“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.”
These words from St. Paul from today’s second reading are inspiring words. They give us something to aspire to – that at the end of our lives, we might be able to say the same thing about our own confidence of our redemption in Christ. However, these words also present a challenge to us – can we really say them with confidence? Or does not our conscience prick us at the thought of pronouncing such a bold and confident statement about our own salvation? To many, St. Paul’s words could seem to lack humility. Or at least we might think that saying such things is alright and fine for St. Paul, who saw the Lord in a vision, had mystical experiences of prayer, and received the extraordinary grace of martyrdom. But for us, who live much more normal lives, isn’t such a confidence a bit presumptuous on our part?
The sin of presumption is indeed a great danger in our day and age. We commit this sin whenever we think to ourselves, “Oh, God will forgive me” and use this as an excuse to give in to temptations to sin. We can see it active in a culture, even within the Church, that believes that people will go to Heaven because they are “fundamentally good persons” rather than because they have died in a state of grace, having confessed all of their mortal sins.
The sin of presumption can also occur as an abuse of the sacrament of confession, if someone were to commit a sin – especially a mortal sin – knowing that he or she will be forgiven and that the priest is likely to be kind and lenient. This attitude, which unfortunately is relatively common, has two fundamental problems: The first is that it treats God’s mercy not as a gratuitous gift, but rather as something to which we are entitled. The second is that it ignores the real harm that sin – especially mortal sins – does to us. Even when our sins have been forgiven the damage they do to our souls still persists. This is why purgatory is such an important part of the Catholic vision of the world, and why it is so good for us to earn indulgences, as I hope that each of you have done during this Extraordinary Jubilee Year for Mercy.
The ultimate act of the sin of presumption, though, is not to confess a sin – especially a mortal sin – because we think that God’s mercy means that we do not have to repent. This, however, is significantly to warp the way that the Bible presents God to us. God is indeed infinitely merciful, but God’s mercy does not turn Him into a blundering and inept deity who is content to let his beloved sons and daughters wallow in their sins. Rather, quite to the contrary, He sent His only begotten Son to suffer and die for us to redeem us from our sins, and to establish a sacramental order through which He desires to extend the merits of the redemption won by His Son to us. He desires that we persist in a state of grace so that we can have the help of His grace in order to resist further temptations to sin.
Thus it is that Holy Mother Church, in Her infinite wisdom, has united the example of St. Paul today with a parable of our Lord that illustrates just how we are to achieve the same boldness and confidence that animated the exhortation of St. Paul. “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” And our Lord says that this sinner went home justified. The Pharisee sought to justify himself, listing his virtues and accomplishments, but the tax collector sought to be justified by God.
In another place, St. Paul gives the same confession. He tells us that he is the greatest of sinners, but that God has shown His goodness by picking even him to be an Apostle and redeeming him from his sins. We imitate this humble confession of St. Paul when we say at Mass that we have sinned, “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” (thanks to the new translation of the Roman Missal). It is important, though, that this general confession is not the only time in our lives that we admit to being a sinner.
We know through our human relationships, with our families and with our friends, that we have to admit from time to time that we have failed. And our relationship with the Lord and with His Church is no different. At no moment do we better imitate the tax collector praised by our Lord today than when we humbly confess our sins before Christ Himself, present through the ministry of the priest in confession.
It should be the goal of all of our lives to be able to repeat the words of St. Paul, “From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me.” If we have confessed every mortal sin committed since Baptism in the sacrament of confession, we have say these words of St. Paul for ourselves. God’s forgiveness takes away our hesitancy and replaces it in a true confidence in His mercy, a confidence based on a God who is not a benign, doting grandfather, but a God who has taken on our sufferings and now offers us a real and concrete way for our sins to be forgiven. Such a confidence is liberating. It gives us the joy of persisting in God’s grace and removes all fears of Hell. Such a confidence is not the cheap and ultimately empty confidence of the sin of presumption, but a lasting hope that gives peace to the soul. It gives us the freedom to live a life without second guesses and regrets, the freedom to explore all of the possibilities of the incredible world that God made for us.
The Jubilee Year of Mercy, an extraordinary gift to us by our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is drawing to a close in just one month. It has provided the impetus for many people to return to the sacrament of confession after many years, or to make confession a more regular part of their lives, which is essential for growing in holiness, increasing the numbers of those who can say with St. Paul, “from now on the crow of righteousness awaits me.”
When was the last time you imitated the tax collector and begged the Lord, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner”?
The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Our Lady of Good Hope Church, Ft Wayne
XXX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVI