Homily from the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A, 2011
(Rather than post my homily from this weekend, which I did not particularly like, I am posting this one that I gave three years ago.)
I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that the Catholic understanding of sin is becoming more and more difficult to understand in our time – not only in our culture as a whole, but even among Catholics. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to many of us. This idea that through this guy Adam’s sin we are somehow all fallen and in need of redemption – the idea that there is the possibility of us suffering for our sins, especially after we die. How does that all fit with the belief in a good and loving God? How can sin really have consequences that are so severe?
Today we don’t think of sin as disobedience, we think of it as personal imperfection. We envision sin as a failure to do what we know is right, or maybe as the violation of a command that God has given us to follow. But it all has to do with ourselves – not living up to what we know we should be doing, not being the best that we can be.
But this is such an impoverished and distorted understanding of sin. And this is because it doesn’t recognize how intimately God’s will is involved in our decision-making. God hasn’t just given us a rule book and then said “Alright, let’s see how well you do and I’ll judge you when it’s over.” The reality is that God dwells with us and that his voice speaks to us continuously: through the teachings of our faith and in our consciences when they are well formed. The Holy Spirit dwells in this world and lets us know of God’s will if we are open to listening to him.
And so when we choose to sin, when we choose not to inform our consciences by listening to him, or to go against our well informed consciences or choose to ignore them or not consider them,
we are not merely letting ourselves down or breaking rules, we are turning a deaf ear to the Holy Spirit and telling God to pound sand. We are, in essence, persisting in choosing our will over his will as it is made known to us through his Holy Spirit. There is no way of getting around the reality that sin is always disobedience. It is always a turning away from God, it is always destructive to our relationship with him.
Look at the reading from Genesis today. The trick that the devil plays on Eve is precisely in trying to find a way for her to be disobedient. “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” He asks. Of all the trees in the garden, he finds the one from which she’s not supposed to eat. And he convinces Adam and Eve that God’s rules are either arbitrary or designed to keep them from something good that they could have. And in any case, the consequences of breaking those rules would certainly not be death! They would gain knowledge! Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I mean, would a good and loving Father really allow you to die from doing such a piddly thing like eating the wrong fruit?
What a lie. The perniciousness of the temptation is that it obscured the fact that the sin of eating from the tree had nothing to do with the fruit and everything to do with the disobedience. It was the disobedience that was destructive: the choice to disobey God, to turn away from him and his will in their lives.
God’s will is life because there is no life unless he will it – all life persists only because of his will. And so disobedience of his will always leads to death. It really is that stark. It may not be total death, but every time we sin, every time we choose something other than God’s will, a part of us dies. The fruit, the sin, is just the occasion of the disobedience. It is the disobedience, the rejection of God’s will that is deadly.
Intuitively I think we know this – it is clear to us at a very deep level that if our will is not aligned with God’s will, we are dying, not living. Yet how often we fall victim to the little lies and deceptions of the interior life:
“It’s just a small thing. Certainly God isn’t going to punish me for this. He must understand.”
“God made me this way, with these desires and weaknesses, so how can he punish me for them?”
“How can it be God’s will that I do something that is so difficult?”
“Look at the good that seems to be coming from this, can it really be all that bad?”
“No one is really getting hurt – so what is it going to matter?”
Excuses and deceptions, every one of them. And why? Because they are all questions about the fruit – speculative, hypothetical, abstract, prejudiced questions about the fruit, just like the ones posed to Adam and Eve by the serpent.
Sin has nothing to do with the fruit, and everything to do with God’s will. Either we’re trying to follow his will or we’re not, we’re either choosing life or we’re not. Because the fruit of doing God's will is always life. The fruit of not doing God's will is always poison.
Adam and Eve were fooled. The Lord Jesus, who after 40 days in the desert, was not such a fool.
May he help us to see past the lies, past the fruit, to God’s will, and may he give us the strength to follow his example of obedience to the will of our Heavenly Father.