Welcoming Sinners to Come Home
One day Saint Silouan, who in the early 20th century was a simply monk on Mount Athos, had a conversation with a certain Russian hermit. They both just heard some new horror story of what the communists were doing to innocent clergy and monastics and countless believers in Russia following the Bolshevik revolution. The hermit was quite upset and declared with evident satisfaction, “God will punish all these atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.” These words disturbed Saint Silouan and he quietly asked the hermit, “Tell me, supposing you went to Paradise and then looked down and saw all these communists burning in Hellfire - would you feel happy?” To which the hermit replied rather smugly, “It can't be helped. It would be their own fault. They will get what they deserve.” The holy elder answered softly with a sorrowful countenance: “Love could not bear that. We must pray for all people, even for the communists.”
This beautiful story from the life of one of the great 20th century saints reveals the spirit of divine love. God’s grace and mercy never look to punish anyone but patiently wait for all to open their hearts to repentance, forgiveness, and healing.
Think about this in relation to the beautiful Gospel story of the Prodigal Son. This is one of the most magnificent stories in the entire Bible because it succinctly summarizes the outrageous love, mercy and grace of God. Divine love knows no bounds and always waits for those who turn away from Him to return. He waits for the dead to come back to life.
Luke the Evangelist puts the story of the Prodigal Son as the last of three examples in chapter 15 of his Gospel. He begins the chapter by saying, “All the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” The legalistic religious leaders could not understand why Jesus would spend time with despised sinners. It annoyed them that he wouldn’t just condemn the sinners and cast them aside instead of sitting with them at table and treating them with respect. Like the hermit, they simply wanted Him to say, “These sinners deserve to go to hell, so let me not bother with them.”
Our Lord, however responds to their self-righteous hard-heartedness by offering three examples of what God is like. He begins with the image of a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and when one sheep gets lost, the shepherd is ready to leave the other 99 in the wilderness in order to search high and low for the lost sheep. When he eventually finds it, he puts the sheep on his shoulder, rejoicing, “for I found my sheep which was lost.” He then says, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just persons who need no repentance.”
He then tells a similar story of a woman who had 10 coins and loses one. She sweeps her house diligently, carefully searching until she finds the lost coin. Again, he concludes “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
This all leads to the culmination of his response to the self-righteous religious leaders who wish to condemn the sinners. He tells the story of the Prodigal Son. In the story, the younger son greatly offends the father by acting in an egocentric manner. “Give me the portion that falls to me,” the audacious son demands of his father. “I’m not interested in you or our relationship. You are dead to me!” He then brashly takes his inheritance and flees from the father’s presence, going off to a faraway, foreign land. He consciously rejects his family, his roots, his heritage, his Father’s house and goes off to live an egocentric, prodigal life. This life inevitably leads to a dead end, literally, where the boy loses all his inheritance, loses all his friends, loses all his dignity and ends up in extreme hunger and utter depravity, feeding swine and even ready to eat the pods that the pigs were eating.
The boy is lost. He is alone. He is close to despair. He is utterly shamed. He is basically dead. The hermit in the opening story, or the religious leaders of Jesus’ day might say, “Forget about him. He got what he deserved. He has no one to blame but himself. His selfish actions led to his misery. To hell with him!”
Yet, the story doesn’t end in the quagmire of the pigs. The boy remembers. He comes to his senses by remembering who he was. He remembers his roots, his family, his father, his home, the place from where he came. He remembers his divine image. His mistakes have taught him an important lesson in humility and he is ready to say, “I have sinned against heaven and before my father. I am no longer worthy to be called a son.” Then, he gets up. He takes action. He makes an effort to begin his long journey home.
The Father, meanwhile, is waiting every day for the return of his son. He respected his son’s freedom to leave. He gave the boy his undeserved inheritance. It deeply saddened him to see his son leave but he didn’t dwell on whatever pain or hurt or offense the son gave. Instead, he patiently waited day after day for his son’s return, never actually knowing whether the boy would decide to return or not. He waited and when he saw the first signs of repentance, while the son was still far off, the Father acted and ran out to welcome back his son. He showed only signs of mercy and compassion, unlimited grace and love. He offered complete restoration and celebrated in the grandest manner. His son was lost and is found; was dead and is alive!
Even when the older son stands outside the feast confused at his father’s incomprehensible mercy, the father once again goes out to the lost older son and pleads with him to understand, “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”
There is only joy in the return of a sinner, no matter when it happens in their lifetime. God patiently waits and then rejoices. He has no interest in punishing. He’s not giving the sinner what he deserves. He patiently waits, day after day, year after year, with hope that every sinner will come to his senses and turn back toward God. For some it happens at the first hour. Others at the sixth hour. For some at the 9th or even the 11th hour of their life. It doesn’t matter when. God waits and hopes that all sinners, no matter what they’ve done and no matter how lost they may be, He waits and is ready to joyously welcome them back!
The self-righteous religious leaders of his day chose not to understand this mercy. The hermit with Saint Silouan didn’t understand such grace. The older son in the story couldn’t comprehend the Father’s unconditional love. And unfortunately, many of us today hold on to this same self-righteous attitude toward the sinners of the world.
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just persons who need no repentance… It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.” Adopting the spirit of the father, a spirit full of patient hope and unlimited mercy, is the path we all are called to follow. We don’t ever condemn the sinner, but we pray for their repentance and their return home!
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