No one is hopelessly lost in sin

Father John A. Kiley

At some time in my youthful years, perhaps grammar school, perhaps high school, a prayer for vocations was circulated among the parishes and some dutiful teacher must have had his or her students offer the prayer before class every day. Even at my present advanced age, the prayer comes easily to mind and just as easily to my lips. Whether the prayer originated within the Providence diocese or was adapted from some other source is not known but its theme is admirable and its goal is worthy.

Prayer for Vocations - “O God, Who wills not the death of the sinner, but rather that he be converted and live, grant we beseech You through the intercession of the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, Saint Joseph, her spouse, and the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and all the saints, an increase of laborers for your Church, fellow laborers with Christ, to spend and consume themselves for souls, through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever and ever. Amen.”

The first phrases of this prayer nobly depict the kindness and mercy of God our Father through the words of the prophet Ezekiel. The Jewish nation at the time of Ezekiel was just beginning to appreciate individual responsibility for sins committed by each person. Earlier generations of Jews viewed sin as a corporate responsibility — the sins of the nation — infidelity, idolatry, faithlessness. Gradually, a sense of personal guilt began to develop within the Jewish soul for offenses that each man or each woman might commit. This new sense of blame weighed heavily on the Jewish mind and each man and woman struggled to deal with it. Ezekiel wrote: “As for you, son of man, speak to the house of Israel: You people say, ‘Our crimes and our sins weigh us down; we are rotting away because of them. How can we survive?’ Answer them: As I live I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! Why should you die, house of Israel?”

Increasingly, God began to reveal to the Jewish people a sense of conversion, the notion that they could outgrow their vices and develop their virtues. The Jews were not stuck in those sins whose evil was overwhelming them. The first reading this Sunday introduces this concept of conversion, this gradual process of growth into right living. Ezekiel writes: “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.”

The prophet is revealing and encouraging a sense of personal responsibility. When good people make bad choices, they will be held responsible for their misdeeds. Conversely, when bad persons turn away from their wickedness and do “what is right and just,” they will discover themselves growing in virtue. No one is irrevocably mired in sin. The Jews need not despair. Rather the Jews, and all later generations, need to repent, to make amends, to convert from their evil ways. And Ezekiel is very practical in explaining what conversion demands. He suggests they start “…returning pledges, restoring stolen goods, walking by statutes that bring life, doing nothing wrong.”

St. Paul in today’s second reading repeats the importance of growing in virtue: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.” And certainly Jesus, as might be expected, recommends the need for practical good works as fundamental to growth in the Christian life when he relates a parable that disapproves of the elder son who defies the father but applauds the younger son who turns from his defiant ways and responds to his father’s wishes. Repentance is expressed through service.

No one is hopelessly lost in sin. No one need be forlornly weighed down by crimes and sins as the Jews of Ezekiel’s time complained. God indeed wills no one’s death but rather that all sinners “…be converted and live.” The grace of God is readily available for all as the saving death of Jesus on behalf of all mankind testifies. Now, all that is needed for conversion and salvation is the individual’s serious response to God’s readily available forgiveness and grace.