One of the themes I’ve been thinking, praying, and writing about a lot lately is the idea of God pursuing us. I’m hung up on and fascinated by the idea that a perfect and self-sufficient being, which in itself contains full and perfect community, would nonetheless desire and go to extreme lengths to enjoy communion with us, it’s imperfect, rebellious creation.
This notion is, of course, simply the gospel. It’s the good news that Christ sent His apostles to bring to the world: We are not slaves, but friends. We are not rebellious clay, to be smashed and reshaped, but sons and daughters made in the image of the Loving father who seeks only to love and be loved by us.
One of the great challenges of this truth is accepting that we are loved despite our sinfulness. Another challenge, though, and one on which I would like to focus today, is that not only I, but all others are pursued by God, just as much without reference to their sins as to mine. This holds true for the gravest sinner and the holiest nun, those within, without, and those who have never heard of the Church. This is the scandal of grace.
Now, on its face, that final sentence seems strange. Few of us would comprehend being scandalized by grace, much less admit to it. Nevertheless, this is one of the most universal spiritual experiences. Jesus references this in the story of the prodigal son, locating this tendency in the character of the older brother. He shows a man who has given his life to begrudging service to his father, not out of love but out of obligation. This man experiences what Fr. Mike Schmitz recently called “self-induced fatherlessness”, by turning his father into a mere master.
That, on its own, would be painful enough: self-induced separation from one who only wants to love you is a deep pain, one that each of us has experienced through sin. What often hurts more, though, is the realization of what we have done. This is the real source of the older brother’s anger. He sees that he has been wrong about his father, that he could have just received his love instead of treating him as a master, and decides that this is unfair. If he’s not going to have a father, his rebellious brother shouldn’t get one either.
Friends, I believe that this is a universal experience. I see this in myself and others all the time: this resentment of those who sin in ways that we do not, or struggle in ways we used to, and yet are equal recipients of God’s love and mercy. It may not be conscious (I certainly don’t go around thinking “That person isn’t as deserving of love as me”), but it is evident in the way that we act, especially to those outside the church.
It’s simple human nature to be harder on failings which are not your own, and more black-and-white around issues which you will never experience. It is easy for me, for example, to speak about the sin of robbing one’s tenants as a landlord, given that I will likely never be in a position where I would be tempted to do so. It is much harder, though, to chastise someone for a lack of kindness in their words, since that standard of judgement is just as easily applied to me.
This is very effectively taught by St. Paul early in the book of Romans. At the end of chapter one, he mentions people who sin against chastity in same-sex relationships, for about four verses. It’s an oft-quoted verse by Christians who wish to (with varying degrees of charity) defend their position on the subject. What usually isn’t quoted, though, is the series of verses immediately following, where Paul adds that those who are “filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” are also under judgement.
It’s impossible, I think, to look at that list and not recognize oneself in it, probably multiple times.
St. Paul is offering a not-so-gentle correction here, opening with a very public sin, almost like he expects us to jump in, agreeing that “those others” are very bad, thank the Lord we aren’t like them, but then turning it on his audience with a comprehensive list of private sins of the heart. The point is clear: none of us are perfect, so none of us can hold ourselves as “more worthy” of God’s love.
Grace is scandalous. We as Catholics hope that any individual may have been saved in the end by God’s grace, which is “foolishness” and “a stumbling block to the world”.
What do we do about it, then? How do we live in a world that cannot understand God’s grace?
The answer, I believe, lies in the example of thousands of Saints: holy men and women who tended to the needs of the poor, the outcast, and the vulnerable. What makes us Saints is our conformity to Christ, and Christ healed the leperous, ate with sinners, and discoursed with outsiders. Our call is to be instruments of God’s grace to those who have been told they cannot receive it, and scandalize a society, even a society of Christians, who believe those children of God to be disposable.