12 November 2010

Gospel Standards

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
            One of the nice things to have in any educational setting or profession is standards.  You want to make sure that there are controls to ensure that a person is reaching the expectations of the job, or actualizing the potential that he or she has inside.  We have standardized tests for school to make sure that kids are learning the right material and are competitive with other students across the country and the world.  We have standards for the members of the Armed Forces as they go through Basic Training to make sure that they can physically, mentally, and emotionally endure the trials of being a solider.  We have standards for businesses to make sure that a good product is being delivered and that people are doing all they can to help the company succeed.
For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing tough words from Jesus: “‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter, but will not be strong enough’”; “‘when you are invited, go and take the lowest place’”; “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother…he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry his own cross…cannot be my disciple…anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.’”  These are very high standards for us as Catholics.  Hearing these readings should have caused each one of us to take stock of how we are responding to the great riches of being Catholic and having a life in Christ.  Some of us, hearing these words seriously and taking them to heart, may have even started to question practices in our lives, or maybe even our eternal salvation.
And the reason why we hear these tough words from the Word of God is to cause us to soberly realize that salvation, while a free gift, calls for a great response from each one of us, not a mediocre retort.  Faced with this realization that a great response is needed, the temptation can be to try and lower the bar so we can reach it.  After all, in the name of compassion, or what we understand as compassion, we so often loosen our standards if no one can reach it, sometimes even if the standard is what is needed.
But Jesus does not lower the bar.  He does not loosen the standard.  Instead, He shows mercy.  He forgives us when we do not meet the standard set for us.  Take, for example, what St. Paul tells us in the second reading.  Jesus does not lower the bar and decide that all those who murder Christians can get into heaven, since some people who want to go to heaven are murdering Christians, and after all, we’re all basically good.  Rather, he forgives those who have murdered so that they can witness to God’s mercy.  St. Paul himself says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated.  […] Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I am the foremost.  But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example.”  St. Paul does not explain away what he has done, nor does he excuse his actions, but relies upon the mercy of God so that St. Paul can share that mercy with others and be a living witness of God’s mercy.
Sheep in the Judean countryside
And God’s mercy is so great, that to some it looks foolish.  If we examine the first parable in today’s Gospel, we see how “foolish” and “wasteful” is God’s mercy.  God is like the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find one that has wandered off.  Losing one sheep out of 100 is not bad odds.  And leaving the other sheep which do not wander to find one that does could endanger the 99 safe sheep.  But God is not satisfied with the 99.  He wants the one, wandering sheep to return to the fold.  He is not happy with 99% of His flock being safe and sound.  He wants 100% of his sheep to be safe.
That is how great God’s mercy is: that there is more rejoicing for one sinner who has returned than for 99 righteous people who never left.  That is how much God wants to share His mercy with us: to the point of appearing foolish or wasteful.
Often, we do not live up to the standards set before us by Jesus in the Gospel.  We don’t turn the other cheek, or love our enemies, or pray for those who persecute us.  We all struggle with particular sins, some minor, some major.  Rather than saying, “It’s ok to do this sin or that sin; I’m only human,” we should rather turn to God for mercy to be forgiven of the sins that draw us away or separate us from God, and strive again for those high standards by the grace of God. 
And the way we do this is to return, again and again, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  In this way we respond to God’s grace so that we can be found, and lead the choirs of angels and saints in heaven to rejoice for us sinners who have repented.  Maybe we only usually go twice a year during Advent and Lent.  Let’s make an effort to go four times a year.  Maybe we go every other month.  Let’s try to go every month.  Maybe we go every two weeks.  Let’s stay faithful to that practice so that we can receive the great mercy of God, and be living witnesses of the mercy that God wants to show every one of us.  Between St. Thomas and St. Johns, Reconciliation is available at least every other day each week.  What a great opportunity it is for us to have God and the heavenly host rejoice over us. 
Maybe we’re a major sinner like St. Paul who needs major conversion.  Or maybe we just struggle with the same minor sins every month.  God is waiting to forgive us and show us His mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  May we first receive mercy, and then spread the Good News of how deep God’s love and mercy is for us to those we know who are in need of God’s mercy.