All of Jesus’ teachings enrich and challenge us as human beings. Some, like "love your enemies," are easy to understand though difficult to follow. Others, like "I have come to cause division," are puzzling. Learn more about 12 key sayings of Jesus throughout 2005.

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God’s Extravagant Mercy
 
By Bishop Robert F. Morneau

“Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:10).

There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that addresses the issue of forgiveness. The king, Claudius, has murdered his brother, married his brother’s widow and stolen the crown. In his soliloquy, Claudius reveals what is transpiring in his tortured soul. The king knows that his fault is past but prayer does not serve him well since the effects of his crime—the stealing of the crown, the sinful fulfillment of his ambition and his adulterous relationship with the queen—all remain. He senses that his foul murder cannot be forgiven as long as the effects of the murder remain.

Our faith tells us that God’s mercy is always available through the salvation gained for us in Christ Jesus.We need but turn to God with sincere intent and resolve, confess our sins and receive divine mercy. No one is excluded from this grace. God’s will is that all be saved.

What is blasphemous, what blocks God’s extravagant mercy from pouring into our souls is not any particular sin that is “unforgivable.” Rather, the “blasphemy” happens when we refuse to forgo the effects of our sins (power, pride, possessions) and are unwilling to reform our lives with a sincere purpose of amendment. It is not that sin is unforgivable, that God withholds divine mercy. Rather, it is an obstinate disposition that hardens the heart, preventing the rain of divine mercy from penetrating the soul.

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Mercy Accepted, Rejected

In the garden, Peter spoke his words of betrayal, denying that he knew Jesus. Subsequently, Peter acknowledged his sin, wept bitterly and was forgiven.With humility and courage, Peter faced his failure.We know the rest of the story.

For just 30 pieces of silver Judas also betrayed his master. Unable or unwilling to accept Jesus’ merciful gaze, this disciple went out into the dark and took his own life.

Mercy was afforded to both; it was accepted by only one. In some way Judas got stuck in himself and could not believe that he still retained infinite human worth. His sin shattered his sense of dignity and led to self-disdain.

St. Augustine, in speaking of sin, describes it as curvatus in se, that is, turned in on oneself. Sin does exactly that. It refuses to breathe the fresh air of God’s mercy. It suffocates us, cutting us off from God and others. There is a disconnect, a partial or total severing of the branch from the vine of God’s life. As the French spiritual writer François Roustang writes: “The result of this is to divide man in himself and to prevent him from acting in the light and in freedom.” Jesus came precisely to reconcile us to God, to one another and to ourselves.

Removing Barriers

The most recent Doctor of the Church is St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). She wrote in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, that her understanding of God is that God is Love and Mercy. Perhaps we blaspheme against the Spirit of God by refusing to believe that God is truly a God of Love, truly a God of Mercy. It is this disbelief that sets up a barrier in our souls to the reception of God’s self-giving life.

In another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, the young Romeo sees his beloved at some distance and says to himself: “O it is my love. O that she knew she were.” Juliet doesn’t know it! God says to us, his beloved daughters and sons: “O you are my love. Would that you knew you were!”

Could the “unforgivable” sin against the Holy Spirit be our refusal, upon hearing the message of God’s love in Jesus, to appropriate this message and let it shape our lives? Joseph Campbell once suggested that the unpardonable sin was “the sin of inadvertence, of not being alert, not quite awake.” The spiritual life is about staying awake, awake to the infinite love and mercy of God given us in Jesus.

Though Shakespeare as a dramatist is not a “religious” writer, his plays provide clues for understanding the great mysteries of sin and forgiveness. For these clues, we should be grateful.

Robert F. Morneau is an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is author of numerous books, including Paths to Prayer (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and two children’s books, The Gift and A Tale from Paleface Creek (Paulist Press).

Next: All that you ask for in prayer...shall be yours

Questions for Reflection:

• Have you ever experienced the blessing of being forgiven? What was the experience like?

• In your own words, what is the “unforgivable sin”?

FAMILY CORNER
Three Steps to Forgiveness
By Judith Dunlap

There are three essential parts to the traditional Act of Contrition. They follow the three steps necessary to receive forgiveness. First, we tell God we are sorry. Second, we promise to do our best not to sin again. And third, we ask God’s help to strengthen us so that we can keep our promise.

In step one, the key word we use is sorry. Our God is a God of love who calls all things to wholeness and harmony.When we act against love we act against God, and we need to say we are sorry.

In step two we focus on change. If we say we are sorry and have no intention of changing our behavior, we can’t be forgiven. Even God cannot free us from sin if we insist on holding on to it. Sometimes we are really sorry for our actions but can’t muster the courage to change. In that case we need to ask God for the desire to change. Even this small inclination to mend our ways is enough to loosens sin’s grip and allow the Holy Spirit to slip in.

In step three we admit we are human.We humbly acknowledge that we need the Spirit’s help to love the way God wants us to love.We face our limitation and even our powerlessness and allow the Spirit’s strength to fill us.We trust that, with God’s help, we can overcome the most compelling sins or bad habits and become the people God calls us to be.

Teach your children what it means to say, “I am sorry,” by helping them understand the three-part prayer of contrition. Explain each step of the prayer. Help them to understand the importance of asking for God’s help to be strong throughout their day. And when they are not ready to forgive or to give up their anger, teach them to ask for God’s help to let go.

