Our Lord reminds us in the Gospel today that He went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to discipline and hone Himself for the ministry life that was commencing. It was hard work, not just bodily, but also for the spiritual part, since He was doing it in a human nature, as well as in His divine one.
This example of Jesus can certainly inspire us to use these 40 days of Lent in this Year of Mercy to discipline ourselves and to let our Faith overflow in works of charity and/or of mercy. In this season, I have decided pastorally to draw your attention to the 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy. In each Lenten Sunday and week, I will cover one with you in my homilies and my pastor’s blog on the parish web site.
Today we will consider the Spiritual Work of Mercy of “Admonish the Sinner.” A definition of it would be “to offer correction to a person who needs it, while acting as God’s agent, serving as His instrument of goodness, truth and loving guidance.
To admonish the sinner is not to judgingly scold a person, nor to talk down to them over some human fault or weakness they have. I think some people think that’s what it means. But it is certainly not so. If one pictures a so-called ‘superior’ person of character giving harsh lip or correction to a so-called ‘inferior person,’ then it’s far off from being a Work of Mercy. Why? Mercy does not involve harsh one-way judgments, nor anything like accusations given to others. The devil is the accuser, and he works harshly and meaning. God does not condemn people in His admonishing sinners, choosing people to be vessels of His service of reproof.
Think of Jesus and His Mercy. In that famous John 3:16 verse of “God so loved the world that He gave His Son,” many don’t realize the great meaning of the verse that follows right behind it. I’ve seen Christians try forcefully an evangelism style of “I’m-with-God-up-here-over-you attitude—and you’re-the- sinner-down-there” approach–and they use John 3:16 to convince or convict (really coerce) a sinner to come to their senses and repent. Yet as well and nice it is to share of the Lord to others, that method needs the follow through of John 3:17 which says “for God did not send His Son to condemn the world, but to saved the world through Him.” I think that John 3:17 tells us a lot about Jesus’ mission.
As surely God’s Son came to deal with sin and sinners, it is meaningful to see that Jesus spent time among sinners, and He ate with them, and He got to know them, and He listened to them, and He saw them in love and mercy, AND He forgave them. Jesus also helped them to see what was best in them and what was best for them.
I point out the first obvious thing. You can’t “admonish the sinner” if you are not amidst them, that is, engaged with them, and at least caring for them. This was Jesus’ example. They accused Him often of “hanging around sinners” or being in the company or interest of those not so favored by society. Jesus liked this charge against Him. It meant He was doing His job and getting out to be with all the people, not just being around the favored ones. It also showed, quite starkly, of how sin, not love nor holiness, was running the show for his accusers. It made His mission clear. God does not condemn, He reaches out and gets involved in all of humanity’s great mess. The foe of God accuses. Sometimes the foe also tries to slip in accusation in place of admonishment. Yet there is great difference between them. Admonishment is done in love. And love first engages the sinner. God comes to us to help us, though He did not in any way have to do it.
Think of Pope Francis today and his own example as pontiff as getting out with all the people. As he reaches out recently to the Chinese, to the Russians, to the people in the barrios, to the homeless or prisoners, as well as to high officials or to nice society— he is among or amidst the people. His slogan is to have the smell of the sheep, if he is the shepherd. What criticism Pope Francis takes for this. Yet, also, look at who is noticing his love and outreach. He is to represent Christ as His vicar on earth, and Francis borrows a lot of guidance from Jesus as told about Him in the gospel(s). necessarily sinning like them, but or even see yourself as a fellow sinner in the world, and there, but for the grace of God, go I (like St. Paul said of himself).
So to live this first spiritual work of mercy is to be mixing in the world, like Jesus did. As we imitate Him, we know that God is in His Christians now and want to bear and shine His holy light to many needed places and people— all in need of becoming enlightened and led out of their darkness or greyness. The spirit of admonishing the sinner does come with a loving correction or reproof or rebirth in mind for the person’s in sins grasp. We will get there. Yet first see Jesus taking on temptation and sin in the desert, versus the foe, and getting acquainted first-hand of what humanity is up against in the fallen world. As we go through our Lents to our Easters, we have the goal to fight for the Light and the right, so to be light to the world, and salt of the earth.
Before we define the correcting part of this spiritual work of mercy, of “admonishing the sinner,” we must also know another thing. If called to really be active in this work of mercy, we need to be first filled in goodness. To admonish the sinner, in the example of Jesus, is to follow the Way He modeled the Good and how He invited them to taste and see the goodness of God. Jesus comes to people in goodness of life. It’s an attitude again of not being haughty, bossy, quick-to-judge, or better-than-the-other. Goodness is always not just concerned for one’s own good, but also always the good of the other. Jesus put His Spirit in us, and He wants us to live in His goodness. Jesus once asked a man: “Why do you call me good? Only God alone is good.” Jesus was asking the man who called Him “Good Teacher” if he really meant it, because if the goodness of God was seen in Him, then He (truly as God) could be trusted, as He asked the rich young ruler to make a change in his life. Yes, He was admonishing the man for holding on to worldliness. The man did not take Jesus’ guidance and word, but not because Jesus’ wasn’t good. Jesus was offering eternal life, which is very good, and the text in the gospel says that Jesus looked with great love upon the man, even as He was admonishing him.
We need that goodness, with Jesus’ Spirit in us, when we are to best “admonish the sinner” around us.
God’s wants in us a living example of goodness and true love with our faith practice. God inspires in us to have humility or compassion in any of our service to Him to other persons, especially when showing a person the way to go aright. Goodness will draw many to the Light, and certainly will not any condemning or critical or mean spirit. Goodness validates the freedom and truth and happiness and deliverance that is God’s offer to get people out of their fears and sins.
I think of admonishing others in the Spirit of Mercy is for both within the Church as a practice, and to be shared out to others outside the Body of Christ. As within the Church, we should look to connect with other parishioners or Catholics in our life circle and be close enough to encourage some people to become their best, and to notice and point out mercifully when we are falling from grace and hurting ourselves or others.
Jesus invited people to do things they never thought they were capable of doing. He inspired them with His holiness, and, in that way, we disciples of His can hope to live our faith well enough to inspire people around us to seek the higher and noble way of being. We can ‘admonish’ the world, which lives in such disdain and separation and bad attitude to others– by practicing the opposite of that, in a deep respect for others, to the human person, just because they are God’s fellow creation. We can offer dignity, even to those of whom we disagree or even have fundamental parting of ways with.
To admonish the sinner is also seen in Jesus’ ministry of lovingly giving warnings or “woes” to people of the consequences of sins. Yes, you know this is part of the Savior’s life, too. He would show in ministry that people were free to choose their our way, but in each choice people should know responsibly that A leads to B in the spiritual laws of God (or doing this leads to that). We warn people instinctively if they are heading out unknowingly into traffic. We might even yank them bank off the curb and road, for their protection. Yet, we don’t get it, in comparison, of how God also wants us to save people who are in our midst who are also lost and heading into more pain and disaster in their godlessness and sin. While we don’t yank them towards God, we do get involved, because our souls start to hear clearly their cries of woe.
Dr. Phil helps us Christians know how to go about things. In giving reproof, might we help people see the failure of their ways of the world, and its misery-making? Could we say, like the famous counselor: The ways of self and secular humanism–How’s that all working for ‘ya?! How do you see the world being: happy or sad? All good or in tragic need? Jesus came for those who were in need and could see the sickness of the world without Him. His admonishing the sinner is to help all of them get in the direction of heaven. He helps so as to save!