The Sinner Who Did Not Commit Any Sin
When I read in the lives of the saints the statement that they claimed they were the greatest sinner, I thought that they were just exaggerating. I thought that their statement was only an expression of their feeling with no basis in reality. I thought so because I knew that there were sinners greater than them.
For example, we read this statement by St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy, "You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I myself am the worst" (1:15), We ask ourselves, How could St. Paul be the worst sinner when there were sinners greater than him during his time? It is true that he once persecuted the church of Jesus but during his lifetime the ones who put Jesus to death were still alive, the chief priests, Pilate the governor who condemned Jesus to death, the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. Certainly these latter were worse than Paul as sinners. Paul persecuted the church, but these killed the head of this church, Jesus. But Paul said that he was the worst of sinners. Was he telling the truth or was he just exaggerating?
Another example. How could St. Teresa of Jesus write that she was a miserable sinner (Life, chapter 21) when while still a child she already desired martyrdom for Christ?
Closer to our time we have this statement by our present Pope, Francis. He said, "I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner." How can Pope Francis say that he is a sinner when we address him as "Your Holiness". How can a holy person claim that he is a sinner?
The reason why it is difficult for us to think of these persons as sinners, Paul the Apostle, Teresa of Jesus, Pope Francis, is because we measure sinfulness by the sins a person has committed. Using this measure we know that other persons did worse than Paul, Teresa and Pope Francis. Using this measure these three were far more saintly than the rest of mankind.
But they spoke the truth when they said or wrote that they were sinners. This is because they did not compare themselves with other human beings but with God. Compared with the all holy God all of us are sinners and worst sinners by our own right. This is what Jesus wants us to learn from our Gospel reading today.
First, Jesus does not want us to think and behave like the Pharisee who only saw goodness in himself and despised others, even when he ascribed this goodness to God, for he thanked God that he was good in his own eyes. Jesus does not want us to do that.
Second, Jesus wants us to identify ourselves with the tax collector who said, "‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
We are all sinners and the worst of sinners. This is not because we have done great crimes in our life, but because we are organically joined to a humanity which rebelled against God. Deep in our hearts we are rebels.
After creating us human beings God did not just say that he found us good as he did with the creatures before us. He declared that he found us very good. We were superlatively good. No one other than God could be better than us. But what did we do? In the person of our first parents and through them we rebelled against God. We followed Satan by disobeying God's command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And when we followed Satan, we destroyed the whole of creation. All the crimes, violence, sufferings, tortures we see around us and throughout history have their root in this rebellion of our first parents. And because we were in our first parents we too were part of this rebellion.
But God did not give up. We destroyed his creation up to the farthest star. But God determined to renew his creation. And for this he sent his Son to pay for our sinfulness. And this Son in the man Jesus suffered all kinds of deprivations and died a most painful death to redeem us. God himself in his second person had to undergo such excruciating suffering and death for us. So, indeed we are worst sinners because we made God to suffer and die for us in his second person.
In paying for our sinfulness Jesus became sin for us. This is what Paul affirms. "For our sakes God made him (Jesus) who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is how terrible our sin or sinfulness is. It made him who was completely sinless to be sin, to be full of our sins, of our sinfulness so that we can have the holiness of God. For our sake he became a sinner without committing a single sin.
That is how God loved us. And we are not aware of the sufferings that God went through to deliver us from our sins. This is because deep in our hearts we are sinners. And in our Gospel reading Jesus wants us to acknowledge this fact together with the tax collector, a person despised during his time as openly a sinful man.
Let us pray as we bow our heads. Lord Jesus, thank you for this story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Thank you for making us realize that we are indeed sinners, we have participated in inflicting upon you terrible pains and nailing you to the cross. Be merciful unto us, sinners. Amen.
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Note for the readers:
The Mass readings are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). This is where our Lectionary gets the readings.
NAB stands for New American Bible (before it was revised). This is the translation I use. Unless otherwise stated the text I use is from this translation.
AV stands for Authorized Version of the Bible. It is more commonly referred to as the King James Bible. It is the version most used in English literature, therefore it is the one known more by the English speaking world.