Homily: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle B
Friends, as we continue our journey through Ordinary Time—the time in the Liturgical Year in which we focus on growing as missionary disciples—we are reminded of important truths that help keep us on track. A full six months removed from Lent and Easter—in which we focused on acknowledging our sin and worked towards repentance—this Sunday the Church gives us a reminder that sin still matters, even when it isn’t Lent.
In the second reading today, Saint James issues a stern warning to the rich who have taken unjust advantage of those less fortunate than them. He lays their sins before them and prophesies that the comforts and excesses that they are enjoying now God has permitted so as to “fatten their hearts” for the coming slaughter. He is warning them because they have become complacent in their sin and because God will not overlook their injustices on the Day of Judgment.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is just as deliberate and graphic. He instructs his disciples to be vigilant against sin. In fact, another way to describe Jesus’ teaching using some of our more modern parlance would be to say that Jesus instructs his disciples to be intolerant of sin. God has laid down a law that must be obeyed and to choose against that law is to choose against God himself and will result in eternal separation from God, which will be the cause of eternal suffering; and so Jesus tells his disciples: “Be intolerant of sin! If your hand causes you to sin, CUT. IT. OFF! If your eye causes you to sin, PLUCK. IT. OUT! Failure to do so will condemn you to a place of eternal suffering: much like being in the middle of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.”
Gehenna, for those of you who may not know, is not just another name for Hell. Gehenna was an actual place outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a valley on the outskirts of the city that had been used for human sacrifice in Old Testament times by the evil rulers of the Israelites who worshiped pagan Gods. By the time of Christ, the valley had become a huge, outdoor public incinerator, of sorts, in which trash and refuse, including the dead bodies of animals and criminals, were thrown and eventually consumed by a smoldering fire that was constantly kept burning. Obviously, this was not a pleasant place to be around; and, having seen it, Jesus’ disciples knew that this was not a place that you could imagine yourself living for all eternity.
Thus, the extreme images that Jesus uses to describe how intolerant one should be of sin in his or her life. Sin is a deadly thing, in spite of the lies that Satan will tell you about it. (Remember Genesis? “You certainly won’t die...” the serpent said to Eve.) Thus, Jesus, and Saint James after him, are adamant that sin be rooted out of our lives down to the very source. Are they trying to scare us into conforming? Well, yes. Elsewhere Jesus will say, “Do not fear the one who can kill the body, but rather the one who has the power to send you into the everlasting fires” (Mt. 10:28). If our goal in life is to make it to eternal life with God (and it is, by the way), then we should fear ever committing any sin that would keep us from achieving that goal; and, therefore, remove anything from our lives that leads us into sin.
In these past couple of months, some serious wounds have been reopened and we are facing once again the hurt and suffering that tolerated sin causes. The sins of sexual abuse by anyone, but especially by the clergy of the Church, produce lasting effects that, for the victim of abuse, can make him/her feel as if he/she is already living in Gehenna: a horrible wasteland in which a never-ending fire consumes him/her. With hindsight we can see that even one instance of this being tolerated is horrible (though we shouldn’t have needed hindsight to see that). Nonetheless, these bigger sins were tolerated because many, much smaller sins of unchastity (and, in the case of the clergy, unfaithfulness to one’s promise of chastity) were tolerated for many years. Like a cancer, the toleration of even one of these sins puts the whole body at risk for destruction.
Sad, though, how we wouldn’t hesitate to submit ourselves to treatment to eliminate cancer—treatment that often entails significant suffering and sacrifice—yet we look at sin and tell ourselves “Meh, it’s not that bad... I’ll be fine.” Friends, just as the Church is in real need of chemotherapy to cleanse Christ’s Body of these cancerous tumors that have threatened to destroy it, so too each of us. Millions of women have gone through mastectomies in the hope that, by removing this important part of their bodies, the cancer that threatens their lives will be removed completely. How quickly we respond to doctors who urge us to act so as to prevent pain and suffering in this world (let alone, death), yet we refuse to respond to Jesus, the Divine Physician, who urges us to act so as to prevent eternal pain and suffering (that is, eternal death) in the world to come.
My brothers and sisters, sin still matters. When we tolerate sin—even small sin—in our lives, we allow a cancer to grow within us—silent and sinister: a cancer that destroys us from the inside. To root sin out, we must subject ourselves to intense therapy: fasting, prayer, and frequent treatments through the sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist; and we must be honest with ourselves about whether relationships and circumstances in our lives are leading us into occasions of sin—that is, occasions for us to act against God and his Divine Law and against our neighbor—and thus we must eliminate them. Anything short of this leaves us in danger of being cast into the eternal fires of Hell.
I myself have voluntarily taken on a regimen of mortification over these last few months meant to help me root out the sources of sin in my own life and to make reparation for my sins and the sins of my fellow priests and bishops. I will not prescribe one for all of you, but I do invite each of you to consider what you might voluntarily fast from so as to conquer the root of a pernicious sin in your own life. By each of us taking responsibility for our own sins and by supporting each other in our efforts (accountability partners are great things!), we’ll begin to see that the larger, systemic sins in our Church and in our society are being rooted out as well.
Let us take courage, then, my brothers and sisters, to take up (or continue) this good work; so that we might discover what our Responsorial Psalm tells us today: that “the precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart”: the eternal joy made possible for us by Jesus’ sacrifice. The sacrifice that is made present to us here on this altar.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – September 29th & 30th, 2018