5th Sunday of Lent. March 17th 2013
Is 43:16-21; Phil 3;8-14; Jn 8:1-11
Being a good Christian
Go and do not sin any more.
I attended a class on the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) in preparation for ordination to the Holy Priesthood where we were informed on the requirements of being a good confessor (i.e. someone who hears confessions and through whom absolution for sins is granted to the one who confesses sins committed). To be a good confessor, we had to know many things. A good confessor must know scripture well and what scripture says about sins and the mercy of God. He must also know how Jesus Himself related to sinners in His ministry. A good confessor must also know Christian spirituality and how the life of Christ is attained and how it grows in the human soul; he must know moral theology so as to grasp the laws about moral actions; he must know something about psychology, history and theology of the sacraments, canon law, how the saints and fathers of the Church embarked on the Christian life, etc.
One of the requirements of being a good confessor that I will never forget because I think it is essential for a good confessor is the requirement that a good confessor must also be a good penitent i.e. the good confessor must have deep knowledge of his own sins and sinfulness as well as an experience of the overwhelming power of God’s forgiveness and love. He must see himself as a beloved sinner, guilty of sin, inclined to sin but always having confident access to the mercy of God in the sacrament of confession. A priest who is not a good penitent, who does not attend to confession of his own sin as a priest, will not be a kind and compassionate priest to people in confession. Such a priest, one who is not a good penitent, will likely be indifferent to people in confession, ignore them, be impatient with them in their falls, judge them and condemn them. He will not understand what it is to face despair in the face of repeated sins. Without being a good penitent himself, all his other knowledge may be rendered useless in making him a good confessor.
Likewise for us to be good Christians, we must be good penitents i.e. we must know both our sins and also the power of God’s love and forgiveness. We must have faced our own helpless in the face of sin and experienced that we could not save ourselves but only Jesus Christ could deliver us. All other knowledge without this honest knowledge and acceptance of our own sins and the power of God’s forgiving love over them will only make us proud, intolerable and condemning towards others.
In today’s Gospel passage, we see the scribes and Pharisees at work. They bring this woman caught in adultery to Jesus not because they are interested in the greater glory of God, but because they only wanted to “test Him so that they might have a charge to bring against Him.” They know all the laws and scriptures, they know what Moses said and didn’t say, they know that the Romans alone could lawfully pass a death sentence. They are ruthless in condemning the woman caught in adultery, using her as a pawn to trap Jesus. They bring her out in the open and make her stand in the middle of the mob. They do all these because they do not know what matters most – their own sins and the power of God’s loving forgiveness. Jesus does not tell them what to do or not do; but that they should first of all search their consciences before they act. It is only when they looked at their conscience that they see their own sins and then, instead of asking for mercy, they proudly lay down their stones and leave her alone. Jesus, the merciful and sinless one, does not condemn but forgives and challenges the woman to do better with His words, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” It takes a heart filled with mercy to forgive and to encourage sinners.
The Second Reading shows us St. Paul writing to encourage the Christians in Philippi from his place of captivity. This is a man who knows a lot of things. He knows the scriptures better than most Pharisees and scribes; he knows the minute details of the Old Testament covenant, etc. But we find him saying that, “because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus,” He considers all knowledge as “loss,” “so much rubbish.” His greatest desire is to know Christ Jesus, to have no righteousness but Christ’s own righteousness, to share in His suffering and to know “the power of His Resurrection.” St. Paul is a good penitent. He has come to face his own sinfulness, accepted the fact that the Old Testament legal observations cannot save him; he has turned to Jesus and accepted from Him the only true righteousness. He is not losing hope because of his past sins but, because of Christ’s power to forgive sins, he “forgets what lies behind to strain for what is to come.” Only such a person who is a true penitent can forget self and encourage others while he is in pain.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot be good Christians if we condemn, embarrass, and criticize others for their sins. We see the sinfulness of others and we are instinctively moved to take the judgment seat only because we are scared to look deep down inside ourselves first. We easily excuse and rationalize our own failings away leaving us with only knowledge and depriving us of that needed penitential spirit. We must begin by looking at our own conscience first, accept our sins and then seek the forgiveness of God in the sacrament of Confession. Unless we know our sins and the power of God’s loving forgiveness to us, we will condemn everybody else except ourselves. We will condemn our husbands, wives, children, co-workers, parents, politicians, etc. When next you notice your ruthlessness in condemning others, ask yourself this question, “When was the last time I really looked deep inside myself honestly and confronted the structures of sin in my life? When was the last time I turned to Jesus Christ with a plea for forgiveness and healing?” Without this knowledge of our sinfulness and the power of God’s forgiving love, all our knowledge will only serve to make us ruthless in condemning others.
In the sacrament of Confession, we are like the woman caught in adultery. We stand alone with Jesus, we examine our conscience, and we confess our sins with our lips. We hear Jesus say to us through the priest, “Go and do not sin again.” In this sacrament of penance, Jesus forgives us our past sins, illuminates us for the present moment and gives us grace to be patient with others who sin and not to condemn them. In and through this sacrament, we become like Jesus who loves all people even when they sin and who encourage them to do better. It is more than a mere intellectual knowledge of sins that we obtain but an experience of the power of the Resurrection manifested in the forgiveness of sins.
Last week I went to confession at the Cathedral in Antipolo. While waiting for my turn to go to the Confessor priest, a fellow penitent asked me what I was doing in the area. When I told him that I was Catholic priest, he replied, “You are a Catholic priest and yet you are coming to confess to another priest? Why?” I remembered my class in the sacraments and replied, “So that I too can be a good priest and confessor.” He did not know that he too was there for the sacrament so that he could be a good Christian too, one who refuses to condemn but chooses to forgive and build up with the love of Christ.
Our dear Mother Mary enjoyed the divine mercy in a singularly unique way by her being preserved from the stain of Original Sin by the foreseen merits of Jesus Christ. Fully aware of God’s own mercy to her, she never condemns us but encourages us and moves us with her characteristic words spoken to the servants at the wedding of Cana, “Do whatsoever He tells you.” Let us beg her to move us too to reject condemnation of our fellow sinners and become good penitents first and foremost, people not afraid of our sins and ever open to God’s powerful forgiving love so that we can build others up and not ruthlessly judge and condemn them. This is the only way that we can ever hope to be good Christians.