Story of priest called out in winter to minister to dying man.
This true story highlights a truth about God that should bring us much hope and consolation, especially if we have friends or family members who are estranged from the church and their faith. It is never too late in this life for a person to turn away from their sin and back to God. God’s hand of grace is stretched out to the very last moment of a person’s life to offer them salvation, if they will reach out and grasp it. We have two examples from Mass earlier in the week. One is of a blind man standing along the side of the road, begging, when he hears that Jesus is passing by. He starts calling out to Jesus: ”Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When Jesus calls him over and asks him what he can do for him, the man replies: ”Lord,, let me see again”. In other words: ”Lord, I am sick and tired of living this empty way of life, since I lost my sight. Let me see again, so I can do something different with my life.” When Jesus heals his eyesight, the first thing he does is to become a follower, a disciple of Jesus. But Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he is very close to the time when he will be crucified, and, yet, even in these last moments, he is offering this blind man the chance of salvation.
The next story from the same gospel of Luke shows us Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, very rich but hated by his fellow-Jews for taking their money and giving it to the Roman occupiers. He is too short, we are told, to be able to see Jesus from the ground, so he climbs a tree to look down on the path Jesus will be taking, and, to his astonished delight, Jesus stops ,looks up at him, calls him by his name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for a meal. Such is Zacchaeus’ delight that he spontaneously offers to recompense anyone he has cheated four times whatever he has taken from them, and also to give half his money away to the poor. In effect, Zaccheus is impoverishing himself, because he has found in his relationship with Jesus true riches above and beyond anything he had before. Jesus does not demand this of Zaccheus before he accepts him. He has already accepted and loved him, before any conversion on the part of Zaccheus. It is because he has been shown such great love, that he is able to reach out in love himself. Jesus tells him that he has come to “seek out and save the lost” and once again, as with the blind man, even as he approaches his own death, Jesus is reaching out a hand to save the sinner.
And so on to today’s gospel story, where both Jesus and the thief are on the point of death, but even at this last of all last moments, Jesus is doing what he came into the world to do – to seek and save the lost. He stretches his hand out to the reformed thief and the man grasps hold of it and of his eternal salvation. It is never too late in this life to turn things around and come back to God and be saved.
Another truth we learn about God from these stories. When the blind beggar calls out to Jesus, the people around him tell him to shut up. It is obvious what they are saying to him: ”Don’t bother Jesus. You are a sinner, that is why you have been blinded. So, naturally, Jesus doesn’t have any time for the likes of you.” I bet that Jesus heard these words and, we are told, he stopped still and proved all these nay-sayers wrong by taking time to hear this man out and to answer the cry of his heart. Again, when Jesus greets Zaccheus, and says he wants to have a meal with him, the other townsfolk are stunned and angered. To their mind, this Zaccheus is the dregs of human society, a turn coat and lackey of the hated Romans, a sinner of sinners, and yet here is Jesus inviting himself into his home. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner”. Scandal! Shame on him! But Jesus is not ashamed to be known as the friend of sinners, nor is he intimidated into backing down from his stance.
Again, as we hear the story from our gospel today, there may be some who are aghast that Jesus should take into his heavenly home this man beside him on the cross, who admits himself to be a criminal and deserving of death. There seems to be no purgatory or judgement or hell for him, just the promise from Jesus of coming immediately on his death into heaven. How fair is that? We have not committed any really bad sins, like this criminal, yet we imagine we will still have to spend some time in purgatory. Again, we discover that “God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts are, nor are his ways like ours”, as the prophet Isaiah says (Isaiah 55: 8), and that God does not take delight in the death of a wicked person, but infinitely prefers that such a person should repent of their evil ways and turn back to him and be saved, as the prophet Ezekiel also says (Ezekiel 18: 23). Straight after these words, God addresses those who criticize his merciful ways: ”You say: ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear this, my people. Is my way unfair really? Is it not your ways that are really unfair”(Ezekiel 18: 25). Unerringly, God puts the finger on why it is our hearts that are wrong and hypocritical. We want mercy for ourselves, but judgement for others. The epistle of James in the New Testament, makes the lesson clear: ”Merciless is God’s judgement on those who have not learnt to show mercy themselves, but those who are merciful need have no fear of God’s judgement, because, for them, God’s mercy triumphs over his judgement” (James 2:13).
If you want God to show mercy to you when you confess your sins, practice mercy to those who sin against you and ask forgiveness.
The trouble is that many of us have had bad experiences of people in authority over us: parents, teachers, employers, pastors, who have not shown us mercy when we have transgressed, and so we develop a habit of cynicism, concluding that it is the usual response of our rulers to be condemnatory and intolerant and judgemental. So we assume the same thing to be true of God. If Jesus is our King, as today’s feast reminds us ,and he has a kingdom which includes us, then obviously he is also merciless and intolerant with weakness and sin. But as the stories and scriptures I have been sharing in this homily make very clear, Jesus is a very different kind of king to those of earlier times that we have often read about, who went around chopping people’s heads off if they offended or annoyed them. And Jesus does have a kingdom, but it is run on very different lines to those of other kings in the past, it is, as our preface during today’s mass points out: “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”.
Our baptism, brothers and sisters, actually gives us a share in Christ’s kingly anointing. We are made, through baptism, sons and daughters of God, the King of Kings. How about showing that in this coming week, by treating with mercy and pardon any person who offends and annoys us?