Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion, wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
— Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13
For many readers, the headline quickly prompts the follow-up query: Why won’t I ask?
Let’s answer this with another question from the headlines. Is the jailed former Calauan, Laguna mayor Augusto Sanchez asking forgiveness for having kidnapped, gang-raped and murdered a university student, and tortured and killed her boyfriend in 1993? No, since he insists he didn’t commit those heinous crimes.
How about unwilling parents, physicians and Planned Parenthood advocates, whose acts led to countless induced abortions in America: 652,639 reported in 2015, more than one every minute? Did they ask for God’s mercy, as well? Not if they maintain abortion isn’t murder.
Of course, for those not believing in God, there is neither offense, nor offended, and no occasion at all to repent. For atheists, estimated at one-tenth of humanity in the Pew global surveys, the headline question is as nonsensical as asking whether unicorns eat grass or glass.
As for the nine-tenths believing in a higher being, including a good number not in any organized religion, more and more are setting aside moral strictures, or are ignorant of them, due to absent or poor instruction. They, too, seek no divine pardon.
‘A clean heart create in me’
Now, if there is a God demanding obedience and contrition, what happens to those breaking His laws and failing to ask pardon? We don’t know how our Lord would judge deal with them. But this is certain: if souls don’t embrace God’s will and seek forgiveness for violating it, He will not force them. They would then separate themselves from His eternal abode. Forever.
Christianity, on the other hand, asserts that anyone seeking forgiveness for all manner of sins shall receive it and the grace to make amends. That’s the overarching message of today’s Mass readings.
The first from the Book of Exodus saw Yahweh pardoning the Israelites for the greatest transgression against Him: idolatry of the golden calf. The responsorial Psalm 51, excerpted above, sets out the main effects of God’s mercy: wiping away sin, renewing the soul, and affirming and manifesting faith and love for the Lord.
The second reading, St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, underscores the Apostle’s own life-changing experience of divine mercy and grace, absolving him of his persecution of Christians, and turning him into the great preacher to the Gentiles. And the Gospel of Luke portrays God as most eager to forgive and welcome back repentant sinners.
All well and good, but for one thing: heaven’s boundless mercy and untiring invitation for sinners to seek forgiveness have made people think that saying sorry is all that’s needed to restore one to the fullness of goodness and grace. After all, they surmise, God keeps forgiving even if we keep falling. So, why do we need to mend our ways?
Well, for starters, the Scripture actually calls for reform, as today’s passages make clear. The Israelites had to discard the golden calf and perform penances. Psalm 51 talks of “a clean heart … and a steadfast spirit” replacing the sinful, shifty soul. St. Paul turned from persecuting Pharisee to proselytizing Christian.
The Prodigal Son came to his senses, regretted his sin, and resolved to humble himself and serve his father. And in accounts of Jesus showing mercy to the sick and the sinful, he repeatedly told the healed and the forgiven not to sin again.
Indeed, there’s nothing in the Bible about mercy for sinners blithely continuing their wayward ways with utter abandon. The epic story of salvation — from the fall of Adam and Eve to the saving Death and Resurrection of Christ — tells of God’s repeated calls for man to rise to His goodness despite constant failures in life and through the ages.
Eventually, after seeing even His Chosen People endlessly falter in obedience, God Himself became man to infuse humanity with heavenly holiness. We could then aspire to Godliness, having been touched and taught by the Almighty living as one of us.
And the unrelenting goal is change: rebirthing the fallen man or woman into a new person, restored to goodness and new life. Mercy without repentance and reform only cements evil and sin, which are the opposite of God’s goodness and order, keeping us apart from our Lord. To be with God we must open our hearts to His grace, and we can rise to His sanctity.
Just be yourself
Such striving for heavenly holiness, however, goes against the “be yourself” mantra of our time. For the prevailing liberal ideology of individual freedom and self-actualization, man’s highest goal is the pursuit of all his inner urgings and aspirations, with or without the instruction and affirmation from above. Even those believing in God are enjoined to be themselves with all their faults and foibles, rather than aspiring for the unreachable star of godliness.
To dispel fears of damnation after death, the faithful are told that God isn’t so cruel as to condemn souls for failing to rise above their human weaknesses. After all, the liberal reasoning goes, He made us this way, so why should He make us suffer for eternity for being ourselves, especially after a lifetime and millennia of trying to be good and still falling short.
Against this devilish deception, let’s turn to Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Russian novelist told of a priest pleading with God that he was like a bucket full of holes. No matter how much grace and goodness were poured in, he remained empty. To which God replied: “Even a bucket full of holes is filled once immersed in the ocean.”
We are all full of holes. With repentance and reconciliation God can fill us.