Failure is a fact of life, it happens to all of us. We try to do something, but fall short of the goal. The experience comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is relatively immaterial: we play a game and lose. We burn the pot roast. We try to lose a few pounds, but end up gaining. These are failures of a sort, but we soon forget them and they do not have a lasting effect on our lives.
Other failures are much more serious. The demise of a business venture, for example. It begins with high hopes, but for some reason, it does not work, and after a while, it all falls apart. This kind of failure inflicts real pain and often leads to long-term problems.
The emotional damages are often worse than the financial. The same is often true of a marriage that ends in divorce. So many can be hurt: the couple, their siblings, parents, and most of all, the children. The greatest danger in serious failures is the psychological impact that often goes with them.
It is one thing to say I have failed: I tried and I failed. It is another thing to say and to feel I am a failure, I cannot cope with life, I am inadequate. Our Gospel reading for today tells a story about both kinds of failure, one relatively immaterial, the other deadly serious.
They both occurred in the life of Simon Peter. In the first instance, it was a lack of fish. It was disappointing, but not tragic, and with a little help from Jesus, things turned out ok.
His other failure, however, was different. It was much deeper and more serious. Peter took an honest look at himself and he was overwhelmed by what he saw. Falling down on his knees, he says to Jesus, leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man. As we read it, it sounds rather calm and clinical, but it is charged with emotion and pathos. Peter is a big, strong fisherman, on his knees, deeply troubled.
Perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter had faced the dark side of his own soul and he was ashamed of what he saw. In his eyes, he was a failure. Jesus makes no reference to Peter’s turmoil, he simply says, follow Me.
It was the same way with Isaiah in the first reading. He goes to the temple to pray, much as we would go to a church, and in the temple, he has what we would call a religious experience. He has a vision of God or senses God’s presence, and God’s call. Instinctively he did what Peter did, and perhaps what you and I would do in the presence of God, in the presence of holiness. His own sinfulness becomes apparent and he cries out, I am a man of unclean lips. Almost the same thing Peter says in the Gospel: Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.
What is significant in both readings is that the Lord did not depart but instead called both of them. A call that cleansed them of their darkness and sin. It is similar to the parable of the prodigal son.
After the younger son left and squandered all his wealth and possessions, and put his life in ruins, he was feeling like a failure. Yet, when the son returns, the father runs out, embraces him, and forgives. He insists the servants bring a robe, kill the fatted calf, and adorns the son with a family ring. The ring is important, very significant as the family ring means the son is accepted back.
What does all of this say to us? What is the message? Could it be that we are often too hard on ourselves? I am often hearing confessions from people who have been away for a long time. They torture themselves trying to remember every detail of their past life, or they feel so guilty, they keep confessing the same thing time after time. I feel so guilty: I do not believe God will forgive me, and I cannot forgive myself.
So often we make God in our image and likeness, we think He judges like us. And when we do that He becomes a very small God. Our God is bigger than our sins, than all our transgressions, we have only to turn to Him in sorrow and repentance, and like the father in the Prodigal son, He rushes at us, puts a robe around us, and the family ring back on our finger. He brushes aside our guilt, our feelings of unworthiness, our feelings of failure, and says to us what He said to Peter: come, follow Me.
One of the charges of the religious establishment against Jesus was that He ate and drank with the wrong people. He sat at the table with crooked tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, and people who just wanted to be with Him. There is something strange and wonderful about Jesus’ table: the only ones for whom there is not a place are those who think they are worthy of a place. And the only ones seated at Christ’s table are those who know they are unworthy of so great a gift. Soon it will be the start of Lent. Where will you be? At the table, or just looking on?