English writer and director, Roland Joffe has had an impressive career in the movie industry. Among his successful and critically acclaimed films are “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields.” In 2011, he added another epic film to his impressive resume entitled “There Be Dragons”. It is based on the life of Saint Josemaria Escriva, a priest who lived during the Spanish Civil War and who founded Opus Dei which helps Catholics live their faith in their everyday lives.
The movie is a testament to God’s grace at work even in the most ordinary of people. Just as powerful as the message of the movie is the slogan used to promote it: “Even saints have a past,” taken from Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
When we look at the history of the Church we see how true it is that some of our greatest saints were often once great sinners. Saint Paul who wrote much of the New Testament was once a persecutor of the early Church and was complicit in the death of the first martyr for Christ, Saint Stephen. Saint Augustine, one of the Church’s first great thinkers, led an immoral life until he came to recognize the love of God. Many other saints as well were terrible people who were struck by God’s love and mercy and who, through grace, came to a complete change of heart.
It is true that every great sinner can become a great saint. Just as every saint has a past so every sinner has a future. No one is so sinful that he or she cannot find forgiveness through the blood of Christ. Though sin harms us and wounds our soul deeply, it can never totally erase our likeness to God. Nothing we do, no matter how harmful to ourselves or to others, can make God decide to stop loving us. At any point in our lives, we can turn back to Him and be embraced by His forgiving love. This is God’s promise to us through the prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading: “When the wicked turn away from their wickedness, they shall live.”
This is also the message of Jesus in today’s gospel. As He walked through Galilee preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom, it was not just the righteous who followed Him. It was also the worst of sinners - tax collectors and prostitutes - who left their wicked lives to find new hope in Him. They had been on the margin of society, shunned by others because of their shameful deeds But in Jesus they found a new life. They learned that God would always love and forgive them. They found the joy and peace that comes from God alone.
Now, just as it is true that in Christ sinners can become saints, it is also true that good people can slide back into a life of sin. As Jesus puts it, those who first say “yes” to God can end up not doing His will and disobeying Him. We see all the time how good people can very often make bad choices. We may have seen it in our own lives.
It starts off innocently enough. We may be feeling tired and decide to watch television rather than pray. Or we may be on vacation and decide that it would not hurt us to miss Sunday Mass. Other times we may be feeling stressed and want to treat ourselves to some of the pleasures we had been avoiding. Then, before we know it, we have drifted away from Christ and fallen into sin. Though we have said “yes” many times to our Lord, our actions begin to say “no”.
No matter how good we are, no matter how much progress we have made in our spiritual life, we must always be vigilant against temptation. We must always make time for prayer, go to Mass at least every Sunday and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation as often as possible. We cannot follow Christ through our own power. We need the strength that comes from God through prayer and the sacraments. We can never just rely on the good deeds of our past. They mean nothing if we are not striving every day to live a good Christian life in imitation of our Master, Jesus.
Our Lord makes this very clear in the gospel. The priests and elders in Jesus’ day were very good people. They desired to live the commandments and to be good examples to the people. However, despite all their good deeds and learning, they could not accept Jesus. Instead of embracing Him as their Messiah, they saw Him as a threat. In so doing, they missed out on the opportunity to know God’s love in a deeper and fuller way. The same can happen to us if we are not striving everyday to live holy lives with the strength God provides.
God is offering us the opportunity to change. He is holding out to us the possibility of a life full of joy, peace and happiness. By following His Son, we can know the purpose of our lives and discover our true selves made in the image and likeness of God.
What are we waiting for? The opportunity to be a great saint is offered to us here and now. Let’s not put it off any longer. None of us know how much time we have left. Why continue to live burdened by sin and anxiety when we can know lasting joy and peace?
Today is the day. God is waiting for our answer. Let us respond “yes” not only with our words but with our actions.