Fr. Michael McGourty is pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
The readings we hear on the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time touch on some of the most difficult questions that Christians might find themselves struggling with: How is it possible that God allows evil to exist? Why are crimes left unpunished by God? Why, in sum, is there this sort of permissive attitude on God’s part, as if He did not have the means to punish evil and check its spread?
I remember being asked questions like these a few years ago while teaching the parish’s confirmation class. It seemed that the best answer for the occasion was the one that is always right when it comes to God: “Because God is love.”
But that did not seem to clear things up for the students, so I developed an example.
I asked the students how many of their parents loved them. Happily, every student put up her or his hand. I then asked how many of their parents loved them very much. Again, every hand stayed up.
Now, knowing that all the children in the class felt their parents’ love, I asked if their parents should do everything they could to keep them safe. They all answered “yes.”
My response was, that given everything that parents have to worry about, the only way they could be absolutely sure that their children would always be safe would be to lock them in their rooms and never let them out. This of course, would take away their freedom; something that no loving parent would ever do to her/his child. When I asked them if they approved of this idea, they all gave a resounding “no.”
The situation is not too different with God, our loving Father. God has created each of us in His image and likeness. He has created us in love and has an immense love for each of us. He knows the good that we are capable of and hopes that we will all aspire to the good He has placed within each of us. Out of love for each of us, He leaves our freedom in tact so each person might freely choose the good.
One of the attributes that we most consistently give to God is that God is love. It is because God is love, that He – as a loving parent – leaves you and I free and does not intervene each time we are about to make a mistake or sin by harming ourselves or another person. With the freedom that He has given us, comes His invitation to use that freedom responsibly and care for others who He has also created. It is up to each of us to use our freedom lovingly to care for others and build a world that respects the gift that is each person and this world.
When we fail to do this, we are sinning.
Because you and I are not perfect, God gives us time to grow and orient our lives towards Him and the offer of salvation that He has made to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. One of the best ways that we can start again and turn back to the Lord when we have sinned is to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
In this sacrament, each of us is given a new beginning and we return to the graces of our baptism. God is always offering second, third and fourth chances. He has created us in the image and likeness, and as such God believes in human beings.
We see this in two of our greatest saints, Peter and Paul. These two men were the most unlikely people to ever be saints on their own. Peter had a temper and was always doubting the Lord. He drew his sword when Jesus was arrested and betrayed the Lord three times. Yet, Jesus never lost hope in him. St. Paul is an even more unlikely character for sainthood. He arrested Christians and turned them over to be killed or sold into slavery. When St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr was killed, Paul was standing there (then known as Saul) approving of his murder.
It is only because of the patience and generosity of God’s mercy that these people were changed, became great saints and entered into the glory of God.
Had God acted towards them in the manner that we might consider appropriate based on the questions at the beginning of this reflection, then they may not have had time to change their lives. And the millions of people who have come to know Christ through them might have also been lost.
There is a saying that is attributed to St. Josemaria Escriva: “A saint is a sinner that keeps trying.”
This saying in itself explains God’s patience and slowness to judge. God desires that we all become saints and that, unfortunately, takes time. Sadly, sometimes the only way for a person to discover the path to heaven is to try all the other paths. The great St. Augustine only learned the beauty of Christianity by tasting the emptiness of all the other philosophies concocted by humanity. Some only know the freedom to be enjoyed by God’s children by escaping the many different forms of slavery that they can give themselves to through pride, addiction and self- delusion. Because God is patient, each one of us, sinners though we might be, can keep trying to be the saints that God has called each of us to be.
This Sunday’s readings speak to God’s loving patience and calls each of us to hope that with His grace, we can change and overcome our sins. However, this does not give us permission to ignore His call or to delay responding with endless excuses and procrastination. The day will come when the gardener will come and remove the weeds. Those created by the Lord must always retain their dignity and always strive to be the people God has called us to be. We give up on God, and upon ourselves, when we let the devil define who we believe ourselves to be. Those who retain their Christian dignity are those who, like the Good Thief, remain convinced until the end that they can be with the Lord in paradise. As long as there is breath within us, we must believe that salvation is possible.
The lives of the saints show us that a saint is simply a sinner who keeps on trying. Ultimately, the saints do not succeed on their own merits. Their perseverance finally breaks their hearts open to the grace of God so that He may change them and save them. In today’s readings, Paul tells us in Romans that even when our sins have taken us so far away from God that we do not know how to pray, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” The parable of the weeds in the field speaks to us of the good and forgiving God proclaimed in the Responsorial Psalm, a God who wishes to give each of us time to change and repent.
The Good News for all of us in this Sunday’s readings is that no matter what our past and the sins we have committed, God invites us to turn towards Him and claim our dignity as His children called to sainthood.
Jesus has taught us the most perfect prayer in the “Our Father.” In that prayer, we ask God to forgive us as we forgive those who have sinned against us. May we hear the parable of the weeds in the field and learn to give to others the second and third chances that we are always asking the Lord to extend to us.
This week’s reflection based up the readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8: 26-27; and Matthew 13: 24-43.