Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Difference between ‘Convicting’ and ‘Condemning’

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (C):  This homily was given on March 13, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2016]

One is good; the other is bad.
One is temporary; the other is final.
One can lead to life; the other does lead to death.

I’m talking here about conviction versus condemnation.  Those are two words that people often use interchangeably in casual conversation, but theologically they mean very different things.

To convict someone is to make them aware of a sin in their life; to condemn someone is to set yourself up in judgment of that person and to say, in effect, that they’re going to hell.

To convict someone of their sin, in a loving way, is a good thing.  It’s what St. Paul is getting at in Colossians 3:16 when he tells us to “admonish one another.”

All of us need to be convicted at times, because we’re sinners.  That’s why I said at the very beginning that it’s good to be convicted!  Notice I didn’t say that it’s pleasant to be convicted!  I didn’t say that it’s pleasant because that would be a lie—and my mother taught me never to lie.

The fact is—getting convicted is normally a very unpleasant experience.  No one, after all, likes to be told they are wrong!  Nobody likes to be told that they need to change. 

But sometimes even the best among us are wrong, and sometimes even the best among us do need to change.

Now the good news is, if we respond to the unpleasant experience of being convicted by repenting of our sin and by making the effort to change our life for the better, then the unpleasantness will only be temporary (as I indicated earlier).   And it will lead us one step closer to the life—the eternal life—and the eternal happiness—that God has waiting for us in his heavenly kingdom.

That’s conviction: it’s good; it’s temporary; and it can lead to life.

The sad and tragic thing, of course, is when people get convicted, but feel like they’re being condemned.  They misinterpret the experience.  For example, when a man who’s been unfaithful to his wife hears a homily in which the priest condemns the sin of adultery, he can feel like he’s being condemned along with the sin—even though he’s only being convicted.  The same can happen to a post-abortive woman who hears a talk condemning abortion; or to a tax cheat who hears a homily condemning thievery.

In cases like these, men and women are being convicted of a sin they’ve committed; they’re NOT being condemned (even though it might seem to them that they are)!

One man who understood the difference between conviction and condemnation was the great St. Augustine, who lived back in the 4th century.  As most of us know, Augustine lived a very hedonistic lifestyle for most of his first 31 years on planet earth—which kept his saintly mother on her knees most of the time, praying for his conversion.  Well eventually his sinful habits took their toll on him (as sinful habits always do!), and he ended up confused and on the verge of despair.  Then one day when he was in the city of Milan with a friend, trying to make sense of his life, he heard a child off in the distance singing a song that he had never heard before.  One of the lines in the song really struck him: “Pick it up and read it.  Pick it up and read it.”  He thought that maybe God was trying to speak to him at that moment, and so he found a copy of the Bible and picked it up, making the decision to read the very first passage his eyes fell upon.  That turned out to be the text from Romans 13 where St. Paul says, “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

That was the moment when his mother Monica’s prayers were finally answered.  That was the moment of his conversion to Christianity.  And that was the event that put him on the road to becoming Saint Augustine!

But all of that never would have happened if Augustine had interpreted this event in the wrong way.  Augustine realized that God, through these 2 verses of the Bible, was convicting him not condemning him!  If he had thought God was condemning him he would have thrown in the towel and given up hope.  But he knew better.  He knew that the Lord was convicting him of his past sins—his many past sins!—and inviting him to repent.

And he did.  Thank God!

Which brings us, at last, to the gospel story we just heard from John 8—this story of the woman caught in adultery.  The scribes and the Pharisees, unfortunately, responded to the woman with condemnation.  In their minds she was a hopeless sinner who needed to be disposed of.

And they were ready to do that by stoning her to death—until Jesus began writing on the ground.

Now the mystery of the story is: What was he writing?  What exactly was our Lord scribbling there in the dirt?

Sadly, we don’t know for sure.  But one theory is that he was writing the sins of the people in the crowd, the sins of the people who were getting ready to stone the woman.  And if that was the case, he obviously worked his way from the “top down”, because the text says they left one by one “beginning with the elders.”

Obviously Jesus convicted them.  He convicted them all!

But he also convicted the woman!

Recognizing the bad attitude—the condemnatory attitude—of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said to the woman after they all had left, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, sir.”  Jesus responded, “Nor do I condemn you.”  [One of the reasons, by the way, why Jesus did not condemn her is that the condemnation of people is NOT for this life.  Condemnation, strictly speaking, only comes after death: it comes after death for those who die in the state of mortal sin.  Now it’s true that you can condemn someone in your heart in this life—which is what the scribes and the Pharisees did with respect to this woman—but true condemnation only comes for people after they take their final breath, not before.]

The last line of the story ties everything together.  Jesus says to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

Obviously our Lord had read her heart (he could do that, since he was God!) and he knew she was sorry.  But that did not lead him to excuse her adultery!  Not at all!  Quite to the contrary, he explicitly called what she had done a “sin”.  And yet, at the very same time and in the very same instant, he extended to her his mercy and forgiveness.

I find it very interesting (and rather ironic) that the “religious” scribes and Pharisees responded to the experience of being convicted by closing their hearts and walking away—with their sins still on their souls; while this supposedly evil woman responded to her conviction by opening her heart and staying with Jesus—and having her sin taken away!

Which means that it’s her example—and not theirs—that God wants us to follow.

Let me conclude now by saying that we should all pray at this Mass for the grace to remember.  We should pray for the grace to remember this gospel story every time the Lord convicts us of an unrepented sin in the future: a sin that we’ve either ignored or denied or tried to rationalize away in the past. 

Because if we do always remember this gospel story, and then respond to our conviction like this woman responded to hers, then we will also be forgiven, and, most important of all, we will never be condemned.