“Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
I was having a conversation with a childhood friend of mine back in my native country of Nigeria a few weeks after I was ordained a priest. He said to me, “We have known each other very well all these years. Looking back now at your life before becoming a religious priest, do you have any regrets about your past?” I managed to stutter this reply to him then, “Having sorrow and contrition for my sins? Yes! Nurturing regrets about my past? No way!”
I would still give the same reply today but more emphatically because holding on to the past through regrets by dwelling on what should or could have been is a complete waste of time and energy. Most importantly, I have come to see that regretting the past make us blind to the graces and opportunities that God in His goodness is offering to us at the present moment for a new beginning and a deepening of His life in us through our free choices.
The Israelites had lost their country, independence, and temple. They are looking back in regret and blaming God for their condition and even accusing Him of being unfair to them, “Thus said the Lord: You say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair.’” They probably erroneously believed that, since they were in a tradition of collective responsibility where personal responsibility did not count, they could easily blame their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, or even God, for their pitiable condition. That is what happens when we live in regret – we spend all our time and energy looking for someone else to blame for our own choices.
God responds by reminding them of their individual personal responsibilities for their actions and the consequences of their free choices. He also points them to the new beginning and deeper life with Him that He offers each one of them despite their past rebellion, “If one turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life.” Divine goodness will provide for them opportunities for a deeper life with God through their free choices in accord with His will.
The psalmist in Ps 25:4-9 looks back at his sins and pleads for mercy, “The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not.” He does not wallow in past regrets but looks forward to the new life that God offers to him, “Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior…Good and upright is the Lord, thus He shows sinners the way.” We see that divine mercy does not just forgive sins but also continuously teaches us and bestows strength for a deeper life with God. Why would anyone choose to live in regrets in the face of such divine goodness?
In Mt 21:28-32, our Lord Jesus Christ uses the example of repentant sinners to warn the chief priests and elders. The tax collectors and prostitutes did not give into regrets about their sinful past or the social stigma from their ignoble trade. They did not blame anyone but themselves for their moral failures and their subsequent rejection by others. They pressed on and accepted the teaching and baptism of John the Baptist and thus were properly disposed to receive Christ and the new and deeper life of His kingdom. Unlike the chief priests and scribes who chose to remain in their past failures, refusing to “later change and believe in John the Baptist,” the tax collectors and sinners were advancing into the kingdom of God despite their past, “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
We are tempted to live in regrets because we do not know the mind of Jesus Christ. For our sake, He “emptied himself,” “took on the form of slave” in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, became “obedient unto death, even death on the cross.” If He did all this to bring us into the Father’s kingdom, would He now cease to provide us with the graces and opportunities that we need to journey into that kingdom? By His unconditional obedience to the Father, hasn’t He won for us the opportunities for new beginnings as well as the grace to bend our own knees before Him, do His will, and enter into His kingdom? Do we realize that the life of Jesus by which we were saved is a life lived with complete openness to the Father’s love and without regrets? Why then are we slaves of our past sins and hurts?
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are those tax collectors and prostitutes commended by Jesus when we also cast off the chains of past regrets, choose humble repentance, and embrace the opportunity and grace for a new beginning that Jesus Christ offers to us continuously. We all have our past failures and mistakes. We all have been hurt by the sins and failures of others. We have all experienced injustice. The good news is that, no matter the past, we are still the undeserving recipients of that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”(Phil 3:14)
We must continuously examine our consciences thoroughly, be truly sorry for our sins, receive divine mercy in the sacrament of confession, and resolve to amend our lives. Like Mama Mary who “pondered all these things in her heart,”(Lk2:19) we too must look back to gain better self-knowledge from our all our past experiences and to understand God’s unique ways in our lives. This will dispose us to perceive the many concrete ways in which God is inviting us at each moment to a deeper life with Him.
We cannot enter the kingdom of God without doing His will, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”(Mt 7:21) Divine mercy will never cease recalibrating our wandering steps towards heaven by our fidelity to God’s will if only we do not become slaves of past regrets.
This is the message that the Catholic Church should proclaim boldly in these times. In Jesus Christ and in Him alone, we all are invited to a new beginning and a deeper life with God at every moment of our lives. No matter how many or how grievous or depraved our past sins may be, by divine goodness, we can still learn how to bend our knees in humble obedience to God again. Because of Christ’s unconditional obedience, our lives have the possibility of a new direction towards God by the graced choices we make.
It is useless to hold on to past sorrows and failures. It is equally useless to blame others for the consequences of our free choices. It is useless for us to pretend evil is good and good is evil as we are doing in our world today. Jesus Christ has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. His will for us remains the same and unchangeable, “This is the will of God for you: your sanctification.”(1Thes 4:3) He has come to liberate us from all bondages and regrets in this life, and more importantly, from the eternal regrets of hell.
Actually, the devil is the only one who is happy when we are living in past regrets. Let us not bring our wrathful enemy any delight or make his job easy for him by castigating ourselves or blaming others for our past failures!
Let our Eucharist bring us to participate in the mind of Christ and realize that the opportunities for us to begin again in this life are abundant. The grace to enter into a deeper life with Jesus Christ are likewise superabundant because they are all the fruits of His passion, death and resurrection. No matter the past, we can begin to obey Him today in love if only we grasp these opportunities and engage the grace of this moment. But to do so, to begin our new walk with Christ daily and to persevere to the end in ever deeper communion with Him, we must also say emphatically, “Contrition? Yes. Amen! Regrets? No way!”
Glory to Jesus! Honor to Mary!