Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Fifth Sunday of Lent: Go and Sin No More
Although I initially wrote this homily for high school students, I feel that there is a message here for us adults also.
“Father, what I did was horrible. I am so ashamed. I don’t know if God will forgive me.” So many times people have said this or something like this to me. In all cases, the people have not forgiven themselves; so they think that God will not forgive them.
I’m going to tell you two stories of high school Teens who behaved terribly and who thought that they could not be forgiven. Sadly, the basic facts of each story are true.
The first is about Shirley. Shirley did her best to destroy Cynthia. At their high school, homecoming court was reserved for seniors. Shirley had her eye on this from the first time she was at the homecoming game her freshman year and saw the court. More than that, she was determined to be the queen. She was pretty well convinced that she would get there. And then junior year started and Cynthia showed up, transferred in from another school. Cynthia was beautiful and smart. She was popular. The boys, the other girls, and even the teachers talked about Cynthia like she was the greatest person ever. Shirley had to find a way to eliminate Cynthia from the competition. Shirley hatched her plot. She made up stories about Cynthia. She got some of the boys to tell lies about her. She hinted to the teacher who was the class moderator that Cynthia transferred to the school to escape her reputation. She got others to bully Cynthia on the internet. It all becomes too much for Cynthia. Instead of telling her parents or anyone, she tried to hurt herself. Thank God her mother found her and called 911. Cynthia went to the hospital and then to a psychiatric facility. Soon, word got out that someone was trying to destroy her. Shirley knew that she was that someone. She didn’t think it would all go that far. But it did. Now, if Cynthia never recovers or is scarred for life, it is Shirley’s fault. “I don’t know if God will forgive me,” Shirley says.
“He will,” today’s Gospel tells us. Just as he forgave the woman caught in adultery, caught doing something that would normally have led to her begin stoned to death; so also God will forgive Shirley. He will tell her to get up and stop sinning like this, stop hurting people. Shirley now has to forgive herself for being so mean, cruel and sinful.
The second story is about Fred. Fred was even worse than Shirley. Fred was responsible for taking a life. Here’s what happened. Fred got Lois pregnant. This really wasn’t a mistake. He did it to get back at her girlfriend Clare whom he had dated and who had dumped him a few months earlier. Fred told Clare that he wanted to take their relationship to “the next level.” You know what he wanted. Clare said, “No way.” When Fred kept pushing her and even started getting physical, she gave him the old heave-ho. That’s when Fred decided to use Clare’s best friend to get back at her. He started going with Lois, lied to her about his eternal love, and wore her down until their relationship became sinful. He wanted Lois to get pregnant because he knew she would tell Clare. Fred was pleased with himself. After that bit of perverted fun, Fred had to deal with Lois’ concern about the baby. “No big deal,” he said to her. “A lot of girls have abortions. I’ll take you and pay for it.” And he did. Then Lois became depressed. Clare hated him more than ever. But more than all that, Fred kept thinking about the baby. What has he done? He used Lois for vengeance, had sex with her numerous times to get her pregnant, and then had the child, his child, killed. “What I have done is beyond evil,” Fred said. He was right. “I don’t know if God can forgive me.” Here he was wrong. He can, and He will as long as Fred was going to radically change his life, stop using people, particularly girls, and start fighting for life. Most important, he had to get up from the mud he made and sin no more.
These are two extreme cases of high school sinners who were forgiven. In both cases they might have legal ramifications, criminal charges, they would have to answer to, but they were still forgiven by the Lord. Now, I am certain that no one here has done anything that even remotely approaches these degrees of sin. But everyone here, myself included, has sinned in ways that we are ashamed. And all of us wonder with Shirley and Fred, “Will God forgive me?” He forgave the woman who the law said should be killed for her sin. He will forgive Shirleys and Freds if they are truly sorry and determined to change their lives. He will forgive you and me if we are willing to get up out of the mud and do our best to avoid the sins that threw us into the slime.
All of us, to some degree or other, have negative images of ourselves. We don’t like ourselves. We don’t understand how someone else can love us. We have heard parents, teachers, youth ministers, priests and others tell us, rightly so, that we have to fight against the negative feelings we have about ourselves if we are ever going to be sane, mature people. This is all true. Still, we are not Mr. or Mrs. Perfect and never will be. There is a hint of truth in the negativity we see. But God loves you and me for whom we are, with our blemishes. And He demands that we love ourselves, not with the love of conceit, “I am so wonderful,” but with the love that says, “I am who God created me to be, with tremendous talents in some areas and less talent in other areas.” When we realize that we have behaved in a sinful way, it is normal for the negative view of ourselves to start dominating our thoughts. We become so overwhelmed by this view, that we give up on ourselves. We do all sorts of horrible things because we figure, “I am not good, so why try?”
Let’s take another look at that woman at Jesus’ feet. She was sinful. She should have been killed for her sins, at least according to the law of her time. That probably wasn’t the first time she committed adultery. It was most likely just the first time she was caught. She also probably said, “I am not good, so why try to be good?” Why try, sinful lady? Try because Jesus sees good in you. He loves you and is picking you up and telling you that he will not hold your sins against you. Now, go change your life and stop sinning like that.
Why try, Shirley and Fred? Try because Jesus sees good in you and loves you. Throw yourselves at his feet. Go to confession. Then know that Jesus forgives you and will not hold your horrible sins against you. Now get up and stop sinning like that.
Why try to be good, Teens, young people, older people, and even aging priests? Try because Jesus sees good in us. We need to see the good that is in ourselves. Try because Jesus forgives us. We throw ourselves at his feet. We go to confession. And he forgives us. Now, we need to forgive ourselves. Try because Jesus lifts us out of the mud and tells us that we need to and can change our lives. We can avoid these horrible sins.
There is no limit to the Lord’s love for us. Nor is there a limit to His desire to forgive us. The only limits there are to love and forgiveness in our lives are the limits we put on ourselves.
If we can only realize how much we are loved, and how much we are forgiven, we will be determined, like that lady in the Gospel, to stay united to the source of that love and forgiveness, to stay united to our Compassionate Merciful Savior.
Perhaps none of these thoughts have ever occurred to you. Thank God. Perhaps you have never done anything that you felt could not be forgiven. Again, thank God. But there are people out there and perhaps there are people in here who avoid confession because they cannot bear looking into themselves. We pray today that these people and all people who have a deep need for forgiveness, may come before the Lord and allow Him to pick them up and say to them, “Neither do I accuse you, now go and sin no more.”