“What is sin?” This question crops up a lot, and for many different reasons, but it is a question that is always asked sincerely. Mostly it is a plea for clarity as to whether those ‘grey’ areas in a person’s life are really white (pleasing to God) or really black (sinful).
Even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church an exact definition is hard to find. CCC 387 contains ‘Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving Him and loving one another.’ (Now this is true for the first edition of the Catechism, however later editions have a Glossary, and in this Glossary is a definition of sin). In our former Diocesan sacramental programme we gave this similar definition to those preparing for the Sacrament of Penance, ‘We sin when we do not love God and others as Jesus taught us’. I find that this definition extremely useful, easy to describe and easy to understand. CCC 397 goes on to explain sin like this : ‘Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience towards God and lack of trust in His goodness.’
Another way of understanding sin is the concept of ‘missing the mark’. Prior to the coming of Jesus we knew that God expected us to keep the Commandments, but not what we were aiming for in our actions. Jesus then gave us the Beatitudes as our model for Christian behaviour and His example of perfect love. During the sacramental programme we explain it like this: Imagine that you are an archer, and that the target is directly in front of you. If you put your arms out straight and then moved them in an arc 5cms of 2 inches in the direction of the target, the imaginary lines made with your arms would represent the 10 Commandments. Anything within them can be construed as aiming for the target, anything behind them and obviously you weren’t aiming for the target at all and we call that mortal sin (deadly sin which completely ruptures our relationship with God). Anywhere the arrow falls within the Commandments but not on the bulls-eye of the target would be called venial sin. We would call holiness the state of those who hit the target consistently, and who are always aiming to get closer to the bulls-eye – and its absolute centre.
Looking at the actions of Jesus and the choices He made puts everything into perspective. Take for example the time in Mark Chapter 10 when Jesus was teaching about the heavy matters of marriage, divorce and adultery and people brought children to Him. There were many things Jesus could have done. 1) He could have sent the children away quick smart, since He was doing something important and shouldn’t be disturbed 2) He could have asked them to go and play for a while and then come back 3) He could have stopped what He was going, come over, give them a brief greeting and then get back to what he was doing 4) However Jesus did completely stop what He was doing, put His arms around them, spoke to them individually, and gave each child His blessing. Jesus did the most perfect thing. He was generous in showing love to all and to each. And the more you look at the Gospel stories and study the choices Jesus could have made and the choices Jesus did make, the more you come to realise that Jesus always chose to do the most perfect and most loving actions.
So the 10 Commandments as given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai are our best guide to what is gravely sinful matter and to what displeases God the most. Since lots of people don’t know them off by heart any more, or have trouble unpacking what they mean, below is a copy of what the children in the sacramental class receive – with the Scripture text and simple commentary.
In recent times the importance of the 10 Commandments has been highlighted by the unusual Christmas 2012 message from Medjugorje. Instead of a message from Our Lady, the Christ Child in her arms spoke and said, ‘I am your peace. Live My commandments.’ Every human misery can be traced back to someone breaking the 10 commandments. How easy it is to forget that Jesus was so concerned with eradicating sin, and each and every sin, that He became incarnate for us and died the gruelling, humiliating death on the Cross.
A further question then, often crops up. ‘OK, so I need to take God’s laws seriously, but what about the man made laws? For example, it’s OK If I speed on a road when there’s no traffic, isn’t it?’ We take our cue from what Jesus did. He paid the temple tax. His mother underwent the Jewish purification rites following childbirth, even though technically she didn’t have to. He submitted to the arrest in the garden of Gethsemane and to the decrees of the unjust King Herod and the unjust Pontius Pilate. To please His Father Jesus obeyed the civil authorities, as long as the civil authorities were not asking Him to do something against God’s will. As to speeding with no traffic in sight, St Paul’s teaching would be applicable : ‘Be obedient to the men who are called your masters in this world, with deep respect and sincere loyalty, as you are obedient to Christ : not only when you are under their eye, as if you only had to please men, but because you are slaves of Christ and wholeheartedly do the will of God.’ Eph 6:5-6. When it comes to civil authority the more perfect thing to do is to be obedient – but for serious urgent reasons like getting an injured passenger to hospital as quickly as possible – you would speed as far as not endangering lives would permit.
‘Now what about untidyness and sloppiness at home?’ When more important things are at stake, the lesser things can probably be left behind eg spending 2 hours cleaning your own home instead of being with an ill relative during visiting hours at the hospital wouldn’t be the loving thing to do. Yet even in the few moments we have for getting such small tasks done we should be taking St Therese of Lisieux as a model and trying to do the little things to the best of our ability. Considering that our work, even the least of it, should aim at giving glory to God, we should be offering Him the best we can do in those moments and under those conditions because anything less is unworthy of Him, our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier. It is important that we get beyond doing the minimum to say we have kept the Commandments and to begin to seek to please the good God in all of our thoughts, words and deeds.
May the intercession of the Saints grant us the light to see where our actions fall short of the mark set by Jesus, and the Grace to acknowledge our faults, to seek forgiveness and pardon from God, and to begin to desire to do the better thing – the one which pleases Him more – rather than the lesser thing. Amen.
The Sacrament of Penance is the life-saving plank the good Lord gives us when we make a shipwreck of our lives through sin. CCC 1446.
(For some reason, at present (6-7 Jan 2013+) Google Blogger isn’t letting images be uploaded from the computer – so I need to take this roundabout route to get them to upload via the URL option. Hopefully this source of frustration will not be long in duration.)