In the first reading today, the Lord lays out his heart of mercy and justice. He loves all of us, the wicked and the righteous. God wants to show us mercy when we sin; he wants to forgive us. But repentance and a firm purpose of amendment is required.
Every sinner has the capacity to be a great saint. No one is beyond the hope of metanoia.
“If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:21).
It’s important to remember that the sheep and the goats are divided at the end, not in the middle of their lives (Matthew 25:31-46). It may be tempting to put people in white hats and black hats, label them as “sheep” or “goats,” and put them in categories now. But that is reserved for the Lord, at the end.
We are all somewhere in the middle of our stories right now. Some of us are closer to the end, but if you are reading this, you are still in the midst of your story. So is your neighbor – even the one that seems to be beyond saving, and even the one who has hurt you the most.
“If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed…None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced” (Ezekiel 18: 21-22).
I think at times we act like we want people to be punished for their sins for all eternity. Do we honestly want everyone to be in heaven? Even those people who have hurt us? Even the greatest sinner imaginable? Do we want them in heaven with us for all eternity?
“Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)
We are judged at the end of our lives, not in the middle. Every sinner has the capacity to be a great saint. Never tire of praying for the conversion of sinners.
Never become complacent with your spiritual progress, either. It’s clear from the first reading that the righteous person can become the wicked man:
“And if the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil, the same kind of abominable things that the wicked man does, can he do this and still live? None of his virtuous deeds shall be remembered, because he has broken faith and committed sin; because of this, he shall die” (Ezekiel 18:24).
This is not a warning to cause fear or scrupulosity, but simply a reminder that but for the grace of God, there go I. The virtuous man can become the wicked man. But thankfully, we can refer to the previous verse. God is ready to forgive the repentant sinner!
The Gospel, however, takes it one step farther (as it usually does). Jesus reminds us that we too must forgive the repentant sinner. We must not hold grudges, we must not be angry, and we must ask and accept forgiveness. When someone sins against us, we must show them the same mercy that God shows them.
It is tempting to want them to be punished. In our hearts, there may be a tendency to begrudge the Lord’s merciful forgiveness. I ask again: do we honestly want everyone in heaven?
In a recent article on The Pillar, a Ukrainian priest spoke to this very point:
Fr. Alexander Laschuk, a Ukrainian Catholic priest ministering in Toronto, told The Pillar that on Forgiveness Sunday – which his family, observing the Julian calendar, will celebrate March 6 – he’ll talk with parishioners, and with his children, about loving their enemies.
“I can say that loving your enemy is the hardest thing we are called as Christians to do. Absolutely the hardest,” Laschuk told The Pillar Sunday.
“And I tell people that loving your enemies means if you get to heaven and see Putin sitting there, you think ‘Wow, God is so great!’ And not ‘What the heck are YOU doing here?’”
Let us never tire of praying for the conversion of sinners. No one is a lost cause. Ask the Lord to give you His heart: a heart of forgiveness, mercy, and love. “I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! Why should you die, house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11)
The Lord is still working; the sheep and the goats do not get divided until the end. In this season of Lent, turn away from sin, seek out the Lord’s mercy in the sacrament of confession, and if you “recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).
“It’s true that he was a sinner. But don’t pass so final a judgment on him. Have pity in your heart, and don’t forget that he may yet be an Augustine, while you remain just another mediocrity” (St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way, 675).
Image: “Conversion on the Road to Damascus” (detail) by Caravaggio | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons