Sunday, November 03, 2013

The 12 Steps for ‘Recovering Sinners’

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on November 3, 2013 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 19: 1-10.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2013]
Zacchaeus was “a 12 Step guy.”  You’ve probably never heard that before, but it’s true nonetheless.
Many of us (probably most of us) are familiar with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  For the past several decades, these steps have helped many men and women (including, I’m sure, some people in this church right now) to deal, successfully, with their addiction to alcohol.
These 12 Steps have also been modified, in recent years, to help other people who have addictions unrelated to alcohol.  And so we have in our country right now groups like Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Smokers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
On a personal level, we may not be plagued by any of these addictive behaviors (and that’s great if it’s the case for us), but there is one addiction that all of us do have (whether we want to admit it or not)—and that’s our addiction to sin!  You have it; I have it; Zacchaeus had it; every man and woman in human history has had it —with the exception of Jesus and our Blessed Mother.
And, as is the case with those who are addicted to alcohol or gambling or any of those other things I just mentioned, some people choose to deal with their addiction to sin, and some do not.  And dealing with it is a lifelong process.  (That’s the way it is with every addictive behavior.)  You’ll notice that people in AA will not refer to themselves as “Recovered Alcoholics”; rather, they will call themselves, “Recovering Alcoholics”—indicating that the process of recovering and staying sober is ongoing.
Which is where the 12 Steps come into the picture.  The 12 Steps provide the guidelines and principles that need to be followed by a person, if that individual wants to deal with and overcome the temptation to drink.
And they work!—as people in AA and other 12 Step groups will happily tell you.
But they also work on the spiritual level in helping us deal with our sins, which is what I want to focus on in my homily this morning.  In fact, the 12 Steps are really very “Catholic”—in the sense that they quite naturally point us to many Catholic beliefs and Catholic practices.
The experience of Zacchaeus (even though he was not Catholic!) can help us to see that.  So without further adieu let me now briefly review the 12 Steps with you as they relate to sin, using Zacchaeus as an example—because his recovery from sin 2,000 years ago can help us to see what we need to do to further our recovery from sin as practicing Catholics in 2013.
The first 3 steps of AA read as follows: 1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; and 3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
We all have sins that we struggle with.  It might be anger; it might be gossip; it might be lying; it might be a bad temper—it might be a number of different things.  We cannot overcome these tendencies on our own, without God’s grace—and we need to recognize that fact (as an alcoholic needs to recognize the fact that he can’t overcome his drinking problem on his own).
But we also need to believe that a power greater than ourselves—namely, the power of God’s gracecan help us deal with our temptations and weaknesses; and we need to reach out to Jesus for that power every day (this is why daily prayer is so important), as Zacchaeus reached out to Jesus from that sycamore tree in Jericho.
In this regard, we know beyond any reasonable doubt that Zacchaeus needed a great deal of help with at least one capital sin in his life, and that was the sin of greed!  Notice that two details are mentioned about him at the beginning of this story: we are told that he was a tax collector, and that he was wealthy.  In other words, he was a Jew who worked for the Roman government, who made his living by ripping off his own people!  Jewish tax collectors in first century Palestine were hated by their fellow Jews because, when they collected money for the Romans, they usually overcharged their people big time, and then pocketed the difference!
Yes, they were even worse than the IRS!
Which brings us to steps 4-7 of AA.  Number 4) We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  We Catholics would call that “an examination of conscience”.  Here we are reminded of the fact that if we want to deal successfully with our addiction to sin, we need to take a hard and honest look at our lives—and we need to do that often!  Zacchaeus certainly did that on the day he met Jesus.  It’s very clear from his conversation with our Lord that he had reflected on his life, and had come to the realization that he had been guilty of stealing and selfishness and materialism—all of which were rooted in greed!
And he verbalized that—which is step 5.  Step 5 of AA is: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.  That, of course, is what we call “confession”!  (Do you see how “Catholic” the 12 Steps are?)  This means that to actively engage in the process of recovering from sin, we need to make sacramental confession a priority!
And we need to go to confession with a firm purpose of amendment!  That is to say, we need to go with the intention of trying to avoid sin—and the occasion of sin—in the future.  This idea is found in step 6 of the 12 Steps, which reads: We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
I think it’s pretty clear from the tone of this gospel story that Zacchaeus did not intend to go back to his old sinful practices and way of life.  He wanted to change in a positive way, and he wanted that change to be permanent!
He had a firm purpose of amendment.
But he knew that he also needed to make reparation for the evil things he had done!  In other words, he knew that he needed to make amends even after he had been forgiven by our Lord.  Listen again to what he said to Jesus: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor; and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”
This is why a penance is given to us in confession: through prayers and/or good works, we are to make amends to those we’ve hurt by the evil we’ve done or by the good we have failed to do.
And, of course, if we don’t make reparation for our forgiven sins in this life, we will make reparation for them in the next—in that place we call “purgatory”.
This idea is present in the 9th step of AA, which says, Made direct amends to [the persons we had harmed] whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Now steps 7, 10 and 11 of the 12 Steps are very important because they make clear that all of this has got to be an ongoing process.  I mentioned that a little earlier.  Step 7 is: Humbly asked [God] to remove our shortcomings.  Step 10 is: We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong we promptly admitted it.  Step 11 is: We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry it out.
With respect to sin, this means that if we want to stay in recovery (i.e., in the state of grace) we need to examine our consciences often, and then repent and confess and make amends on a regular basis—not just once a year or so!
Remember, just as people in AA are recovering alcoholics, not recovered alcoholics, so too we are recovering sinners—who will only be fully “recovered” when (and if) we arrive at the pearly gates of heaven.
That brings us to the last of the 12 Steps: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
If you are an alcoholic, and you really believe in the effectiveness of the 12 Steps of AA, you will certainly do your best to reach out to other alcoholics, and bring them into the program.  And by the same token, if you believe in the Catholic Church’s program for recovering from sin, you will do your best—your absolute best—to evangelize your family and friends and co-workers and others, so that they will become “recovering sinners” themselves.  On that note, I’m sure that Zacchaeus did not keep the news of his conversion to himself!  He probably told everybody he knew, as well as a lot of people he didn’t know!
Through his encounter with Jesus that day in Jericho, Zacchaeus had become a recovering sinner who was filled with peace and joy—and he wanted everyone else in the world to share the experience.
We should have that very same desire for all the people whom the Lord has placed in our lives.  And we will, if we allow the 12 Steps to guide us each and every day in our personal recovery from sin.