Mercy is only mercy because sin is so destructive.
In the readings for this Sunday, the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), the Church raises a sharp alarm about the reality of sin.
Sin traps us more easily than we think, and destroys us more thoroughly than we admit. We love to hear about mercy, but mercy is only mercy because sin is so destructive.
According to Jesus in the Gospel today, sin leads directly to damnation, “where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” But according to James, sin is very easy to fall into. A life of wealth “will devour your flesh like a fire.” The Psalm sees such grave danger in sin that it prays: “From wanton sin especially, restrain your servant; let it not rule over me.”
What’s so terrible about sin?
This Sunday’s readings twice show up a fundamental mistake about our relationship with God: We think our friendship with God is about affiliation; God thinks it is about affinity.
John says he saw others driving out demons in his name and tried to stop them. No, said Jesus. “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.”
Joshua likewise objects when Eldad and Medad get a share in God’s spirit even when they weren’t with Moses when they were supposed to be. Moses rebukes him, saying “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!”
To God, friendship doesn’t mean being on “his team.” It means acting as he does.
Imagine loaning your house to your best friend for the weekend. Imagine he rides a muddy bicycle inside the house, refuses to feed your pets, breaks your blender and your microwave through carelessness, and leaves your refrigerator wide open for everything to spoil.
His claim on being your special friend would disappear as soon as he disrespected your home and those whom you care for.
This is how we treat God when we sin.
Let us count the ways we disrespect God’s property
Catholics often emphasize the importance of being an “orthodox” — right thinking — Catholic.
We’re right. That is important. As Jesus put it, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life.”
But Jesus also said, “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.”
In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus paints a portrait of an “ortho-prax” — right acting — Catholic.
We are to give others a cup of water in his name — in other words, we are to love those he loves the way he loves them. If we fail them, we fail him.
We are to help ensure that the “little ones who believe in me” do not sin. We can lead them to sin through what we do — or what we don’t do. We can lead them to sin by making the internet or the television their constant companion — or by failing to teach them right from wrong.
We are to cut off anything in our life that causes us to sin.
Often, Jesus’s admonition, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off … if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off … if your eyes cause you to sin, pluck them out” is called “hyperbole.”
I like what Sirius’ The Catholic Channel’s Gus Lloyd says — that this is not hyperbole at all. If your hand or foot or eye caused you to sin, you really should cut them off. But they don’t cause you to sin. You cause them to sin.
What really does cause you to sin? Certain friendships do. Get rid of them, says Jesus. Certain places do. Stay away from them. Maybe it’s being alone with your computer — whatever it is, cut out that thing from your life.
There is nothing that takes priority over stopping sin — not the ability to walk or see or work — and certainly not “luxury and pleasure” which James says will only “fatten your hearts for the day of slaughter.”
As Jesus said on another occasions: “Go, and sin no more.” There is no more urgent message in the world or the Church today. Eternity depends on it.