Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them he addressed this parable.
“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it,
he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home,
he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.
“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house,
searching carefully until she finds it?
And when she does find it,
she calls together her friends and neighbors
and says to them,
‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’
In just the same way, I tell you,
there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”
It is said that the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is to imagine that one’s sin(s) is so great that it is unforgivable. Imagine the gall of delimiting the omnipotence of the Creator! In other words, the sin against the Holy Spirit is not that God won’t or can’t forgive you; it is that the human refuses to ask for and receive forgiveness. Since God respects the free will He’s given us — even the freedom to not believe in Him and reject His mercy — He does not thrust Himself on us. And so the sinner remains unrepentant to the end, spurning the Creator’s clemency and love.
The proof against such an arrogant conviction that one’s sins are so great as to be unforgivable is in the lives and repentance of countless individuals who had done truly terrible deeds.
One of them is Saul, the highly-educated Roman Jew who hunted down and persecuted fellow Jews who were the earliest followers of Christ, most notably the killing by stoning of St. Stephen. Until the day when Christ really got Saul’s attention by striking him with blindness and spoke to him:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Saul remained sightless and neither ate nor drank for 3 days, after which he became an entirely different man, which is always a mark of true conversion. He renamed himself Paul, which means “little”. Not only did he stop persecuting Christians, he became a devoted follower of Christ and arguably the most influential early missionary who spent the rest of his life traversing the Mediterranean Basin in a time when travel was arduous, laborious and dangerous, to bring His Word to both Jews and Gentiles.
More than any of Christ’s disciples, it was Paul who fully understood that, by His incarnation, death and resurrection, Jesus replaced the covenant of the Old Testament with a new covenant. This was made clear by Jesus Himself in the Last Supper:
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11.25; cf. Mt 26.27-29; Mk 14.24, Lk 22.20; Heb 8.6, 9.15).
Henceforth, God’s chosen are all who “take up their cross” and follow Jesus the Christ. In other words, what once was a tribal religion — Judaism — is now superceded by the universal faith of Christianity. That is why St. Paul is called the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Without the work of Paul, formerly the sinful Saul of Tarsus, you and I might not be Christians.
So if you think Christ had come only for the perfect and the good, here is Paul’s testimony:
1 Timothy 1:13-16
I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant,
but I have been mercifully treated
because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.
Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant,
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.
But for that reason I was mercifully treated,
so that in me, as the foremost,
Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example
for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.
Paul was beaten, arrested and imprisoned on more than one occasion. According to Christian tradition, he was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero on June 29, AD 67 — the same day as St. Peter was crucified upside down because Peter felt himself unworthy to be crucified as His Lord had been.
Shortly before he was martyred, St. Paul had written to St. Timothy these famous words:
“I am even now ready to be sacrificed, and the time of my dissolution is at hand. I have fought a good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith. As for the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice which the Lord, the just judge, will render to me in that day: and not only to me, but to them also that love His coming.”
For all these reasons — the sinful, pre-conversion Saul; the post-conversion Paul who turned his back on his past and devoted the rest of his life to Jesus; the Apostle to the Gentiles who taught us about Jesus’ New Covenant; the author of all those letters that teach and inspire “so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see”; the saint who so loves Jesus that he joyfully went to his martyrdom — I love and admire St. Paul with all my heart.
So whenever you imagine your sins to be so great as to be unforgivable — which, of course, is really your overweening arrogance speaking — just remember the man who once was named Saul.
May the love and peace and “ocean of mercy” of Jesus Christ our Lord be with you,