Let me look around for a while… I’m looking for sinners… Are there any sinners among us here? Of course, we all are sinners, but – actually – we are not. We want to think about ourselves as decent people. And, trust me or not, we are quite decent people. Of course none of us is perfect, but we are not bad. That’s what we think about ourselves and we are not wrong.
Certainly we are aware of some “obvious sinners”. But why are they not here? Why are they not present in any church at this moment? The very first phrase of today’s gospel speaks about “tax collectors and sinners seeking the company of Jesus”. The people stigmatized and rejected by the so-called decent society were looking for Jesus in their own way. They wanted to meet him and listen to him. They did it, because he was one of the few, if any, religious teachers who didn’t reject them, judge them or condemn them. Also he didn’t praise them for committing sins. Jesus in his teaching clearly distinguished between a sin and a sinner. And in a sinner he always saw a person who needed support, help and consolation.
Perhaps the most important authority left by Jesus to the Church was the power to forgive sins – in other words, the Church’s mission was bringing relief. It shouldn’t have been surprising that the Church at its beginning consisted overwhelmingly of people without social importance and those scorned: slaves, labourers, migrants, women. For those people the Church became a community where they discovered their personal value, support, hope and love.
After several centuries that lively community at times turned into a better or worse managed institution with its own laws and rules. The Church became so powerful that for the next millennium it shaped political and social life in Europe. As it grew in power so it diminished in mercy. People without social or political significance were not the main interest of a powerful Church. The most obvious effect of such an attitude can be seen in the scandals which have shaken public opinion in recent years and months throughout the world.
Sinners of our time tend to avoid any contact with the Church. Some behaviours claimed as shameful twenty or thirty years ago currently are proudly presented to the public. We easily blame modern culture, people and so on. But I think the reason is quite simple and familiar to everyone. When we have an unbearable problem we try to solve it: sometimes we talk about it with somebody, sometimes we look for a convincing explanation… In fact we can do a lot to handle unbearable mental burdens. Since the church has stigmatized people with moral problems, they have felt rejected and deprived of help, so they have found another way to tame their embarrassing problems: they have made them socially acceptable.
So, should we do anything? And what can we do? Maybe, like in today’s gospel, we should go and look for the lost sheep? Well, it might be classified by law as stalking resulting in severe punishment. That’s hardly the correct way unless someone wants to taste prison food. But there is one thing we can and we should do as a church. In fact that’s the only thing we are called to do: revitalise our local communities. Turn them from a community of decent people into an understanding, helping, supporting, forgiving and merciful community bringing in those affected by sin. Because ”there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance”.