Sinner to saint

GOD’S WORD TODAY - Ruben M. Tanseco S.J. -

As followers of Christ, we have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of religious self-righteousness and social discrimination, as the Pharisees did during Jesus’ lifetime. Devoid of compassion and justice, they followed the rules of legal and ritual purity, period. They despised and refused to associate with Samaritans, prostitutes, sinners, lepers, and tax collectors. They looked down on and ignored the widows, the poor, the marginalized.

Jesus did the very opposite. Motivated by boundless compassion and mercy, he reached out to the very people that the Pharisees denounced — motivated as they were by a loveless, ritualistic religion.

It was in this scenario that Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector despised by the Jews, to be one of his apostles. Moreover: “While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples” (From today’s Gospel reading, Mt. 9: 9-13). The Pharisees were scandalized by this, and exclaimed to his disciples: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v.11). And from the very heart of Christ came the answer: “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (v. 13).

Yes. His apostles were sinners, but he precisely called them, so that by experiencing his deep, personal love and mercy —  they, in turn could reach out to many other sinners, with such personal love and mercy. Remember the apostle-brothers James and John? They were initially seeking religious privilege and superior status from Jesus. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (Mk. 10: 37). When the other apostles heard about this, they became indignant because they, too, wanted that privilege and honor (v. 41). Well, in due time, they learned the meaning of divine discipleship, and dedicated their lives in love and service.

Of course, it’s a lifelong journey, as we saw in the person of Simon Peter, the head of the apostles. During the trial of Jesus, Peter was watching at the courtyard with the people. He was asked by one of them if he was Christ’s disciple, and he said “No,” to save himself. He denied Christ not once, not twice, but three times. You know the rest of the story. Our Lord forgave him, and Peter dedicated the rest of his life in love and service, until he himself was crucified like Christ.

Then came Saul, a public sinner no less, in his ruthless persecution of the early Christians. Until Christ, out of love and mercy, called him to be his disciple. Saul responded by dedicating his life as a total lover of God and man, until he was beheaded in Rome in the year 64 A.D. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4: 7). We now call him St. Paul.

As history unfolds, we come across the figure of Augustine, another public sinner and much worse than Matthew. For many years, he wallowed in pride, sensuality, and concupiscence. Jesus kept calling him, until finally, through Christ’s undying love for sinners, Augustine surrendered and spent the rest of his life, loving and serving God and man. “Late have I learned to love you, Beauty, at once so ancient and so new! Late have I come to love You! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself….You were with me, but I was not with You” (From his Confessions).

Much later comes the figure of Ignatius of Loyola, an arrogant and vain captain in the Spanish army. Worldliness was his lifestyle, until the loving and merciful God called this macho sinner. Today, his Spiritual Exercises continue to serve as a powerful instrument for the conversion of so many.

Like all the above, you and I are sinners, too. And although we may not be called to be canonized saints with a capital “S,” each one of us is lovingly called by Christ to be a saint with a small “s.” From sinner to saint. This is how much Christ loves each one of us personally. Christ insists on being one with us and one in us, so that we can be one with him and one in him. But for this to happen, we are to constantly use our God-given gift of human freedom. To choose to love Christ in return, or to turn our backs on him, as Judas did.

Our freedom of choice is most crucial today, surrounded as we are by a high-tech culture that is more and more Christless and Godless. When everything is said and done, we only have two choices for the rest of our lives, and each one is continually calling: “Follow me.” CHRIST or SATAN.






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