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Speaking Out to Dissuade the Sinner and other Messy Propositions

Detail of Tobias Fendt Vision of Ezekiel

Tobias Fendt - WikiCommons

Canonry of St. Leopold - published on 09/05/14

Speak truth in charity, live with integrity and know there is one Savior only and He's not you.

Abortion, artificial contraception, “gay marriage,” divorce, pornography and wider threats to human dignity, the Church and the family—just to name a few of the ills that plague our society—easily come to mind when one listens to God admonishing the Prophet Ezekiel. “Tell the truth to the wicked or else it will be bad for both of you!”  

The first reading, therefore, invites the homilist to address any number of contentious issues. In so doing, he would be wisely heeding God’s warning that if “…you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.”  

Yet the challenge, of course, is not merely to discharge one’s duty so as to save one’s own skin—“if you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilty but I will hold you responsible for his death”—but to bring those under the veil of sin to repentance.

The homilist, after all, aims not only to illuminate the reality of sin, but also to persuade the sinner to change his ways.

The homily must not only be right in content, but also cast light on the sinner’s circumstances—always a messy proposition—and on the solution to these circumstances: the mercy of God.

This is hardly an easy task because, even when the homilist carefully preaches the truth with love, sinners often take offense. They get angry, upset, complain, send nasty emails or write to the Bishop. As a result, it is easy to imagine that a homilist, or indeed any Christian, will shy away from mentioning unpopular teachings because they will cost him his peace.

Today readings, nevertheless, encourage us to risk losing our peace.

In considering how we might be able to admonish the sinner—a spiritual work of mercy—it is useful to recall that the term, “sinner,” has more than one possible meaning. The obvious literal sense refers to one who has sinned. This is clear.

A second paradoxical use of the term emerges in the Gospels: a “sinner” is the one who understands, and indeed knows, that he cannot possibly save himself, and therefore, cries out to God for mercy. The sinner—and only the sinner—can gain God’s mercy; the righteous (that is, the self-righteous) neither recognizes the need for mercy (although he is terribly sick) nor does he ask for it (because he is, after all, a “good person”).  

Surprisingly, the righteous are the deluded ones, who are in need of the enlightenment that springs from the preaching, which convicts one of his sinfulness (“I stand in desperate need of God’s help”) and that, furthermore, this discovery is indeed very good news (“…and I am the one for whom Jesus Christ has died on the Cross and who wishes to raise me to new life in Him”).

Even after our repentance and baptism, this awakening to reality urges Christians to cultivate humility (“there, but for the grace of God, go I”), which is the antidote to falling backing into self-justification. In this sense, we are still “sinners,” namely, those who know that salvation comes from Jesus Christ alone. Keeping this in mind not only helps us to understand properly the numerous stories about sinners and the righteous in the Gospels but also to undertaken fraternal correction with a gentle spirit.

A third sense of the term, “sinner” clarifies the ethos by which the Church evangelizes the world. On the most profound level, the term, sinner is synonymous with the human race. There is no human being other than the Lord himself—who is a Divine Person—and his Blessed Mother—thanks to the unique grace of the Immaculate Conception—who is not a sinner. The human race, therefore, can be distinguished between those sinners who know this, Christians, and those who do not yet recognize this reality, non-Christians. The difference is not one of being (“we are all sinners before God”), but rather knowledge; hence, the Church’s mandate to be

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