We Are All Sinners

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But Moses implored the Lord, his God, saying, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “With evil intent he brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains and exterminate them from the face of the earth? Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people.”

Exodus 32: 11-12

We read in the Book of Exodus of how much it cost Moses to obey God’s call to lead the people out of slavery in Egypt. From the beginning Moses had to deal with his own doubts and uncertainties concerning his own abilities and even the ways of the Lord who was calling him. The call that Moses received and was attempting with every fiber of his being to carry out had become his life. How could he not have come to feel responsible for this people and for this journey of liberation and promise they were undertaking.

Yet, when Moses is delayed in his return from his encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai, the people turn away from Moses and the Lord and fall back into their idolatry of the past. In response God tells Moses: “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” (Ex. 32: 10) Unlike Moses, I suspect that this would be an offer I could not refuse.

How is Moses able not to take personally the apostasy of the people he has so sacrificed to lead? It would be difficult not to allow one’s rage and resentment to lead one to take God up on his offer. “Yes, Lord, destroy these wretched ingrates and justify and reward me, the one who has been faithful!” Yet, Moses rather implores the Lord to have mercy on his people, a people that Moses reminds the Lord are his “own people.” God offers to Moses to give him a place separate from and above the sinful people, yet Moses remembers that his place is with and among them. It is Moses’ identification with the people, his knowledge that he is also a sinner, that allows mercy and compassion to overcome whatever anger and resentment he may have.

Countless times each day we experience the struggle between rage and compassion within us. Every time another driver cuts us off on the highway, every time our efforts to help another are misinterpreted or rejected, every time another’s need for attention seems to come at the cost of our own work, we experience the infantile rage of one who feels unappreciated and unrecognized. The violence of the anger and even hatred that surges up from within is terrifying. At such a moments we lose touch with the truth that our true place is with the offending other. We, as they, so often fail to recognize and serve the needs of others. We all are always in need of God’s mercy.

In the United States we are now enduring a political campaign which is based, in large part, on who is more deeply offended and aggrieved, and how can those who have aggrieved us be punished. There is, to be sure, a sense of immediate gratification in expressing and acting out our rage and anger. Once the offending parties, however, are eliminated, there will always be more to take their place. As long as we live by setting ourselves over and against others, we shall always have enemies. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asks us all to recognize that each and every one of us shares this in common: we are sinners. To know this truth, to know our place, makes possible what seems impossible at first glance as we read of Moses today. God offers him greatness at the cost of annihilating his apparent enemies. Yet, Moses recognizes that they, as he, are God’s people.

Each time this day that anger, resentment, and rage arise in us, may we recognize it for what it is and allow it to remind us of our common brokenness and sinfulness. May we make space today for the mercy of God to transform us.

Corruption is the sin which, rather than being recognised as such and rendering us humble, is elevated to a system; it becomes a mental habit, a way of living. We no longer feel the need for forgiveness and mercy, but we justify ourselves and our behaviours.

Jesus says to his disciples: even if your brother offends you seven times a day, and seven times a day he returns to you to ask for forgiveness, forgive him. The repentant sinner, who sins again and again because of his weakness, will find forgiveness if he acknowledges his need for mercy. The corrupt man is the one who sins but does not repent, who sins and pretends to be Christian, and it is this double life that is scandalous.

The corrupt man does not know humility, he does not consider himself in need of help, he leads a double life. We must not accept the state of corruption as if it were just another sin. Even though corruption is often identified with sin, in fact they are two distinct realities, albeit interconnected.

Sin, especially if repeated, can lead to corruption, not quantitatively — in the sense that a certain number of sins makes a person corrupt — but rather qualitatively: habits are formed that limit one’s capacity for love and create a false sense of self-sufficiency.

The corrupt man tires of asking for forgiveness and ends up believing that he doesn’t need to ask for it any more. We don’t become corrupt people overnight. It is a long, slippery slope that cannot be identified simply as a series of sins. One may be a great sinner and never fall into corruption if hearts feel their own weakness. That small opening allows the strength of God to enter.

When a sinner recognises himself as such, he admits in some way that what he was attached to, or clings to, is false. The corrupt man hides what he considers his true treasure, but which really makes him a slave and masks his vice with good manners, always managing to keep up appearances.

Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy

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