Lent 1, 21st Feb 21
Even though it’s Lent, I think we can begin with a joke. One Sunday, a priest told his congregation that he was giving advanced notice to what the following Sunday’s sermon was going to be all about so he said, “Next Sunday I want to preach to you about the sin of lying and as preparatory reading I would like you to read St Mark’s Gospel Chapter 17. All of it.” The worthy congregation took a mental note of it. The following Sunday, the priest got up to preach the homily and began by asking how many people had indeed read the whole of Mark 17 as asked the previous week. Some quickly, others reluctantly raised their hands to indicate they had indeed read the seventeenth chapter. The priest smiled at them and said, “Well, I’m afraid Mark only has 16 chapters. So, I’ll now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”
What is sin? “An offence against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbour … It wounds the nature of man and woman.” So, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us. The Confession, which we say at the start of Mass teaches us what sin is too. It something we do “through my fault.” The sins are thoughts and words; what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do. It affects our relationship with God, hence we confess to Him. It affects our relationship with each other hence we ask for each other to pray for us. We make a Confession to a priest because he stands there representing both God and the Church.
As a result of the first sin and the attempt to cover it up, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24) and the same action and word describes what happens to our Lord in today’s Gospel: “The Spirit drove Jesus out in to the wilderness.” Here He reveals the extent to which He has assumed our condition, being tempted even as we are, but without sin. St Mark doesn’t record the temptations, we need to go to St Luke’s and St Matthew’s Gospels for those, but we have the same message of comfort, that a tempted person is ministered to by angels.
In particular the Christian tradition has focused on the seven deadly sins, which I want to look at in turn. Other lists of sins are given in the Scriptures (eg. Romans 1:29-31 and I Timothy 1:8-11) and these are worth our considering too. The deadly sins are also called capital or cardinal, all three adjectives meaning the most significant. One of the Fathers makes a comparison with Joshua, conquering the seven Canaanite cities (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). We too are engaged, especially in Lent, with a spiritual warfare against these unnatural inclinations that beset our hearts: pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. St Gregory the Great (540-604) is the first to categorise them for the Church in his commentary on Job 39:25, where it is noted those attacking from afar are smelt by the horse.
We’re to be on our guard especially because, like all acts of war, the element of surprise is deployed by that which would attack our soul. The metaphor of the Trojan Horse comes from the cunning plan of the Greeks centuries ago to conquer Troy by lulling the defenders of that city in to a false sense of security and leaving behind a large wooden horse, said to be able to make the city impregnable. The Trojans rubbed their hands together with glee as they wheeled the large horse in to the city. And once inside, the soldiers concealed within the horse break out and conquer the city. So, sin works on our soul, disguising itself as goodness that we might be tempted to allow it space to flourish.
Pride, St Gregory writes, is “the queen of sins” building on the concept in Ecclesiasticus 10:12 of pride being the beginning of all sin. Pride often presents itself as worthy ambition. It might make itself appealing to us through the qualities of independence and self-confidence. There’s a place for these good things in our lives but pride could lurk beneath them. We might be unwilling to listen to the advice of others or to accept the help of others because of pride. The tonic to pride is humility, for the example of which we have, of course, the suffering servant, our Saviour Jesus Christ. I would suggest we rarely sound proud in what we say. Pride lurks in our thoughts and is only evident once we get right down to the level of our intentions.
Envy is warned against in the Ten Commandments. We are not to be resentful of what others have because our goal as Christians is to long for the wellbeing of everyone: those we love and those we simply bump in to or see on the TV. The danger with envy is we elevate ourselves above others, because of our qualities or others’ failings. Why ought that person be able to have whatever-it-is when I am not?
We justify our anger because of the extreme wrongness of what others do to us and how right we are in pointing out their failings: it’s easy to see how pride is the root of this sin. I suspect many of us become most angry either with those people we love the most or with those at the other end of the scale whom we’ve never met (politicians perhaps) or strangers (the person driving the car in front of us). Anger is very often an articulation of helplessness, powerlessness which we’re uncomfortable with.
Sloth, which we might loosely translate as laziness, is equally likely to be about the absence of joy. St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, II,ii q.35) puts it thus, that sloth is the “sadness in the face of spiritual good.” Evelyn Waugh, perhaps a surprising person to quote, wrote a charming little chapter about sloth. What he says of folk seventy years ago is observable today. He writes of those who know lots about Christianity and how salvation is wrought on the Cross but this doesn’t provoke any joy in them and certainly no ‘get up and go.’ A further warning he makes is: “Almost all the men and women in England proclaim themselves to be busy. They have ‘no time’ to read or cook or take notice of the ceaseless process of spoliation of their island or even to dress decorously, while in their offices and workshops they do less and less, in quality and quantity.” I sometimes wonder what correlation people’s proclaimed busyness has with the number of box sets they watch on TV.
Greed perhaps we associate most with food and this is certainly one of the realms we see it at work in. Our greed will also affect our other priorities in life. Neglecting our faith so that we can afford a cruise. Taking advantage of someone so we can afford the larger TV. Not being generous so we can get the home sorted. It is all too often greed that will lead us to getting in to debt or suspending our present wellbeing for the pursuit of future wealth and riches. Generous hearts will ensure there’s no room for greed.
Lust assaults our thoughts and observations and take something good, namely the beauty of another and the delight of the sexual act that God has placed in creation, and misappropriates them to the denigration of another and not for the advancement of the human community and life. Jesus teaches on this when He says the commandment banning adultery is fulfilled most fully by those who avoid committing adultery even within the heart.
Gluttony concerns our desire for food and drink. We’re given food and drink to enjoy, as part of God’s generous creation. There is enough food on the earth for everyone to enjoy. However our inordinate desires for food and drink distorts our personal relationship with that which is meant to sustain us. We must eat healthily and responsibly so we are not gluttonous. Equally there’s nothing to be gained by seeing certain foods that God has provided for us as being evil. Our relationship with the world is delicate: the world is very good and we’ve been asked to look after it, neither plundering it nor mistrusting it.
The problem that the Christian faces, no more or less than the priest, when we speak about these sins is the charge of hypocrisy. You and I are all sinners but this does not disqualify us from saying what is or is not sinful. We are obliged not to have double standards, saying that which we do is justified and that which others do is awful. Human beings can be very good at distorting sometimes our own worth and sometimes our own failure. Having this list of the seven deadly sins is one step towards being realistic in assessing our spiritual life. May Lent be a time when we have a greater self-awareness of our need of God’s grace and His generosity in pardoning us. Amen.