THE TWENTY--FOURTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
The Stewardship of Sinners
Do you see yourself as too sinful to exercise leadership in the Church?
The Entrance Antiphon (Sirach 36:18) asks for peace “for those who wait for you.” But our peace is founded on our faith that God waits for us: waits for us to discover him, to accept him, to convert from sin and return to him. It is faith in God’s fidelity and forgiveness that gives us the trust to ask, “Hear the prayers of your servant and of your people.”
In the Opening Prayer(s) we say to God: “You alone are the source of our peace.” Because you are our “creator and guide.” And you “look down upon your people in their moments of need.” We are confident that, no matter how unfaithful we have been, if we change and desire to “serve you with all our heart” we will “know your forgiveness in our lives.” Ultimately, the only reliable peace is the “peace of Christ who offered his life in the service of all.” Our peace is the product and proof of God’s mercy. Because God is always waiting to receive us, the Responsorial (Luke 15:18) voices our unshakable attitude: “I will rise and go to my father.”
In Exodus 32:7-14 Moses seems to be more merciful than God! God says he has “had it” with this “stiff-necked people.” “Let me alone, then, so that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.” But Moses won’t let him alone. He argues with him: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel… how you swore to them by your own self… ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants…’” Result: “The LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
We know God didn’t really change his mind. He had set Moses up to intercede for his people, intending all along to forgive them. But he wanted Moses to take the responsibility of defending the people, because God had entrusted them to Moses. He was the “faithful, farsighted steward whom the master set over his servants to dispense their ration of grain in season.”
This is a heads-up for all of us, because in Baptism we were all consecrated as “kings in the King”; that is, as “stewards of the kingship of Christ.” We are all responsible — answerable directly to God; no “department heads” — for the proper management and functioning of everything that affects the “reign of God” on earth.
There are different kinds of stewardship. All stewards have authority to intervene, to be involved, to try to bring about changes in family and social life, business, politics and the Church. Every right is in virtue of an obligation, and we have the right to be involved because we are obliged to be. That goes with our baptismal consecration as sharers in the kingship of Christ.
But some stewards also have authority to command in one area of activity or another. If so, they have the right and obligation to use it for the common good, to achieve the purposes of the Father following the principles taught and exemplified by the Son and submissive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We need to distinguish, however, between authority and leadership. A distinguishing characteristic of those who have authority over a whole group is that they have the function of holding the community together. Leaders have the function of moving the community forward. The two functions are distinct, and sometimes they are separate. Authorities do not always have to know what direction to lead in, and leaders do not need authority to invite or to win people to follow them.
The right and obligation to offer leadership is inherent in the stewardship of all the baptized. All who have responsibility for extending the reign of God on earth are obliged to try to lead people in the right direction when they see what the right direction is. Leadership is simply responsibility in action.
Moses had no authority over God. But God let himself be led by Moses into conduct consistent with his own divinity. And we should note here that one way of exercising faithful stewardship is through prayer. On the human plane this takes the form of making suggestions to authorities. If God was not above being argued with by Moses, no authority should resent it when leaders urge them to action.
God seeks, God finds
In Luke 15:1-32 the focus is on God’s action in the process of human repentance. The shepherd combs the wilderness until he finds his sheep. The woman sweeps her whole house until she finds her lost coin. The father peers down the road every day in hope his son will return. He spots him while he is still a “long way off” and runs out to meet him. What dominates the story is the father. He “put his arms around him and kissed him” and told his servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one —and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.”
We are “stewards” of this story, as of all the “manifold grace of God.” We are the “managers” of what this reveals of the Father. We are responsible for keeping alive in the Church and proclaiming to those who have left it that God our Father is neither vengeful nor demanding. He accepts us back, for all practical purposes, on our own terms, without laying down conditions. All he asks is that we ask to return. And we don’t even have to ask. It is enough that we just show up.
Over the centuries preachers and religion teachers have created a whole series of intimidating phrases that stand as hurdles in the way of those returning to the sacraments. “Integral confession of sins,” “perfect contrition,” “firm purpose of amendment,” accepting and fulfilling the “penance” imposed, getting back into “good standing” through compliance with Church regulations. These are certainly important. Some of them might even be called essential, depending on how we understand them. But when we make a big issue of them, we falsify the image of God.
The “prodigal son” never got a chance to make an “integral confession” of his sins to his father. His father just called for the robe and the ring and launched the celebration. He asked no questions, demanded no promises of reform and assigned no penance. He lived in the present moment of his son’s desire for reconciliation, gave his forgiveness, and let life begin anew from that day, trusting that the grace that brought his son back to the family table would flourish through what he experienced there. Until that is the expectation people have when they think about entering the confessional, and the feeling they have when they leave it, something in our pastoral practice must be recognized as distorted.
God seeks and finds
1Timothy 1:12-17 is from Paul’s letter to the head of the Church in Ephesus. In his letter Paul goes into some detail, not only about the need to preserve right doctrine and morality, but also about various church ministries and the qualifications of those involved in them. It is a letter from a steward to a steward, from a responsible church leader to another in whom he takes for granted a sense of responsibility equal to his own.
What is winning about the letter is that Paul, who will have to insist on some corrections within the community, begins by making it clear that he knows what it is to be at fault, to be a sinner, and to be treated with unexpected mercy. He knows from personal experience that even those who commit the worst sins are not always acting with the “sufficient knowledge” required for deadly guilt. “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully.”
Paul held from deep, personal experience that one thing I s “sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” The Church exists for sinners. It is made up of sinners. The Church does not exclude sinners but welcomes them. Every person at Mass announces his or her right to be there by a “qualifying declaration” of sinfulness: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” The more sinful we are, the more we know that the Mass exists for us. Because Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom, Paul claimed, “I am the foremost.” And he meant it.
Bottom line: If you feel alienated or unaccepted at Mass because you are not living up to Church standards, you have the picture all wrong. We are the “Sinners Club.” When we assemble for Mass we are comfortable with everybody except those who are comfortable with themselves. So stand up and say with the rest of us, “I will rise and go to my father.”
All that counts is trying to please God at the present moment.
Be a trusting steward: don’t let anything stop you from doing what you can.
 Luke 12:42.