Admonish the Sinner!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over these few weeks, we are considering the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I admonished sinners?

It’s not easy, getting other people to change their behaviour – especially if they don’t share our viewpoint. After all, have ever tried changing your own behaviour? A diet? A fast? It’s not easy. They say that when we point the finger at others, three point back.

There’s a story about a mother who marched her son up to a monk and said “tell him to stop eating so many chocolate biscuits”.

“Come back in two weeks,” said the monk.

Two weeks later the bemused mother took her son back to visit the monk. The monk looked the boy in the eye and said: “Stop eating so many chocolate biscuits”.

The Mum was grateful, yet curious about why she had been made to wait for a fortnight. So she hung back and whispered her question to the monk.

“My dear daughter,” said the monk, “it’s only 13 days since I gave up eating too many biscuits!”

Today’s Gospel gives us a window into how Jesus corrected a sinner. First, he communicated clearly that he was not keen that she should be punished for what she had done. But second, he left her in no doubt that what she had done was wrong – “Go and sin no more!”

 

Over the last few years our bishops have found themselves in a very difficult position. Our politicians have moved away from Christian values on matters such as the sanctity of human life, the definition of marriage, and Sunday trading. If our Bishops do stand up for these values, they will be accused of being bigoted and not respecting the different values of other people in society. If our Bishops shrug and accept that British laws can no longer embody Christian values, they will be accused of being soft on morality. A retired Chief Rabbi recently suggested that religions should seek to wield great influence but not hold political power – perhaps our bishops are ensuring the Catholic viewpoint is heard in the public debate, even if they don’t expect Parliament to enshrine Catholic values in law.

It’s easier to correct a sinner if they are a committed Catholic and you are a supportive friend. If your starting point is knowing the other person also wants to live their life as a follower of Jesus, you can gently question their actions. Otherwise, how do we start the conversation?

Slowly.

The monk in my story took his time. He made sure he was living a life of integrity, so he wouldn’t be a hypocrite. It also takes time to build up trust, and without trust we won’t get anyone to change their behaviour willingly.

Sometimes we don’t have time, and the cause is urgent. One example would be the people running the “40 days for Life” campaign, praying and witnessing outside abortion clinics. They don’t have months to get to know mothers in distress, and the stakes are as high as possible – life or death.

But in most cases, if we want to embrace our calling to admonish sinners, we should take our time. We build up trust slowly. The effective conversation is one which starts “Where is Jesus in your life?” rather than “Hey! Don’t do that!”. It’s only when we can talk about God that we can tackle the tricky are of what God’s commands are.

During the next week, priests across the City of Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan will put on two penitential services each day so that you have the best possible opportunity to go to confession in Lent for the Year of Mercy. There are morning, afternoon and evening opportunities, including here at St Philip Evans on Thursday evening.

One reason we might feel reluctant to go to confession is a sense that “I haven’t done anything really wrong.” Now it’s true that the small sins of everyday life don’t have to be taken to confession. When we receive communion, God deals with our thoughtless gossip, momentary displays of anger, and failure to pray as much as we might. But it’s still good to ask not only for forgiveness, but the special grace to overcome sin which God gives through absolution. To prepare for confession, we must examine our consciences, and that’s why I’ve been working through the spiritual works of mercy this Lent.

Now we can’t achieve everything we’d like to, because there are only 24 hours in a day. Reflecting on the works of mercy is less about asking whether we should go off and do voluntary work, more about asking ourselves whether we have made the best use of the opportunities God has sent us in daily life. If bad behaviour came our way, did we bear wrongs graciously? When a friend sinned, did we speak up? Did we pray for the friends and colleagues whose sins have affected us? If we don’t know our faith well enough to pass it on effectively, have we made a plan to help ourselves learn anything? And what have we done for friends who are in distress?

“No need to remember the past” says God through Isaiah.

“I want only the perfection that comes from faith in Christ, not my own efforts,” says St Paul.

“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus, “go away and sin no more.”

All of these await you at the confessional. Please don’t wait for me to send out personalised invitations!