26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
We have Divine Mercy Sunday and Good Shepherd Sunday. Maybe we should call today Gruesome Consequences for Sin Sunday! We have weeping, wailing, impending miseries, rot, corrosion, flesh-devouring fire, fattened hearts, a day of slaughter, millstone necklaces, amputated limbs, plucked out eyes, immortal worms, and unquenchable flames. God's not playing around! Sin is serious business. It's a deadly business. And Jesus is here to tell us the truth. Not the comfortable, middle-class American story about “being true to yourself” and “following your heart.” Nor the one about “just be kind” and “everyone goes to heaven.” Nor that old heresy about “a loving God would never create something like Hell.” Jesus reveals the really real. And he does so in a way intended to make us squirm. He reminds us that both sin and obedience have consequences. That both God's grace and our refusal to receive that grace have consequences. It is better that we go to heaven limbless and blind than find ourselves in the unquenchable fires of Gehenna. Is Jesus being a bit dramatic here? Perhaps. But I'd rather not spend eternity finding out.
I'm told by some of the ancient friars with whom I've lived that once upon a time, not so long ago, the Church spent a great deal of time and energy preaching against sin. So much time and energy, in fact, that when the winds shifted after VC2, the subject was dropped almost entirely. We were told that no one should be brought to Christ out of fear. That preaching on sin and hell was really just about institutional control and abuse of power. That a truly loving God would never allow anyone to go to Hell! So, there's not much point in preaching on the reality of sin or its consequences. And so it came about – over time – that sin, hell, punishment, and the immortal worms disappeared almost entirely from our pulpits. We replaced virtues with “values.” We were taught that conscience does not discover the truth but rather invents the truth. We were assured that simply believing in a lie sincerely was sufficient to make that lie “my truth.” That feelings matter more than facts, and personal experience trumps reason and revelation every time. If sin no longer matters, then neither does grace. And if grace no long matters, then what are we doing here?
By accepting these falsehoods, we've lost our freedom, our freedom to choose to be Sons of the Father, heirs to His Kingdom. Jesus could not be clearer on the subject: “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin...if your hand causes you to sin...if your foot causes you to sin...if your eye causes you to sin...” Millstone around the neck and a trip to the bottom of the sea. Two amputations. And gouging out an eye. Tell me Jesus isn't serious about the reality and consequences of sin! Whether he's being literal here or not about the amputations isn't the issue. The issue is that disobedience-in-freedom brings about real-world, even eternal, effects. And we choose these effects. They don't disappear b/c we play word games. They don't simply not show up b/c we sincerely believe that this sin isn't really a sin. Our freedom in Christ is supernaturally ordered in such a way that we are freest when we consistently chose virtue and avoid sin. If we believe that our freedom allows us invent our own realities as we go. . .well, we will inevitably create for ourselves hell on earth. The Real – both the natural and the supernatural – is a stubborn fellow-traveler. It doesn't bend to will, reason, or emotion. And do ourselves no spiritual favors by pretending otherwise.
All this sounds rather old-fashioned. Maybe even a bit grim. But how do we read the Gospel and believe otherwise? Hell exists b/c we are free. We are free to reject God's love. He will honor our choice and allow us to live apart from Him for eternity. By denying the reality of sin, of hell, and teaching that conscience creates the Real, we deny ourselves the freedom necessary to choose Heaven. The Good News in all of this is that we do not have to sin. We do not have to be disobedient. We do have to think or feel or act in ways that take us away from Christ. And there's more Good News! Christ freely gives us everything we need to stay with him. That's right. We do not have to rely on our own power to walk along his Way. We receive all that he gives. We surrender. Give thanks and praise. And then we follow him. Step-by-step. Word-by-word. Thought-by-thought, we follow him. Freely, eagerly, gratefully, humbly walk along with him, praying, “Your word, O Lord, is truth; consecrate us in the truth.”