In today’s first reading, we heard, “Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations.”
Why are the rules important? Because they deal with the truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t say, “Oh I’m all about forgiveness. Don’t worry about those commandments.” No, the rules are about the foundation of correct relationships – relationships between us and God; relationships between each other. You dismiss that in a cavalier manner, people get hurt. People get dead.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 5, Christ said this himself: “Do not think that I came to do away with or undo the Law [of Moses] or the [writings of the] Prophets; I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter of the law will pass until all things are accomplished. So whoever breaks one of the least [important] of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least [important] in the kingdom of heaven.
“For I say to you that unless your (uprightness, your moral essence) is more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Pius XII, more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of, and the awareness of sin. More recently Pope Benedict said the same. The word “sin” is not accepted by many, for it presupposes a religious vision of the world and of man. He emphasize the importance of the reality of sin, and the administration of the Sacrament of penance in our time, in which the loss of the sense of sin is unfortunately becoming increasingly more widespread.
Even Pope Francis has said: “The Church condemns sin because it has to relay to the truth: We need to say ’This is a sin.‘”
In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, The Holy Father wrote that the confessional should not be a “dry cleaner.” What did he mean by that? The Holy Father wrote that this, “.. was an example, an image to explain the hypocrisy of those who believe that sin is only a stain, something that you can have dry-cleaned so that everything goes back to normal. The way you take a jacket or dress to have a stain removed: you put it in the wash and that’s it. But sin is more than a stain. Sin is a wound; it needs to be treated and healed.”
Pope Francis makes the connection between the importance of the doctrines surrounding the rules, and the equal validity of the doctrine of God’s mercy. First, he writes, “Can there be opposition between truth and mercy, or doctrine and mercy? Let us not forget that mercy is doctrine. Even further, I love saying: ’mercy is true.’” First, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such. It welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.
Second, Pope Francis uses those same scriptures to point out that God’s very essence, his very name, is mercy. He writes, “How many pages of Sacred Scripture are appropriate for meditation during the weeks of Lent to help us rediscover the merciful face of the Father! We can repeat the words of the prophet Micah and make them our own: “You, O Lord, are a God who takes away iniquity and pardons sin, who does not hold your anger forever, but are pleased to show mercy. You, Lord, will return to us and have pity on your people. You will trample down our sins and toss them into the depths of the sea.”
Third, Francis writes how the Sacrament of Penance is an opportunity to be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy. Not only that, the scriptures say that God celebrates this return. We must go back to the Gospel. There we find that it speaks not only of welcoming and forgiveness but also of the “feast” for the returning son.
Finally, Pope Francis goes back to the “Confession is not dry cleaning” metaphor. It is so much more than that. It changes the universe and sets people on a different – and spectacularly hopeful – trajectory. He sees Confession and God’s mercy as a breakthrough into a different sphere, a totally different and wonderful dimension. He uses the story of Jesus curing the leper as an example. “Jesus moves according to a different kind of logic. At his own risk and danger he goes up to the leper and he restores him, he heals him. In so doing, he shows us a new horizon. The logic of a God who is love, a God who desires the salvation of all men…” opens up the universe, and shows us a vista of hope, new beginnings, a renewed purpose and an orientation towards a more joyful life that, in turn, becomes a witness and a sign of hope for others as well.
Audio version of the homily is here: