Jesus’ marching orders in our lifelong battle against sin

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 27, 2009
Num 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48

Back when I was in 7th grade, I was a strange 7th-grader. That fall, it was a presidential election year—1984. And I was very, very interested in the presidential campaign. I talked and read about it all the time, and I made signs and flyers; and I even cut out photos and cartoons from the newspaper and my dad’s Time magazine and taped them all over the inside of my locker door at school. My classmates, of course, had no interest in politics, and they thought I was pretty weird. Some even took to calling me “Reagan-Bush” as a nickname.

So my parents took notice and told me that, the day after the election, I had to take all the Reagan-Bush pictures out of my locker. They were so mean! That was so unfair! I liked the pictures; they were cool! Other kids had pictures of rock bands in their lockers; why couldn’t I have pictures of the President in mine?! But they made me take them all down. Because they knew that, no matter how much I liked them, if I kept them up, they would prevent me from ever having normal friendships with the other kids in that school. My parents wanted what was good for me, even if it meant getting rid of the pictures that I liked.

And Jesus also wants what is good for us. As we hear in today’s Gospel reading, he isn’t stingy about it. He wants every one of us to be free from what binds us and holds us captive—whether demonic or otherwise. Like Moses, in our first reading, he wants everyone to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he wants everyone to have in our lives the fruit of the Spirit—which, St. Paul wrote [Gal 5:22-23], is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Christ gives us the Holy Spirit especially in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Now, most of us here have been baptized and confirmed; and at those moments, we were given the Holy Spirit, and much more. So, have our lives, from that moment on, been characterized by the fruit of the Spirit? Are we full of only love, joy, and peace? Are we always patient, always kind, always generous and faithful, always gentle and self-controlled? No, not always, not completely; perhaps even, not much at all. Why not? Christ wants to give us good things; he wants our lives to be characterized by the fruit of the Spirit; he instituted the sacraments to give us grace; and he has given us the Holy Spirit through them. So why didn’t he just go all the way, to completely transform our lives into nothing but love, joy, and peace, from the moment of our baptism?

The reason is that he wants us to join in the fight against sin. He wants us to engage in the battle. The Catechism tells us that [1263] by Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin … [1264] yet certain temporal consequences of sin remain. Certain consequences of sin remain while we live this earthly life. And it lists them off: suffering, illness, death, … weaknesses of character, and an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence. These temptations; these desires inside us that might pull us off the path; these fears that might stop us in our tracks. This is left for us to wrestle with so that, with Christ by our side and with the gift of his grace, we may resist, we may struggle, we may prevail—like an athlete in a competition; like a soldier in a battle. [1426; cf. 2520] This is the struggle of conversion directed toward holiness and eternal life to which the Lord never ceases to call us.

How often are we AWOL from this battle against sin? How often do we just surrender and give “aid and comfort to the enemy”?

There is so much to be said about this lifelong struggle; but for today let us focus where Jesus does in today’s Gospel reading.

For he focuses upon this concept of “causing to sin”—causing someone to sin, or something causing us to sin. The original Greek for this is one verb, skandalizô; and you can probably hear that from this word comes our English word “scandal” or “scandalize.” But the meaning is different—and I think the difference is revealing about what our culture thinks about our situation. Today, in our common language, if we speak of a “scandal,” we mean that someone out there has done something wrong, maybe something shameful, so that our idea of their reputation goes down. But it’s all “out there”: it may shock us; at the most, it may anger us. But there’s a separation between us and them; and “scandal” is all about them, and it doesn’t truly affect us.

What Jesus is saying here is really the opposite of this. When he speaks of skandalizô, causing to stumble, causing to sin, he means that we’re a lot more closely connected; and we’re not as strong as that; we’re not unaffected by each other. To cause someone else to sin is to do something that triggers something inside them—some desire, some fear—so that, even though they have resolved earlier that they are not going to commit a particular sin, they now choose to do it, because of what we have done.

Now Jesus speaks to us about this from two angles: to us as causing someone to sin; and to us as being caused to sin. So let us consider each of these in turn.

First, he speaks of “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” Now what would this look like? Who would deliberately try to tempt someone to get them to fall into sin? That would be horrible; and I hope that few of us here have done that. But what if it looks like this: what if it’s someone who is a “Goody Two Shoes,” or “Mr. Perfect,” and they’re really annoying and self-righteous, because it’s all mixed up with pride? And we thinking that we just want to take them down a peg, and maybe we tell ourselves that this is justified, to humble them. But this is not our role; only God can do this. And Jesus speaks about this in very strong terms: Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. It would be better to be forcibly drowned, rather than cause someone else to sin.

But if that’s the active form of causing someone to sin, there’s also a more careless way. It comes when someone else has some weakness that we don’t have, and we just don’t care enough to change how we act for their sake. So, maybe someone is an alcoholic, and you’re not, but you go ahead and have a drink right in front of them anyway. Or maybe their weakness is smoking; or it’s food and they’re on a diet; or it’s what you watch or listen to; or it’s how you act or present yourself to them. St. Paul wrote about this, using that same verb skandalizô. In his time, the issue was whether people could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. And he writes [1 Cor 8:13], “if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin.”

But what about if we’re on the receiving end? What if we are the ones being caused to sin? Jesus’ message to us is: If it causes you to sin, cut it out of your life.

So what causes us to sin? A good place to start looking is with those sins that we confess again and again; or maybe look to those New Year’s resolutions you make year after year. And then analyze this. What’s going on in these sins? You intend to change, but then you keep on falling into the same sin. The 12-step programs like to say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different result to occur. So what is it that is going on, over and over?

And when we look, we may find that it is a person: a person who has us join in their sin; or who actively tries to cause us to fall; or who is careless about our weakness. Or perhaps it happens when we are alone; and then what are the circumstances? Is it the place; the time of day; some activity? What are the conditions? What desires are involved? Whatever the answer is: cut it out.

Now we often will hear it said that Jesus is exaggerating in these statements in today’s reading. But we should not be too quick to dismiss his words; we need to look more carefully. When he says, “cut it off,” “pluck it out,” he really means that. He is that serious about sin. It is in his examples of a hand, a foot, an eye causing us to sin, that he is exaggerating. A part of our body does not cause us to sin. And if you, or someone you know, thinks a body part is causing them to sin, you should talk to a priest or someone else who is spiritually wise and mature. In that case, there probably is something that is causing you or the other person to sin, and that conversation can help to bring it to light.

In closing, I want to point you to the sacrament of confession—of penance, of reconciliation. The precept of the Church is that, if you commit a mortal sin, you must take it to sacramental confession within one year. But this is a minimum; it is not a prescription for spiritual health; it is not the way to victory in the battle against sin. What I would recommend to you is that you go to confession at least once a month, if not more frequently; and that you take all your sins to confession, even the small ones; because in this sacrament Christ offers not only forgiveness but also the grace, the strength, to overcome your sins.

Why go to confession? Because you want to win the victory over your sins. Because you want to gain the true freedom that Christ wills for you to have. Because you want the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, and all the rest—to characterize your life.


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Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 7:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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