I’d like to begin with a story. It’s about Paddy – a man who was very active in his church community, and died in his 70s.
When Paddy reached the Pearly Gates, he expected them to swing open in front of him. Instead, he was rather bemused to find St Peter standing in front of him with a clipboard.
“OK,” said St Peter, “here’s how it works. In order to get into heaven, you need 100 points. You tell me all the reasons we should let you into heaven, and I will add up the points.”
“Right,” said Paddy. “For starters, I have never missed Mass on a Sunday. Every weekend of my life, I’ve been at church.”
“Excellent,” said St Peter. “One point.”
Paddy’s face fell. “Only one?” he thought – but he didn’t say it out loud.
“I’ve always supported church,” said Paddy, “and ever since I started earning a decent wage I’ve given 5% of my income to church. And I used Gift Aid!”
“Great,” said St Peter. “That’s another point.”
Paddy was beginning to feel rather desperate now. What would earn him another 98 points? He had one more thing…
“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” he said, “stepping in to stop fights. And if I’ve been arguing with someone, I’ve always been the first to step forward to make up.”
“Wonderful,” said St Peter, “the boss is really keen on that sort of thing. That gets you another three points – you’ve scored five so far.”
“FIVE POINTS?” scowled Paddy. “For all that, just five? If I’m ever going to get through those gates, it will only be by the grace of God !”
At that moment, a fanfare played and the gates opened. “That’s the correct answer,” said St Peter, “only God’s grace is worth 100 points. Come on in!”
If we wish to become saints – and if our goal is to enter heaven, then we must all plan to become saints – our first step is to recognise that we need God’s help. “Grace” is just a fancy name for God’s help. When God gives help to people who don’t deserve it, that’s called “mercy”.
It’s easy to get the wrong idea about “mercy”. There’s a playground game where children wrestle until one shouts “mercy” because it hurts; or in a movie, the bad guy might have some terrible torture to inflict on the victim, who calls out for mercy. Do we really believe God is like a Hollywood villain, out to punish us?
It’s true, there’s a prayer which we might have learned to use in confession, where we acknowledge that because of our sins, we deserve God’s “dreadful punishments”. This might fool us into thinking that God is some kind of sadist who delights in handing out justice. But we know that Jesus came to show us that God is the most loving of Fathers, who always wishes to forgive rather than punish. And how do we obtain that forgiveness? We do what the tax-collector did in today’s Gospel! We cry out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Why, then, did the Church ever come up with a prayer which talks about “dreadful punishments”? It’s because we know that, like Paddy, we could never deserve to go to heaven because of our good deeds. Only someone who had never committed a sin in their life could deserve to go to heaven. No sinner could be worthy to spend forever in God’s company. But if we missed out on being with God – if we know there is a God who loves us, and yet we are separated from Him for eternity – that would be truly dreadful! So that prayer is a reminder that none of us deserve to go to heaven. Heaven is a gift – a grace – a free gift offered to us by the Heavenly Father who loves us.
Of course, we should try to do the right thing. Today, at our Harvest celebration, we will shortly present our gifts of food to give to the local FoodBank. It’s important that those of us who can afford to give something away, give food for people in our local community who have fallen through the gaps in the help the State can provide. It’s one of the many good deeds we do as church members, working together for the good of our community. But a couple of weeks ago, St Luke reminded us that we shouldn’t boast about doing things like that – because we are only useless servants who have done the duty expected of us!
Our Lord was not impressed with the Pharisee who listed all his good works. Like Paddy, however many good deeds we can list, we can’t boast of being good enough to deserve heaven. What we can boast of, is this: Jesus loved us so much that he opened the gates of heaven by taking on himself the dreadful punishments that our sins deserve. And we do boast about this – we boast by singing hymns. It’s the amazing thing about grace. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross spells it out clearly in the words: “Forbid it, Lord,that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God!”
We need to boast even louder! The Catholic Church is famous for demanding high moral standards – and notorious for cases where its leaders and members have failed to keep them. We must become even more famous for proclaiming that we believe in a God who doesn’t want to hand down dreadful punishments but gives a second chance to everyone who asks for mercy. So let’s rejoice in God’s mercy. Let’s humble ourselves by recognising that we are sinners. Let’s give thanks to God by offering our gifts to the FoodBank and by wholeheartedly celebrating this Mass. And let’s go home knowing that if we have done all this, we will certainly be at rights with God!