Jer 4.11-12, 22-28 1 Tim 1.12-17 Lk 15,1-10
During the coronation of Queen Elizabeth she was presented with a Bible by the moderator of the Church of Scotland. At many of the Christmas Day messages the Queen has said the life and teaching of Jesus is the foundation of her life. We pray that she may enter his heavenly kingdom.
In these days of mourning, we pray for the Royal Family and especially for our King that he may follow the Queen’s great example as Defender of the Faith.
The Bible readings today give two contrary pictures of Almighty God. The reading from Exodus speaks of God’s anger and judgement upon the people because of their idolatry. As the prophet Jeremiah said ‘they are wise to do evil but to do good they have no knowledge’. So God punished them by their enemies by invasion and destruction of their cities and through natural disasters, such as our world is experiencing now through climate changes.
On the other hand the two readings from the New Testament speak of God’s great love for every human being.
St Paul confesses in the first letter to Timothy through his ignorance he persecuted Christians but ‘the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.’ In today’s Gospel we are told that Jesus associated with sinners and spoke of the joy in heaven over the sinner who has repented.
What are we to make of these contrary views of God. He is angry and punishes those who do wrong yet loves them.
We may begin by considering examples of forgiveness. In St John’s Gospel there is the example of the woman taken in adultery who is about to be stoned to death. Jesus intervenes by saying let whoever has not sinned throw the first stone. The crowd melts away and Jesus asks the woman ‘Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, Lord’ she replies. Jesus then says, ‘Then I don’t. Go and sin no more.’ (John 7.3-11) It’s a puzzling story.
Jesus recognizes that the adulteress has sinned yet he does not punish her because every human being has sinned, including all of us, except the Lord Jesus himself. Does that mean all sinners should go scot free? Notice the story does not say that the woman repented. Jesus himself does not condemn her, though he could because he is without sin. Such is his compassion for sinners.
Another memorable example of sin is during the trial of Jesus before the High Priest Caiaphas. When questioned by the servant girl Peter three times denied that he was a disciple of Jesus. But when he saw Jesus looking at him he broke down and wept, ashamed at what he had done Later when he met the risen Jesus by the lake in Galilee he said that he did love Jesus and received the Lord’s commission to have care for all Christ’s sheep. This is a clear example of forgiveness because he was penitent.
And what are we to make of the apostle Judas betraying Jesus in Gethsemane? Jesus said ‘Woe to that man….’ (Mk 14.21) Judas committed suicide. Did he regret what he had done and repent? We cannot say. A sermon preached during Good Friday may help us. In this short poem Jesus is speaking to Judas:
“Judas, if true love never ceases
how could you, my friend, have come to this;
to sell me for thirty pieces,
betray me with a kiss?
Judas remember what I taught you,
Do not despair while dangling on that rope,
It’s because you sinned that I have sought you,
I came to bring you hope.
Judas let’s pray and hang together,
You upon your halter, I upon my hill,
Dear friend, even if you loved me never
You know I love you still.”
The Gospels tell us that Jesus enjoyed the company of criminals and men like Matthew, the tax collector, who squeezed people for money. Jesus enjoyed parties with loose women like Mary Magdalene and bad people like Zacchaeus, whom he deliberately chose to visit. (Lk 19.5)
Jesus praised the penitent prayer of the tax collector rather than the proud prayer of the Pharisee. (Lk 18.9-14)
It is true that Jesus said he had not come to destroy the Law but to fulfil it (Mt 5.17) but he condemned those who claimed to keep its meticulous regulations especially if they hypocritically despised others. On the other hand Jesus loved so-called bad people, perhaps because he recognized in them the gifts and grace of the Holy Spirit and wanted them to become his disciples.
Crispin Harrison CR