the policy set forth in the Dallas Charter: “for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present or future -- the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.” Local newspapers reported on this case, quoting a woman, now 48 years old, who prefers to remain anonymous. She expressed gratitude that the truth had finally come out, although the settlement did include a confidentiality agreement which precluded revealing exactly what happened.

In this homily I have no intention of defending the priest – or the Archdiocese, or the Vatican. My opinion matters very little. What struck me was the reaction of more than one commentator. The woman stated in the newspaper article that the abuse had taken place over thirty years ago. The Archdiocese had also alluded to that in its press release. A columnist, assuming that the Archdiocese was trying to mitigate the accusations, wrote, “What difference does that make? Does the fact that it happened thirty years ago excuse what was done?”

It does not. The sex abuse scandal has confirmed something that Christians have long known: our misdeeds are always present before God and, even if forgiven, their consequences continue. This is a difficult teaching. I look back on some of things I have done and tend to think, “I was young when I did that.” Today I would never say such cruel, thoughtless words. Heck, sometimes I figure I should not be held accountable for something I did last week. After all, I was sort of a different person.

None of this will wash. It won’t pass the scrutiny of an outside observer – and it certainly will not fool God. Psalm 51 states, “I have done evil in your sight and my sin is always before me.” This is the prayer of a repentant sinner - presumably King David after the prophet confronted him with the double crimes of adultery and murder. The psalmist expresses deep remorse, but he does not sink into desperation. He accepts the punishment God sends him, recognizing that even though it is terrible, it is necessary. But that is not the end of the story. Ironically, Psalm 51 is one of the most joyful chapters of the Old Testament. David knows that divine mercy exists.

Things will be different for those who try to cover up their sin – especially if their unatoned guilt drives them to judge others, often for the same sin they have committed. For such people Sirach offers a wake-up call:

The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail. (28:1)

Jesus presents a similar warning in today’s parable. It’s about a man who obtains an astounding bankruptcy settlement, thus saving his family and himself from debtor’s prison. However, even while pleading his case, he secretly tracks the small debts others owe him. A man has to be prudent, you know.

His prudence did not consider the king's reaction to being mocked. In what has to be one of the more frightening verses of the New Testament, Jesus tells us that the ruler “handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” This is a hard saying. How could God (the king) hand someone over to torment?

A couple of weeks ago I saw the Shakespeare play, Richard III. It is about a man who takes advantage of the good will of others to ruthlessly obtain what he desires. He seems to have successfully quieted his conscience. In the end that voice returns (we might say, with a vengeance) to torment him. He has a chance to repent, but unfortunately does not sieze it. In despair, he dies.

God plants the voice of conscience for a purpose. He desires that we have heartfelt sorrow for our sins – all of them, even the smallest, even those which from a human point have passed the statute of limitation. Thus we might honestly forgive those who sin against us.

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Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twenty-Fourth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2017: Making Space for Others
2014: Finding Your Place Week 6 (Feast of the Holy Cross)
2011: How to Forgive
2005: He Remembers Their Sins in Detail
2002: Not Entitled to Forgiveness
1999: Forgive or Excuse?

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