Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sin Matters

Readings for Sunday, September 30/ 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Numbers 11:25-29
Psalm 19:8, 10, 12-14
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Our readings this weekend, especially the pericopes from the Letter of St. James and the Gospel of Mark, could be simply summed up in two simple words: sin matters.

In the past few decades there has been a great emphasis and growth in devotion to the Divine Mercy of God. With the revelations of Our Lord to St. Faustina last century there came the Divine Mercy chaplet, novena and, with Blessed John Paul II’s support, the Divine Mercy feast on the Sunday after Easter. Rightly so, our world today needs to be reminded of God’s great love for us and the fact that no matter how far we might stray from Him or what sin we might commit, He is always ready and willing to welcome us back home. But just as the Lord implants that reminder of His mercy into our hearts, so also does the devil. It seems strange to say that the devil would remind us of God’s infinite mercy, but it is quite true. In the midst of temptations and inclinations to sin, one old piece of spiritual advice is to reflect on how it will grieve the Lord and how sin wounds our relationship with the Lord. But the devil likes to keep us from doing that or to push those thoughts out of our mind. Rather in the midst of temptation he quietly whispers, “But God loves you so much. He understands that you’re not perfect. And hey, you can always go to confession. He’s so merciful that He would never turn you away.” He says these things hoping to instill in us a knowledge that we can always turn back later, despite falling into sin in the moment. And that knowledge is often the thing that we use as permission to sin; we know we can be forgiven and so we take advantage of that Mercy and actually commit a sin called presumption – presuming that we will be forgiven and doing things anyway knowing that we can just confess it later. The interesting thing, though, is that as soon as we fall into sin, the devil’s story changes instantly. No longer are we reminded of God’s mercy but instead are to recall God’s justice: “Look what you’ve done. You’ve given up again. You’ve let God down. Not like it’s new…look at all the other times that you’ve done it before. You are so far from being what He wants you to be.” And in this he hopes to bring us to despair, at which point we forget the mercy and give ourselves over to sin.

In response to this the Lord gives us a rather vivid and violent image about cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes. Imagine hold a meat cleaver to your hand and trying to get up the courage to cut it off – it would be painful, it would take an great amount of trust and commitment, and it would be emotionally intense. But the thing is that the Lord doesn’t want us to actually cut off limbs and gouge out eyes, because the sin doesn’t come from outside. As we heard a few weeks ago, sin comes from our hearts, from the interior.  We must be willing to allow sin to be cut out from our heart and our life if we want to attain eternal life; it will be painful, it will be emotional, and it will surely take great commitment and trust. So we must ask God for the grace to cut sin out from our lives. And He rejoices to give us that grace because He knows the effects of sin because He felt them in every wound of His Sacred Body during the Passion, most especially on the Cross. He longs to bring us healing and to keep us from sin. Moreover, He desires to keep us from the final reward of sin – Hell.

When the Lord gives that image of Gehenna, it would have spoken quickly to the Jewish people because Gehenna was a real place. Outside the city of Jerusalem there was a huge valley where they would burn the refuse from the community, as well as the corpses of animals and criminals. Because there was always something being tossed in here and there the valley was a smoldering put of death that was less than pleasant to be around. And even though it is only a shadow of how bad Hell would be for us, the image is well-conveyed: it is to be avoided at all costs.

The other image that Our Lord uses is that of the millstone being tied around ones neck as they are cast into the sea. Another vivid image, the Lord uses it so remind us that while we must be clean from all sin personally, it is not only for our benefit. None of us is an island unto ourselves and while we might think our sins are private and don’t affect anyone else, they in fact impact everyone else. Every time I come to this passage I can’t help but think about a specific instance in my own life. When I was a teenager I was a less-than-pleasant person to be around. I dressed in all mostly black clothes, wore lots of chains and bracelets, listened to immoral and even satanic music, and had an absolutely negative outlook on nearly everything. Suffice it to say I was not the best model to follow after, but the problem is that one person did. A relative of mine looked up to me and began to listen to the same music, dress the same, think the same, and imitate other undesirable traits of mine. I eventually converted to the faith and came out of that, but my relative hasn’t fully done so yet. And to be honest, I have a bit of fear in my heart that on my judgment day one of the things that Lord will question me about will be that relationship – why I wasn’t a better model, and how my sins led astray one of his little ones. That’s my own personal situation but all of us have them in some fashion. When parents and godparents have children baptized they agree that they will do everything in their power to raise their children up in the faith and yet when I go to help on retreats or at PSR classes, when children disagree with the Church on things like sexual morality, obligation to attend Mass on Sundays, and other things, quite often their response to why they shouldn’t be worried is because their parents aren’t. They’re not receiving the guidance positive witness they need. In reality, it’s not just parents and godparents either – it’s all of us, young and old and everywhere in between. Every single one of us has someone in the world that looks to us for some sort of example. It could be a relative, a friend, a coworker, or a random person we don’t really know, but they are either built up or torn down because of the actions that we commit. And woe to us is we are tearing them down!

In the end, we have an obligation to fight against sin if we want to get to Heaven. So while sin matters, grace conquers. And as Catholics we have a lot of tools in our spiritual bags to help us receive that conquering grace. We have the saints of God to intercede for us. We have the Archangels and our guardian angels to watch over us. We have the sacraments to sustain us. But most of all, we have the Lord God dwelling within and among us. In our first reading we hear the Jewish people running to Moses to make him stop the elders from prophesying after receiving the Spirit of God. To this Moses simply responds ‘Would that we all would prophesy! Would that we all had the Spirit!’ At Pentecost the Spirit descended upon the whole Church, not just a select few. In our baptism we each received Him personally into our souls. It is now for us to listen to His voice and follow where He desires us to go, cutting out the sin that needs to be cut out and thus becoming the witnesses we were created to be – not only for ourselves, but for our children and for our world.