Bottom line: Jesus invites us to go to the Father and say, "I have sinned." Then trust that when the Father sees you and me, he sees Jesus.
Jesus tells about a young man who has a good father - a father who gives his son everything, including freedom. The son, however, abuses his freedom; he brings heartbreak and shame to his father. The young man may have considered himself a brave rebel, but his rebellion brings its own punishment. Not that the father wants the punishment. It is a natural consequence of the son's choices.
When the boy hits bottom, the fog vanishes. He then does something genuinely courageous. Instead of despairing, instead of shifting the blame, he admits, "I have sinned." Here are his exact words, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son."
During Lent we say those words: "I have sinned." We say them in our morning prayer and in the evening when we look back over the day. At Mass we admit, "I have sinned greatly in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do."
This is not "Catholic guilt." It's simply facing the facts - and it has a positive side. Admitting sin means recognizing ones enormous potential. Like that younger son, great gifts have been been placed in our hands. How much good we can do if we begin with gratitude! When I look back over a day, I do recognize moments of light - when, with God's help, I have done something good. But that same light also causes me to see shadows, moments when I have gone my own way, separated myself from the loving Father. I have sinned.
This daily examination has a benefit not only for getting to heaven - but also in this world. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us Daniel Pink writes about "mastery."* A person does not achieve mastery in a flash. To learn a foreign language, to become a great athlete or to strengthen one's family requires inner motivation. Each day a person can celebrate small advances and learn from mistakes.
Something similar applies to our relation to God. We admit our sins and then say, "With your help I will stand up and make a fresh start. Thank you for giving me a new opportunity as you did for that younger son. Tomorrow I will do better - by your grace."
In making a fresh start, we Catholics have a particular gift: the Sacrament of Confession. It's not a counseling session, although sometimes a penitent will ask for advice - and sometimes (rare in my case) the priest will have a wise word. The priest does not represent Sigmund Freud or Doctor Phil. He represents Jesus. As St. Paul says in today's reading, "We are ambassadors of Christ." And he adds that Jesus, even though completely without sin, "became sin for our sake that we might become the righteousness of God."
Jesus became sin! You and I have sinned, but Jesus became sin. What does that mean? I do not know for sure, but I will say this: As we saw from the parable of the Prodigal Son, sin brings punishment and shame. It results in misery and alienation, separation from God and other people. Now, Jesus who committed no sin, took our punishment and shame upon himself. In his day, nothing caused more fear than the Roman method of capital punishment. The cross involved terrible torture; it systematically shamed and humiliated the condemned man. In going to the cross, Jesus took our shame, our punishment upon himself.
And how does that transfer take place? Once again, I quote Paul: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me." (Gal 2:20) When I say to God, "I have sinned," he doesn't so much see me, but his Son, Jesus.**
You might be thinking, "Well, I haven't done anything so terrible. I don't have many sins to confess." A confession might involve seeming small sins: "I lost patience three times. I used a foul word once. I dwelt on an indecent image. I gave in to laziness twice." It may happen that one recalls a past sin. For example, all the talk about bullying can make a person remember how he made fun of someone in high school. Going to Confession, he might say, "Father, I hurt someone in the past. I don't know what damage I did, but I desire forgiveness. I have sinned."***
Like the young man in Jesus' parable, the actual confession may take less than a minute. Let me repeat that Confession is not a counseling session. It's not about the priest - and in the end, it's not even about the penitent. It's about Christ and uniting yourself to Jesus. He has already done the real work.
Once in a while, someone will tell me he doesn't feel forgiven. This happens especially as one gets older and the consequences of past sin become more evident. It can help keep a person humble, but it can also be one of the ways the devil works on us. He says, "of course you can't be forgiven. If people knew the real you, they would spit on you." When that feeling begins to overwhelm you, say "Jesus, I trust in you. I have sinned, but you have taken my sins and my shame to the cross." Look at the crucifix, take it in your hand and say, "Jesus, I trust in you."
This Sunday - as Holy Week approaches - Jesus invites us to go to the Father and say, "I have sinned." Then trust that when the Father sees you and me, he sees Jesus. And he embraces us with joy. Amen.
*"the urge to get better and better at something that matters."
**I have done a feeble job with this, but I encourage my brother homilists to remind people that forgiveness comes by way of the cross, that we cannot go to the Father apart from Jesus. With this most popular parable it's too easy to lapse into our culture's default position: reducing forgiveness to an affirmation of "basic human goodness." (Of course, with the exception of all the uptight, hypocritical "conservatives" - they are the parable's older son.)
Once a fellow priest informed me, "Jesus came to tell us how good we are." It sounded nice, but I sensed by his voice that he didn't think I was so hot.
Yes, we have enormous potential, but how much have we misused or failed to use? Like the older son, we can become complacent and self-justified. The end result is not pretty: a defensive posture that leads to envy and bitterness - separation from others and from God. That can happen as readily to a "liberal" as to a "conservative."
***At this point you may not be able to do something directly for the person you have harmed, but even on this you need to trust in Jesus. Fr. Bob Spitzer gives a powerful testimony of how invoking the Holy Spirit can heal memories of the person you have hurt.
From Archives (Year C homilies for Fourth Sunday of Lent):
Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
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Fr. Brad's Homilies
Fr. Jim's Homilies
Fr. Michael White's Homilies ("messages")
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
Parish Picture Album
(has slide shows of Archbishop Sartain and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers at the 2013 March Men's Conference)
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru