SERMON XXXII. THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST. – ON THE MERCY OF GOD TOWARD SINNERS
There shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than ninety -nine just, who need not penance.” LUKE xv. 7
In this day’s gospel it is related that the Pharisees murmured against Jesus Christ, because he received sinners and eat with them. ”This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them” (v. 2). In answer to their murmurings our Lord said: If any of you had a hundred sheep, and lost one of them, would he not leave the ninety-nine in the desert, and go in search of the lost sheep? would he not continue his search until he found it? and having found it, would he not carry it on his shoulders, and, rejoicing, say to his friends and neighbours: “Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost ?” (v. 6.) In conclusion, the Son of God said: “I say to you, there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than, upon ninety-nine just, that need not penance.” There is more joy in heaven upon one sinner who returns to God, than upon many just who preserve the grace of God. Let us, then, speak today on the mercy which God shows to sinners, first, in calling them to repentance; secondly, in receiving them when they return.
First Point, Mercy of God in calling sinners to repentance.
1. After having sinned by eating the forbidden apple, Adam fled from the face of the Lord through shame of the sin he had committed. What must have been the astonishment of the angels when they saw God seeking after him, and calling him as it were with tears, saying: “Adam, where art thou ?” (Gen. iii. 9.) My beloved Adam, where art thou? These words, says Father Pereyra, in his commentary on this passage, “are the words of a father in search of his lost son.” Towards you, brethren, the Lord acts in a similar manner. You fled from him and he has so often invited you to repentance by means of confessors and preachers. Who was it that spoke to you when they exhorted you to penance? It was the Lord. Preachers are, as St. Paul says, his ambassadors. ”For Christ, therefore, we are ambassadors; God, as it were, exhorting by us.” (2 Cor. v. 20.) Hence he writes to the sinners of Corinth: “For Christ, we beseech you, be reconciled to God.” (Ibid.) In explaining these words St. Chrysostom says: “Ipse Chris tus vos obsecrat: quid autem obsecrat? Reconciliamini Deo.” Then, says the holy doctor, Jesus Christ himself entreats you, sinners: and what does he entreat you to do? To make peace with God. The saint adds: “Non enim ipse inimicus gerit, sed vos.” It is not God that acts like an enemy, but you; that is, God does not refuse to make peace with sinners, but they are unwilling to be reconciled with him.
2. But notwithstanding the refusal of sinners to return to God, he does not cease to continue to call them by so many interior inspirations, remorses of conscience, and terrors of chastisements. Thus, beloved Christians, God has spoken to you, and, seeing that you disregarded his words, he has had recourse to scourges; he has called you to repentance by such a persecution, by temporal losses, by the death of a relative, by sickness which has brought you to the brink of the grave. He has, according to holy David, placed before your eyes the bow of your damnation, not that you might be condemned to eternal misery, but that you might be delivered from hell, which you deserved. “Thou hast given a warning to them that fear thee, that they may flee from before the bow, that thy beloved may be delivered.” (Ps. lix. 6). You regarded certain afflictions as misfortunes; but they were mercies from God; they were the voices of God calling on you to renounce sin, that you might escape perdition. ”My jaws are become hoarse.” (Ps. lxviii. 4.) My son, says the Lord, I have almost lost my voice in calling you to repentance. ”I am weary of entreating thee.” ( Jer. xv. (5.) I have become weary in imploring you to offend me no more.
3. By your ingratitude you deserved that he should call you no more; but he has continued to invite you to return to him. And who is it that has called you? It is a God of infinite majesty, who is to be one day your judge, and on whom your eternal happiness or misery depends. And what are you but miserable worms deserving hell? Why has he called you? To restore to you the life of grace which you have lost. “Return ye and live.” (Ezec. xviii. 32.) To acquire the grace of God, it would be but little to spend a hundred years in a desert in fasting and penitential austerities. But God offered it to you for a single act of sorrow; you refused that act, and after your refusal he has not abandoned you, but has sought after you, saying: “And why will you die, house of Israel?” (Ez. xviii. 31.) Like a father weeping and following his son, who has voluntarily thrown himself into the sea, God has sought after you, saying, through compassion to each of you: My son, why dost thou bring thyself to eternal misery? “Why will you die, house of Israel?”
4. As a pigeon that seeks to take shelter in a tower, seeing the entrance closed on every side, continues to fly round till she finds an opening through which she enters, so, says St. Augustine, did the divine mercy act towards me when I was in enmity with God. “Circuibat super me fidelis a longe misericordia tua.” The Lord treated you, brethren, in a similar manner. As often as you sinned you banished him from your souls. The wicked have said to God: “Depart from us.” (Job xxi. 14.) And, instead of abandoning you, what has the Lord done? He has placed himself at the door of your ungrateful hearts, and, by his knocking, has made you feel that he was outside, and seeking for admission. ”Behold I stand at the gate and knock.” (Apoc. iii. 20.) He, as it were, entreated you to have compassion on him, and to allow him to enter. “Open to me, my sister.” (Cant. v. 2.) Open to me; I will deliver you from perdition; I will forget all the insults you have offered to me if you give up sin. Perhaps you are unwilling to open to me through fear of becoming poor by restoring ill-gotten goods, or by separating from a person who provided for you? Am not I, says the Lord, able to provide for you? Perhaps you think that, if you renounce a certain friendship which separates you from me, you shall lead a life of misery? Am I not able to content your soul and to make your life happy? Ask those who love me with their whole hearts, and they will tell you that my grace makes them content, and that they would not exchange their condition, though poor and humble, for all the delights and riches of the monarchs of the earth.
Second Point. Mercy of God in waiting for sinners to return to him.
5. We have considered the divine mercy in calling sinners to repentance: let us now consider his patience in waiting for their return. That great servant of God, D. Sancia Carillo, a penitent of Father John D’Avila, used to say, that the consideration of God’s patience with sinners made her desire to build a church, and entitle it “The Patience of God.” Ah, sinners! who could ever bear with what God has borne from you? If the offences which you have committed against God had been offered to your best friends, or even to your parents, they surely would have sought revenge. When you insulted the Lord he was able to chastise you; you repeated the insult, and he did not punish your guilt, but preserved your life, and provided you with sustenance. lie, as it were, pretended not to see the injuries you offered to him, that you might enter into yourselves, and cease to offend him. “Thou overlookest the sins of men for the sake of repentance.” (Wis. xi. 24.) But how, Lord, does it happen, that thou canst not behold a single sin, and that thou dost bear in silence with so many? “Thy eyes are too pure to behold evil, and thou canst not look on iniquity. Why lookest thou upon them that do unjust things, and boldest thy peace?” (Hab. i. 13.) Thou seest the vindictive prefer their own before thy honour; thou beholdest the unjust, instead of restoring what they have stolen, continuing to commit theft; the unchaste, instead of being ashamed of their impurities, boasting of them before others; the scandalous, not content with the sins which they themselves commit, but seeking to draw others into rebellion against thee; thou seest all this, and holdest thy peace, and dost not inflict vengeance.
6. “Omnis creatura,” says St. Thomas, “tibi factor! deserviens excandescit adversus injustos.” All creatures the earth, fire, air, water because they all obey God, would, by a natural instinct, wish to punish the sinner, and to avenge the injuries which he does to the Creator; but God, through his mercy, restrains them. But, Lord, thou waitest for the wicked that they may enter into themselves; and dost thou not see that they abuse thy mercy to offer new insults to thy majesty? “Thou hast been favourable to the nation, O Lord, thou hast been favourable to the nation: art thou glorified?” (Isa. xxvi. 15.) Thou hast waited so long for sinners; thou hast abstained from inflicting punishment; but what glory have you reaped from thy forbearance? They have become more wicked. Why so much patience with such ungrateful souls? Why dost thou continue to wait for their repentance? Why dost thou not chastise their wickedness? The same Prophet answers: “The Lord waiteth that he may have mercy on you.” (Isa. xxx. 18.) God waits for sinners that they may one day repent, and that after their repentance, he may pardon and save them. “As I live, saith the Lord, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (Ezech. xxxiii. 11.) St. Augustine goes so far as to say that the Lord, if he were not God, should he unjust on account of his excessive patience towards sinners. “Deus, Deus incus, pace tua dicam, nisi quia Deus esses, injustus esses.” By waiting for those who abuse his patience to multiply their sins, God appears to do an injustice to the divine honour. ”We,” continues the saint, “sin; we adhere to sin (some of us become familiar and intimate with sin, and sleep for months and years in this miserable state); we rejoice at sin (some of us go so far as to boast of our wickedness); and thou art appeased! “We provoke thce to anger thou dost invite us to mercy.” We and God appear to be, as it were, engaged in a contest, in which we labour to provoke him to chastise our guilt, and he invites us to pardon.
7. Lord, exclaimed holy Job, what is man, that thou dost entertain so great an esteem for him? Why dost thou love him so tenderly? ”What is man that thou shouldst magnify him? or why dost thou set thy heart upon him ?” (Job. vii. ] 7.) St. Denis the Areopagite says, that God seeks after sinners like a despised lover, entreating them not to destroy themselves. ”Deus etiam a se aversos amatorie sequitur, et deprecatur ne pereant.” Why, ungrateful souls, do you fly from me? I love you and desire nothing but your welfare. Ah, sinners! says St. Teresa, remember that he who now calls and seeks after you, is that God who shall one day be your judge. If you are lost, the great mercies which he now shows you, shall be the greatest torments which, you shall suffer in hell.
Third Point. Mercy of God in receiving penitent sinners.
8. Should a subject who has rebelled against an earthly monarch go into the presence of his sovereign to ask pardon, the prince instantly banishes the rebel from his sight, and does not condescend even to look at him. But God does not treat us in this manner, when we go with humility before him to implore mercy and forgiveness. “The Lord your God is merciful, and will not turn away his face from you if you return to him.” (2 Par. xxx. 9.) God cannot turn away his face from those who cast themselves at his feet with an humble and contrite heart. Jesus himself has protested that he will not reject any one who returns to him. “And him that cometh to me, I will not cast out.” (John vi. 37.) But how can he reject those whom he himself invites to return, and promises to embrace?” Return to me, saith the Lord, and I will receive thee.” (Jer. iii. 1.) In another place he says: Sinners, I ought to turn my back on you, because you first turned your back on me; but be converted to me, and I will be converted to you. “Turn to me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn to you, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Zach. i. 3.)
9. Oh! with what tenderness does God embrace a sinner that returns to him! This tenderness Jesus Christ wished to declare to us when he said that he is the good pastor, who, as soon as he finds the lost sheep, embraces it and places it on his own shoulders. ”And when he hath found it, doth he not lay it upon his shoulders rejoicing?” (Luke xv. 5.) This tenderness also appears in the parable of the prodigal son, in which Jesus Christ tells us that he is the good father, who, when his lost son returns, goes to meet him, embraces and kisses him, and, as it were, swoons away through joy in receiving him. ”And running to him, he fell upon his neck and kissed him.” (Luke xv. 20.)
10. God protests that when sinners repent of their iniquities, he will forget all their sins, as if they had never offended him. “But, if the wicked do penance for all the sins which he hath committed. .. .living, he shall live, and shall not die. I will not remember all his iniquities that he hath done.” (Ezech. xviii. 21,22.) By the Prophet Isaias, the Lord goes so far as to say: “Come and accuse me, saith the Lord. If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow.” (Isa. i. 18.) Mark the words, Come and accuse me. As if the Lord said: Sinners, come to me, and if I do not pardon and embrace you, reprove me, upbraid me with violating my promise. But no! God cannot despise an humble and contrite heart. “A contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Ps. l. 19.)
11. To show mercy and grant pardon to sinners, God regards as redounding to his own glory. “And therefore shall he be exalted sparing you.” (Isa. xxx. 18.) The holy Church says, that God displays his omnipotence in granting pardon and mercy to sinners. ”O God, who manifested thy omnipotence in sparing and showing mercy.” Do not imagine, dearly beloved sinners, that God requires of you to labour for a long time before he grants you pardon: as soon as you wish for forgiveness, he is ready to give it. Behold what the Scripture says: ”Weeping, thou shalt not weep, he will surely have pity on thee.” (Isa. xxx. 19.) You shall not have to weep for a long time: as soon as you shall have shed the first tear through sorrow for your sins, God will have mercy on you. ”At the voice of thy cry, as soon as he shall hear, he will answer thee.” (Ibid.) The moment he shall hear you say: Forgive me, my God, forgive me, he will instantly answer and grant your pardon.