SUNDAY’S READINGS | September 11, 2022
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). For this reason, we do well to identify with all the tax collectors and sinners who come near to Jesus to hear him, and with whom Jesus shares a warm welcome and a common meal. According to one commentator, the combination of tax collectors — Jews who collected the Roman poll tax — and sinners stands for a larger group: “the outcasts, the irreligious, and the immoral” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer). “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2). It has been said that the Church is a hospital for sinners. In this story, we find more than recuperation and rest. Jesus provides welcome and is himself a eucharistic presence at the meal; and, in his teaching, he draws attention to the theme of joy.
The Pharisees and scribes, grumbling against Jesus, have their reasons. The word holy means “set apart,” and just as God is utterly set apart from sin, an elect and holy people are to be set apart from sinners. A brief sample of biblical texts will highlight this point. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm” (Prov. 13:20). “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers” (Ps. 1:1). “I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked” (Ps. 26:4-5).
St. Paul, combining several Old Testament passages, urges Christian to remain separate from unbelievers. “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:17-18). In the early days of the Church, a person preparing for baptism was instructed not in the sacramental mysteries of the faith but rather in the necessity of moral transformation. Sinners were called to repentance and amendment of life before their baptism.
The Pharisees and the scribes are right, at least to a degree. We are called to holiness. But we never achieve, in this life, absolute holiness. As a result, the very sin we seek to avoid is never far away. Protecting ourselves with the illusion of holiness, we tend to see in others what we refuse to see in ourselves. Do we not feel our folly and wickedness in the deep water of conscience? Saul of Tarsus, a holy man, discovered himself anew as a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence precisely in his presumed holiness.
Although not knowing it, the Pharisees and the scribes stand in fellowship with the tax collectors and sinners. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In the end, we may all say with St. Paul, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:14). The grace and love of Christ, the welcome and forgiveness of Christ, are the source of all Christian joy. “Just so, I tell you,” Jesus says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
O sinner, dance in the joy of the Lord’s presence and welcome (2 Sam. 6:14-16).
Look It Up: Psalm 51:9
Think About It: Joy and gladness in heaven.