September 26, 1999 -- 26th Sunday "A"




In the society in which Jesus lived, the "sinners" were not only some people who happened to have committed grave sins ; they were a social class. Actually, they were social outcasts. Anyone who, for any reason, deviated from the law and the traditional customs of the middle class (which was constituted by the educated and the virtuous, the scribes and the Pharisees) was treated as inferior, as low class. The sinners were a well-defined social class, the same social class as the poor in the broader sense of the world.

They would have included those who had sinful or unclean professions: prostitutes, tax collectors and usurers. They would have included also those who did not pay their tithes to the priests and those who were negligent about the sabbath rest and about ritual cleanliness. The laws and customs on these matters were so complicated that the uneducated were quite incapable of understanding what was expected of them. The illiterate and uneducated were inevitably lawless and immoral, "the rabble who know nothing of the law" were regarded by the Pharisees as sinners.

There was no practical way out for a sinner. Theoretically the prostitute could be made clean again, by an elaborate process of repentance, purification and atonement. But this would cost money and her ill-gotten gains could not be used for the purpose. The tax collector would be expected to give up his profession and make restitutions plus one-fifth to everyone he had wronged. The uneducated would have to go through a long process of education before one could be sure that they were "clean". Concretely, to be a sinner was therefore one's lot. One had been predestined to inferiority by fate or the will of God. In this sense, the sinners were captives and prisoners. Every form of respectability was denied to them in a society very concerned about classes.

What did Jesus do? He mixed with the sinners, and so restored to them their respectability. He went out of his way to mix socially with tax collectors and prostitutes. He had meals with them. And every time they manifest the slightest sincere openness of heart Jesus tells them :  your sins are forgiven . The Greek word for forgiveness means to remit, to release, or to liberate. To forgive someone is to liberate him/her from the domination of his/her past history. When God forgives he overlooks one's past and takes away the present or future consequences of past transgressions.

Jesus' gestures of friendship toward sinners made it quite clear that this was precisely what he had in mind. He overlooked their past and refused to hold anything at all against them. He treated them as people who were no longer, if ever, indebted to God and therefore no longer deserving of rejection and punishment. They were forgiven.

Not only through the words of today's Gospel, but through his general attitude Jesus continually proclaimed that anyone who is saying  no  to God is capable with God's grace to change that  no  into a  yes ; and that no one who happens to be saying  yes  -- or thinks that he is doing so -- should boast, because that  yes  is all the more fragile when it is proud.