It isn’t easy to preach about sin. There is enough negativity in our lives already, and the idea of intentionally focusing on something as negative as sin is hardly attractive. Plus, priests can feel concerned not to alienate anybody or make them feel unwelcome. We don’t want to touch any open wounds in people’s souls or give the impression that we are condemning anyone in particular (we are not). Besides that, there are so many positive things to talk about in our faith – God’s love, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the beatitudes, the good example of the saints who have gone before us, etc. – that we could preach all year with hardly a mention of sin. We also might hesitate because we know that we ourselves are not perfect examples, and we don’t want to draw attention to our own defects, or come across as hypocrites.
As if those were not enough reasons to avoid the subject, sin is not a popular topic in our world today. Our culture increasingly promotes rights without responsibility and actions without consequences. The market teams up with science and technology to give us as many means as possible to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of risky or harmful behavior. Bad conduct is increasingly explained away as the result of genetics, hormones, childhood trauma, environment, poor schooling, the economic downturn, and more. Lastly, it is often considered unenlightened and bigoted to affirm that there are universal moral standards of right and wrong. There is an upsurge of relativism and materialistic hedonism that is progressively eroding our sensitivity even to fundamental and fairly clear moral limits.
Certainly, right and wrong are not always black and white, and our choices are affected by factors that are more or less beyond our control. However, there are such things as right and wrong, virtue and vice, sin and saintliness, and they are still our choices and we are responsible for them, before God, who “commands no one to act unjustly” and “gives no one license to sin.”
This is not just an “Old Testament thing.” In today’s gospel reading, Jesus strongly reaffirms that He will hold us to a high moral standard, and we will be held accountable not just for our external actions, but also for the willingly accepted desires of our hearts and minds. Christ gives specific examples of hate and lust, but it applies equally to other sinful tendencies like gluttony, avarice, envy, and so forth. As Christians we have promised to reject sin and the devil; that has to happen on all the levels of our lives, in thought, word, and deed. We have said “no” to sin and “yes” to God; we need to strive to make those words meaningful and effective.
Not all sin is equal. There is serious sin, also called mortal sin, that alienates us from God and condemns us to hell unless we seek forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation, confessing all our mortal sins and how often we committed them. There is also venial sin, which is still bad, but less serious, and can be forgiven without recourse to the sacrament, although it still helps a lot to confess them to receive special strength from God’s grace to avoid sinning again.
Talking about sin like this tends to make us uncomfortable, but it is vitally important. For me it is a duty of love and of office as a priest and shepherd of souls. I want all of us to get to heaven, and we all need to be reminded that salvation depends both on God’s grace and on our cooperation. We all decide at times not to cooperate – as St John says, “if we say we are without sin, we are deceiving ourselves” (1 Jn 1:8) – and we need to seek God’s forgiveness. This is why it is one of the five precepts of the Church to go to confession at least once a year, under pain of sin. Through God’s grace, we can go to heaven, but actually going – or not – is also the result of our choices. As the first reading says, “before man are life and death, good and evil; whichever he chooses shall be given him.”