HOMILY for 26th Sunday per annum (B)
Whoever thinks that Jesus’ teachings are all sweetness and light; simply peace and love; or thinks that Jesus doesn’t mention hell haven’t read today’s Gospel. Or whoever thinks that the Gospel is simple to understand but complicated by theologians just hasn’t grappled with today’s text. It isn’t easy, nor is it peaceable and comforting, but challenging – especially to those who would preach about it. For I shall be the first to be judged by my own words. However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially when it is challenging, is full of love. Hence it teaches us saving truth: all that is necessary for our eternal happiness with God.
St Jerome’s feast day is usually kept today, and I want to recount a story from his life which is relevant to our Gospel. One day, Christ appeared to St Jerome in a vision, and he asked him “What have you to offer me”. And St Jerome, the great translator of the Bible and Doctor of the Church, said: “I can offer you my writings, Lord”. But Christ said that was not enough. So Jerome said: “I offer you my life of penance and mortification”. But the Lord said that wasn’t enough, either. So, Jerome said: “What, then, is left for me to offer? What do you want me to give you?” And Jesus immediately said: “You can offer me your sins, Jerome”.
Because Jesus takes our sins seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he offered his whole person on the Cross, and gave up his own body to be scourged and crucified, because of our sins. And, so, he wants us to take our sins seriously too; to recognize what it does to ourselves and to him. This is why he uses such strong language, such vivid and shocking images in today’s Gospel. And if we’re offended by them, then consider how offended God is by sin – my sin, your sin.
Yes, Christ’s words may be an instance of Semitic exaggeration, but people don’t generally exaggerate unless they want to emphasize a point. And the Lord’s point today is that sin does matter; that grave sin is utterly serious, and that it is deeply harmful to our selves, to the body of the Church, and to the body of the wider human community.
We baulk and are shocked by Jesus’ language because we rightly love our limbs and want to keep them. But Jesus wants us to love our whole selves – not just our bodies but our immortal souls too. And he loves us enough to draw our attention to this through his strong words in today’s Gospel. It’s vital to acknowledge that Jesus is speaking metaphorically – he doesn’t want us to harm our bodies – but he does want us to see that sin is even more harmful because it harms our immortal souls. For sin does violence to our souls, to ourselves, to our relationship with God and neighbour, that has far more lasting harm, if unrepented and unforgiven, i.e., if we don’t offer our sins to Christ, than mere dismemberment. Because what grave sin – mortal sin – does is that it cuts us off from friendship with God, it kills the life of saving grace in the soul, and so, we cut ourselves off from eternal happiness with God in heaven.
Hence, Jesus says that it is better to cut off our hand, leg, and so on – to maim ourselves – rather than to be cut off from heaven. Jesus employs such a shocking image in order to shake us into realizing just how grave sin is – it can cut us off from eternal life and our final happiness. On the other hand (no pun intended), Christ’s words should lead us to consider just how wonderful and precious heaven is, that it is worth sacrificing even great goods, even something so precious as an eye, as the dignity of bodily integrity, in order to attain it. Indeed, isn’t heaven worth sacrificing our pride so that we have the humility and contrition to go to Christ who waits for us in the sacrament of confession and offer him our sins?
Jesus says to you and me: “Offer me your sins” because the worst thing isn’t sin, it’s hardness of heart. It’s a denial of our sinfulness, and a failure to acknowledge our need of forgiveness. As the psalmist says: “Sin speaks to the sinner in the depths of his heart. There is no fear of God before his eyes. He so flatters himself in his mind that he knows not his guilt”. Sometimes people justify a complacent attitude to sin by saying, ‘God won’t mind’, or ‘I’m sure he’ll understand’, or ‘There are more serious things for God to worry about’. But today’s Gospel reminds us just how much God does care about our sins, and how seriously Jesus views them. Because he knows how much harm sin does; Jesus has felt the lash of sin and been pierced through by it. So, as we prayed in today’s psalm: “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins”. For attempts to justify sin through pop psychology or minimize its impact by rationalizing it can lead others astray. Jesus has even harsher words for people who do this: “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea”!
But, sometimes, it seems ‘harsh’ or ‘negative’ to speak about sin and its gravity. And this would be a fair assessment if we just banged on about sin without offering any relief. But sin is only one side of the coin; the nails that crucify Christ. But the other side of the coin, which shines with the brilliance and joy of Easter is that God’s Love cannot remain dead; he rises again, and so, has conquered sin. As we sing at the Easter Vigil: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ! O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” For Christ is our Saviour and our Healer, who offers us forgiveness and salvation. This Good News is always the focus of our preaching. But to receive God’s saving grace and to be healed we have to repent, and in order to repent we have to acknowledge our sins, and offer them to him; we show our wounds to the doctor that we may be healed. And the usual means by which this happens, especially in the case of mortal sin, is in the sacrament of confession.
Through this sacrament of mercy, Jesus acts as our Physician and also a Surgeon. For perhaps something does have to be amputated if we’re to be brought to new life with Christ. Through confession, Jesus cuts out our heart, made stony and hard by sin, and he gives us a heart of flesh; he gives us his own sacred heart so that we can live in him, and he in us. If our bodies accept this heart transplant; if we don’t reject Christ’s grace and get drawn by mortal sin again, then the Holy Spirit will re-new our lives and minds. God will transform our ways of thinking and behaving, preparing us even now on earth for the joy of living with him for ever in heaven.
But it begins with this: Jesus says to you and me, “Offer me your sins”.