Homily for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Every high priest is taken from among men
and made their representative before God,
to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring,
for he himself is beset by weakness
and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself
as well as for the people.
Why does God, who is all powerful, allow good people to fall into grave sin? Let’s move toward an answer to this very important question, which may touch many, if not all of us, very closely.
The great twentieth-century American preacher and prelate, the Venerable Fulton Sheen, titled his autobiography Treasure in Clay. No one reading his account could ever get the idea that he was trying to present himself as particularly virtuous or holy; yet by declaring him “venerable” Pope Benedict XVI provided the Church’s acknowledgment that he had practiced the virtues of the Christian life to an heroic degree. Some of us may be old enough to remember when his weekly show Life is Worth Living was a regular program on network television—something hard to imagine today!
St. Thomas Aquinas uses this expression of the apostle to explain today’s reading from Hebrews. The motive for mercy on the part of the priest is precisely that he himself is weak; in the Greek literally “surrounded by weakness on all sides.” The priest possesses a true treasure of grace and truth and power, but it is a treasure contained in a lowly vessel: not in gold or silver or crystal, but in poor flesh and blood taken from the dust of the earth by God our Creator. Thus the priest is able to deal patiently, mercifully, with the weak and the erring, since he himself is weak and in need of mercy.
The purpose of this weakness is not so much that the priest be humble—though this is a great thing—but rather so that he can be compassionate in dealing with his brethren. In commenting on this passage, St. Thomas says something that is both consoling and a bit shocking. He takes as an example St. Peter, who would be the high priest par excellence as the Savior’s own choice as the head and foundation of his Church on earth. The Angelic Doctor tells us, “The reason for this weakness is that he may have compassion on the weaknesses of others. This is the reason why the Lord permitted Peter to fall.”
Ordinarily, when we sin, our thoughts go the reasons that involve our own guilt or responsibility. It goes without saying that we cannot attribute sin itself, that is the very malice of sin, to anyone but ourselves. We may have learned in our catechism that for a mortal sin there are required three things: grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent. If we have the misfortune to fall into grave sin we may see how each of these conditions applies to us. Thus we determine to go to confession and to repent of our fault. And yet, after this state of affairs is clear to us, we must admit that the whole thing is anything but encouraging; indeed, the awareness that we have fallen in a serious matter, and deliberately and knowingly, and so have forfeited the grace of God and shut ourselves off from heaven, is of all things the most distressing.
The frequency or infrequency of grave falls does not help the matter. If we practically never sin gravely and then fall, then the whole thing is especially saddening and seemingly without excuse. If we, on the other hand, have a habit of serious sin, and fall often, then we can be very frustrated at our state and might be wondering about our perseverance for eternal life. Let’s face it: there does not seem to be any upside to mortal sin, whether frequent or infrequent.
Once again, let’s look at what St. Thomas tells us about the weakness of the priest, and of course by extension, the weakness of any Christian sinner, since we all share in the priesthood of Christ by our common baptism: “The reason for this weakness is that he may have compassion on the weaknesses of others. This is the reason why the Lord permitted Peter to fall.”
Remember what Peter’s fall was? On the evening of his ordination as a priest of the new and eternal covenant, on the day of his first Mass and Holy Communion, after having had his feet washed lovingly by the Savior, he denied him not once but three times, like an ignoble coward. And yet Our Lord looked on Peter and pierced him with a deep contrition, and he went out and wept. This experience inspired Peter with the greatest compassion for his fellow sinners; for after Judas his own sin was the most flagrant and shameful.
God does not cause or justify our sins, but he does have a merciful plan for us and for those we know and serve. The Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion in his great work Christ the Ideal of the Priest tells us that the Lord sometimes allows even very holy men to fall into grave sin. This is because the contrition born of love, which their falls occasion, raises them to a higher love and holiness than they had before they fell. Look at King David, who committed adultery and murder but whose contrition gives us Psalm 51 (50), the very model of the loving contrite soul, and whose union with his ill-gotten wife gave us the Savior himself as his ancestor.
If we are really sorry for our sins we will always be merciful to others. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jesus wants us to be merciful to others more than he wants us to avoid all sin. The essence of sinlessness for Jesus is precisely a heart full of mercy, not just some standard of perfection. Look at Our Lady, who is the Mother of Mercy: her perfection makes her identify with us even as we fall into sin. The liturgy cries out on the Vigil of Easter: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”
The “reason” for sin may indeed by our weakness as far as we are concerned, but for God the reason is that we might have, like him, a merciful heart toward our fellow sinners.
May Jesus Our Merciful High Priest give us an abundant share in his mercy!