26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 30, 2018; Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, South Euclid, Ohio
Since I am just visiting here and don’t have to live with the consequences of my words I will be a little less fiery than usual. So I will do no more than note the reference to millstones and necks in today’s Gospel and observe that this Gospel has a rather evident application to recent events in the Church.
We will leave the matter at that and turn our attention to the next part of the Gospel, which contains a teaching that all of us need to take to heart.
Notice Jesus’ violent language. He talks about doing violence to ourselves, if necessary, cutting of our hands or feet or plucking out our eyes. The violence of the language should first of all wake us up to the urgency of the battle against sin in our own lives. The violence of the language is warranted because of the danger involved if we fail: the unquenchable fire of hell. Because we have forgotten the very real danger of hell, we have also ceased to take seriously the urgent need to combat the reign of sin in our own life.
No, Jesus does not intend us to take his words about cutting off hands or feet literally, but he does intend us to get the message of danger and urgency.
So what is meant by cutting of hand or foot, or plucking out the eye?
In general Jesus is telling us the need to be radical in cutting off the occasions of sin in our life. All too often we resolve to break with some sinful habit, but we take no practical measures, or inadequate practical measures to put our resolution into effect. As a result we fail.
What then is an ‘occasion of sin’?
The classic example is that of a drunk who knows that if he walks past a certain bar he will not be able to resist the temptation, but will enter and drink and get drunk. There is no sin in walking past a bar; indeed there is not necessarily a sin in entering a bar. But for this drunk walking past the bar is an ‘occasion of sin’. If he is sincere in wanting to break with his destructive habit, he will also have to resolve to avoid walking past the bar. He will have to say to himself, “I see a bar up ahead, I will have to walk down another street, even though the longer route will inconvenience me.”
Cutting off the occasions of sin is especially important in fighting against the temptations of lust. We need to be careful about what we watch, what we listen to, where we go, and how we dress. Cutting off the occasions of sin is important also in fighting against anger. For some people, watching cable news is an occasion of sin.
For some people also the smartphone has become an occasion of sin. Better to get rid of your smartphone – you can get into heaven without one – than risk the danger of hell.
How about the hand, foot, and eye? Can we find any meaning to the specification of precisely these three parts of the body?
Maybe we can if we consider that sometimes we speak of another person as being ‘like my right hand’. He is like my right hand because he is such a help that I depend upon him like my right hand. So the helper is like the hand, the adviser is like the eye, and the person with connections, who opens doors for us, who provides us with opportunities to move forward with our life is like the foot.
Someone who is helpful to us in many ways might otherwise be a bad influence on our thinking and action. We might recognize the bad influence but we are loath to forgo the help.
Perhaps a woman has a friend who is there to help her with the children or to give her rides to the doctor, but whose conversation in many ways, some subtle, some not so subtle is an almost continuous attack on the Catholic faith, or undermines her relation to her husband. If the woman in question sincerely analyzes this relationship in prayer before God she might realize that for her part she is not doing anything to lead her friend closer to God, but that rather her friend pulls her away from God. So it might be better to forgo the practical help she receives for things in this world, rather than let herself be pulled away from God.
How about advisors? We all need friends we can trust, friends we can confide in, but we need to be careful. Rather than helping us see straight, they might be skewing our vision. This might be the case with professional helpers, like lawyers, our psychologists, or counselors who are closed to the vision of faith and give us a perspective that looks only to the realities of this world. One place where great care is needed is when it comes to confiding in someone in regard to marriage troubles. A ‘friend’ who is quick to advise a man or a woman to bail out of their marriage is a real danger.
Then there is the friend with connections. We need to ask ourselves, “What sort of connections? Where are we really going? Am I going to be advancing my career at the cost of my faith?”
St. Augustine, when he commented on having the innocence of a dove and the wisdom of a serpent spoke of the serpent’s wisdom in terms of protecting the head. As members of the Body of Christ, our head is Christ and faith is our connection to him. The wisdom of the serpent teaches us to sacrifice our body for the head, rather than risking our faith to advance our life in this world.
Finally, more than avoiding hell, we must desire to attain heaven and the union with God himself that is promised to us. For that we need the help of the Holy Spirit given us by Jesus Christ.
We collaborate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives through prayer, through fasting, through meditation on the word of God, through practice of the works of mercy. We also collaborate with the work of the Holy Spirit when we are careful to avoid occasions of sin.