“The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus.” What hope that line gives us! To sin is to leave the company of Jesus or to refuse to seek it again. To repent is to return to close companionship with him, to seek his company in the sacraments, in the Word of God, in those around us, in our deepest soul, in the beauty of creation.
People often make the mistake of thinking that when they sin, Jesus can’t look at them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more we sin, the more we should seek him out. It is in fact he who is already seeking us out. No matter how serious, long-standing or deep-rooted a sin, it can never stop Jesus from loving us and wanting our company. He wants to free the sinner he loves, and that’s every one of us, from the sin which so devastates our life. He took that devastation on himself on the Cross, so that we could be free from it – if we want that freedom!
Not long ago, a parishioner at St. Mary’s left an anonymous note in our parish council box. It’s fantastic! It reads: “I think that all churches should have a banner outside above the door which reads, ‘only sinners may enter this building.’” It continues, “I think attendances would improve because many people believe they have to be ‘good’ before coming to church.” I’m not sure about the banner, but the message is spot on. You could perhaps put it this way: Mercy available in this church, the virtuous need not apply. The only thing I might add would be that once the throngs of sinners are here, seeking the company of Jesus, they try their best to repent of their sins using the grace of the sacraments of penance and communion.
The desire for a happy and loving home is deep in everyone’s heart. It is all the stronger in those who, sadly, do not experience a happy home life on this earth. Even for those who have been blessed with a happy home here below, we know that it will not last for ever. If we will but listen to them, our hearts instinctively seek an eternal home, the Father’s house, lasting company with Jesus and with all who are already there with him. We are in fact homeless until we go home to God.
Once, Jesus said to his friends, “make your home in me as I make mine in you.” In other words, I am your home. And so, life is about learning to be at home with Jesus, seeking his company, seeking his face and the sweet dominion of his love. This is only possible if we freely choose to let go of our sin and to ask for his mercy as often as required.
St. Paul in that first reading says he was the worst of all sinners. Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus. You might say “he was lucky”, he didn’t have to struggle like us. But that’s not true. That appearance of Jesus to him did not magically wipe away all his many sins. He had to spend a few days in blindness, without eating or drinking; he sank into a kind of severe depression. And no wonder. Jesus had pulled from under him his cocky self-assurance that he was some great personage of the Jewish religion. Paul entered into a deep crisis of soul; he realised that, if he accepted Jesus, his life up to that point will have been virtually meaningless. In fact, he later describes to the Philippians that all the achievements and honours of his life up to that point were like dung to him in comparison with the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus.
Jesus sought Paul out but Paul understood he had to make a choice: do I let go of the life I have lived until now and confess my sins and have them forgiven in the waters of baptism, or do I cling to my former lifestyle which was so good for my ego and my wallet? He does, in fact, freely accept baptism; he enters the company of Jesus, he comes home to Jesus.
The company and mercy of Jesus are available to all. But they can only be experienced personally if we choose to repent of our sin. The sin in question is not what we consider as sin, but what Jesus considers as sin. Repentance is not on our terms, but on his. He is the one who knows what sin is, what horrors it causes, because he took it all on himself and suffered its guilt and destructive power. If we come into the company of Jesus without opening the door of our hearts to repentance, his mercy cannot get in. But if we make our way back to him with the sincere repentance of the prodigal son, then the open doors of our own heart will become the doorway to our eternal home. And what joy there will be in heaven at our return!