Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Sin by any other name would still be sin

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

One of William Shakespeare’s most memorable lines is this one “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, act 2, sc.2, l.43). To paraphrase the great bard. . . What’s in a name? That which we call sin, by any other name would still be sin!

There appears to be a tendency in contemporary society to disregard or minimise sin or to call it by another name. Similarly, there is a tendency to ignore evil and to behave as if the reality of evil had faded into the junkyard of obsolete ideas. Although sin was once a strong word, the word, along with the notion of sin has all but disappeared. The reality of sin, however, has not disappeared; it has simply been renamed. Sin may masquerade under several aliases, but it remains, nonetheless what it is!  Soldiers, who have systematically gang-raped and slaughtered hapless women have claimed justification for their actions by labelling them as collateral damage. Other heinous sins have been dismissed by excusing their perpetrators on grounds of temporary insanity, or a troubled youth, or emotional instability. Some sins have been paraded under the guise of freedom of choice or ignorance. Sexual sins like fornication, adultery, and sodomy are merely packaged as alternative lifestyles that are perfectly acceptable between consenting adults. Abortion today is seen as a fundamental right of liberty and ironically presented as compassion for women. How could the killing of an innocent unborn child be termed compassionate? Well, think of the logic of Thanos in the recent Avengers movie – you have to kill off half the population in order to save the other half.

The readings for today’s liturgy invite us to take a hard look at sin, to call it by name and to take back our responsibility for it. Similarly, we are challenged to look evil in the eye and, without blinking, own it for the reality that it is.

In the first reading, we have the scene after the Fall. Immediately after Eve, Adam succumbed to the lies of the serpent and they both took the bait; they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. The effects of sin are immediate. Our first parents in shame and in guilt hid from the sight of their Creator, but who can hide from the All-seeing and the All-knowing? Eventually, God gets to the crux of the matter - God now points out what the sin was – Adam has eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He is now able to recognise that they have done evil and have lost grace. The man, instead of acknowledging his sinfulness, that he has disobeyed God, tries to shift the blame and in doing so blames God Himself: If God hadn’t given him the woman, this never would have happened. How convenient that the man should blame the woman. In today’s context, women would most likely blame the men too. So they’re even.

The story could have turned out differently but it had to play out in the manner that scripture has been written. When caught, Adam was given the golden opportunity of confessing his sins but instead he blamed his wife and refused to take responsibility. There was no remorse, there was no repentance. As a result of that, there could be no forgiveness or reconciliation, not at this stage. Sin doesn’t have to be a dead end, but when we choose to deny it, when we refuse to acknowledge it, it could be the ending that we dread the most.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is accused of being in collusion with Satan or, at the very least, of being out of His mind. This is equivalently an accusation of demonic possession, which explains the accusations of the scribes that follow. How interesting? Today, most cases of mental illnesses go undetected because people would rather believe that the symptoms are due to some demonic possession or the effects of a curse than to accept the truth about their own mental health or that of a loved one. Likewise, many real demonic cases are mistakenly misdiagnosed as psychiatric affliction.

Our Lord takes the accusations of His enemies and uses them as an opportunity not only to explain the workings of Evil but in contrast, the workings of the Kingdom of God too. Finally, after putting forward arguments in His own defense, He counters their attacks with an accusation of His own. He warns them against the eternal sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the very sin that can never be forgiven.

The unforgivable sin is a scary thing. It is so scary that in the Summa Theologiae St Thomas Aquinas devoted a special question with four articles to this form of blasphemy alone. But before we deal with this, it is good and consoling to note that our Lord also said, “all men’s sins will be forgiven,” save this one. There are some pretty atrocious sins out there, but, without exception, they're all forgivable. No sin is beyond God's forgiveness and, by recognising our utter dependence upon Him, we are invited to always present our sins before our Merciful Lord and to become reconciled with Him. Scripture continually reminds us that all we need do, is throw our decrepit selves onto Him and He will forgive us.

But then our Lord also speaks of the “eternal sin” that is unpardonable – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. How do we understand this? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: ““Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss” (CCC 1864). In other words, this sin is the deliberate and knowing refusal to accept God's mercy. It is a refusal to repent of sin just like Adam and Eve. God does not bring anyone into His kingdom against his will. We have the freedom to reject God’s mercy and refuse forgiveness of sins. Literally, we are saying to God, “I don’t need your forgiveness or pity. You can go to hell for all I care,” which is exactly where we will be going without that very mercy and forgiveness to save us.

Six species of this sin against the Holy Spirit have been identified over time as (1) Despair, that is to lose hope in our salvation (“what’s the point of repenting, since I’m going to do it again”); (2) Presumption, that is to take God’s mercy for granted and erroneously believing that there will be no accounting for our sins; (3) Impenitence or a firm determination not to repent; (4) Obstinacy, which is lacking the humility to admit that we have sinned and we continue to persist in that sin; (5) Resisting divine truth known to be such; and finally (6) Envy of another’s spiritual welfare (which was the sin of Satan, Adam and the scribes in today’s gospel passage).

It's a particular comfort to Christians to know that, via the Sacrament of Penance, we're allowed a great number of second chances for the mistakes we’ve done, a great number of u-turns from the wrong turnings in life ―that is, if we take advantage of them and don't presume upon God's generosity in regards to our lackadaisicalness and lack of commitment. To be forgiven, we must first recognise that we are sinful. We must then be desirous of His forgiveness. We must agree to try our hardest to avoid sinning, and in fact, the near occasion of sin and especially any instance or situation that would otherwise weigh us down, in the future. But, first and foremost, we must never give up on God, who never gives up on us.

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