For Family Response:

Adult family members may want to practice a simple Act of Contrition themselves, and then pray it together with their children as part of their bedtime prayers.

Media Watch
To Kill a Mockingbird
By Frank Frost

In one telling scene in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout (Mary Badham), the young daughter of Atticus (Gregory Peck), is admiring the antique pocket watch that her father will someday give to his son. She asks with longing and envy, “What will you give me?” Her father responds, “I don’t have anything else of value.”

But the audience already knows that he will be leaving her a gift beyond reckoning—the life lessons he teaches her daily through both word and example. These include an uncompromising sense of fairness, integrity, concern for others and belief in the dignity of every person.

A new Special Edition DVD release gives families another chance to enjoy this 1963 classic based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. And it offers wonderful enrichments.

Bonus materials include not only the customary commentary by producer and director (Alan J. Pakula and Robert Mulligan) but also two feature-length documentaries. A Conversation With Gregory Peck is effectively an autobiography made by his daughter Cecilia and noted documentarian Barbara Koppel. The other is Fearful Symmetry: The Making of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The film’s story is told in the first person through the naïve eyes of Scout, a feisty tomboy who watches her father confront racial prejudice and legal corruption at great personal risk. Atticus is a lawyer in a small town in the Deep South during the Depression. He’s asked by the sheriff to defend a black prisoner who has been accused of assaulting an ignorant white woman in her rural home.

In a parallel story line, Scout and her brother set out to see how close they can get to Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his first role), a mythic unseen neighbor who is whispered to be a murderer.What they discover in their quest, however, is that small gifts appear mysteriously in the knothole of a large tree fronting his ramshackle house. From the credits on, this story is about small treasures that will be kept by Scout and her brother, and which, one day, will be sorted like the memories they treasure of their father and the lessons he taught them.

Atticus will require great courage in his defense of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). The lawyer must first physically confront Tom’s accuser, who leads a mob to lynch the prisoner. And then, when Atticus proceeds to trial, his children’s lives are threatened.

The parallel story lines come together when Boo Radley saves Scout’s life, which requires the shy retarded man to emerge in the night from the safety of his house.

To Kill a Mockingbird offers great lessons about fidelity to conscience and respect for everyone. “You never know someone,”Atticus tells Scout, “until you step inside their skin and walk around a little.” We are blessed to walk around a little in the skin of Atticus Finch.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

SAINTS AND HEROES AMONG US
By Judy Ball

St. Martin of Tours (316?-397)

Even as far back as the fourth century, parents longed to see their children follow in their footsteps. The father of Martin of Tours, an officer in the Roman army, envisioned a military career for his son and pressured him in that direction. Martin gave military life a try, but the match proved disastrous.

He became a conscientious objector and was discharged from the army. “I am a soldier of Christ, and it is not lawful for me to fight,” he insisted. In a further blow to his pagan father, Martin was baptized at 18 and became a monk.

Born in what is now Hungary, Martin moved to Milan. Then, for 10 years, he lived the quiet life of a monk at a monastery in France, thought to be the first one north of the Alps. As he preached throughout the countryside, more and more men joined him.

This smooth, peaceful phase of his life ended when the people of the area insisted that he become their bishop. They tricked him, begging him to tend to a sick person in the city.When he arrived, weary and rumpled, he was brought to the local church and pressed into service. He was consecrated a bishop, but continued to live the life of a monk.

For 25 years he visited even the most remote parts of his diocese. He became known for his special concern for condemned prisoners, former prisoners, the poor and the sick, and was a model of simplicity and kindness. Martin also became embroiled in controversy when he opposed the principle of putting heretics to death. For this, he was accused of heresy.

At his request,Martin was buried in a cemetery for the poor. His feast is November 11.

Father Louie Vitale, O.F.M.

If he hadn’t run for college class president—and lost—Father Louie Vitale might have lived the conventional life his parents had in mind. Instead, the experience turned his head and his heart around.

Crushed and embarrassed, he turned to God in prayer. “Suddenly, for the first time, I heard the call to religious life,” Father Louie told Every Day Catholic. He exchanged his Jaguar for the sandals of a Franciscan. “I felt happy and free, but my father was very upset that I wasn’t going to enter the family business” in California.

Armed with an irrepressible, gung-ho spirit, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1963 amidst the swirl of the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement and the Second Vatican Council. Initially reserved about all the changes occurring, Father Louie slowly became involved in social-justice causes. He went on peace marches and offered support to conscientious objectors. The late Cesar Chavez became his mentor in nonviolence.

The same Louie Vitale who had served in the Air Force as an aircraft intercept officer during the Korean War and thought himself “among the most patriotic” of soldiers was hearing a new call—the call to risk public opinion and even his own body on behalf of peace.With Franciscan support he protested at the nuclear test site in Nevada. Arrests followed; so did time in prison. For nine years he served as provincial of the California Province and later opened a center for the practice of nonviolence.

Father Louie, 73, recently completed 13 years as a pastor in San Francisco, but he isn’t retiring from anything. He just has more time to get involved in social justice—in his irrepressible, gung-ho way.

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