Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 13, Year C)
Over the recent Sunday Gospel lessons, focusing as we have on religion as activity, we have not heard much on the topic of Sin. It has not been entirely absent, however. A creeping pride was implied with the seventy-two disciples returned from evangelism, as well as with Martha amid her hospitality. It was implied strongly toward those who did not help the man who fell among the robbers. It was mentioned prominently in the Our Father prayer—“forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us”—but beyond that, nothing more said.
In today’s Gospel, sin takes center stage. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus implores. In other translations, the word is “covetousness.” Note the strong language from Jesus: “Be on your guard.” And before that, “Watch out!” Jesus wants to get our attention with this teaching.
“Sin” is one of those words that is pervasive not only in the Church but in the wider society as well, and so the true meaning of sin has I think been obscured as a result. Just as we seen the term “religion” in the secular world has a static meaning, quite different from the more dynamic meaning within the Church, the term “sin” within the Church’s most ancient teaching requires a careful understanding.
Sin means separation from God. Sin means separation particularly with respect to our hearts. Let us be clear: we are never separate from God in an absolute sense—that kind of separation means not only death but annihilation. God’s presence is necessary to exist in the most fundamental sense. But we are often separate from God, that is to say sinful, in our will, our choices. In the choices we make, with respect to our bodies, actions, emotions, habits, as well as inwardly in our soul—what captures all of that is the term “heart”; our heart is where we encounter God, and it is in our heart—the center of our being and existence—where we can be very separated from God. When the Church speaks of the unbaptized person, in particular a wee baby, being “born in sin,” it is not in an absolute sense of separation, for that is impossible for a person who is alive; but in that existential sense of the heart that has yet to choose God in an active, intentional way.
Sin, then, is activity. It refers to activity distinct and different from activity born of the desire to love God. Sin is activity without the love of God at its center. Sin is activity with love of oneself, or love of some idol or false god, at its center.
There in fact is only one kind of sin, and that is Pride. Pride is at the root of all sins, which vary only by emphasis. What is Pride? Pride is the denial of the fact of creation; that we are creatures. It is the denial of creaturelihood; for to deny that we are creatures denies that there is a creator, that is, denies God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. Pride is the root of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, of Cain with his brother Abel, as well as of Satan, the fallen angel who thought he was greater than God. Adam, Eve, Cain, Satan—each misunderstood, in their own way, the nature of the created order. That is, they got the doctrine of creation wrong. The doctrine of creation is that God makes, keeps, and loves all things; all things find ultimate meaning only in God; and all things are to serve God. Activity contrary to that doctrine is sin.
I mentioned that Pride is the root sin, and all other sins vary only by emphasis. This refers to what are called the Seven Capital Sins, or Seven Deadly Sins. The Church teaches there are seven major patterns of sin—that is, seven ways we go awry from the doctrine of creation. All of them are forms of Pride, of denying the fact of creation. The Capital Sins have to do with our relationship to creatures and the created world. When we are in right relationship with creatures, we are close to God, for His will is expressed through His creatures. When we are not in right relationship with creatures, we are separated from God.
Like religion and like sin, “relationship” is not static but dynamic and active. When we speak of the experience of Christian religion, we are speaking about being in right relationship to God through the created world—moment to moment, day to day. We are speaking of activity by which we are in harmony or growing in harmony with God’s creation, and hence in harmony with Him.
In our Gospel today, we hear about the Capital Sin of greed, or more classically, “covetousness.” A rich man builds larger barns to store his possessions. But this is done not for the benefit of God but of the man himself. His sin—the choice that separates him from God and fosters disharmony—is to choose himself as the primary beneficiary of these possessions—grain and goods. This choice creates a relationship with the possessions, these creatures, that is sinful. He is thinking strictly in terms of materialism. He choice thereby denies that there might be any ultimate or divine purpose for the grain and goods that glorifies God. So he does not really love these creatures—the grain and goods—in the Christian sense, because Christian love involves God and neighbor—but rather he loves owning, possessing, even exploiting these possessions.
Covetousness, then, is “a lack of love for creatures—an inordinate love to own, exploit and abuse them. It is materialism, the failure to understand that creatures are to glorify God in their own particular way and to help us to do the same” [*].
We overcome covetousness “not by turning our backs on creation but by trying to admire and understand creatures more perfectly, not by hating things but by loving them more truly” [*]. When we admire and try to understand creatures, we open ourselves to the possibility of God revealing to us spiritually something of their ultimate purpose. Covetousness, or greed, separates us from God, because it denies that creatures have any ultimate purpose. It is a form of Pride, of denying the fact of creation with a particular emphasis on the denial of godly purpose.
The antidote for covetousness is generosity. Yes, that means sharing what we have, what we have been given, with others. The first Christians, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, shared their possessions in common. But it also means being generous in our attitude. We often covet the judgements or opinions about others of whom we do not approve. Our attitude thereby becomes rigid, unbending and final. Historically we have seen such attitudes towards people of other skin colors, social classes, gender, country of origin, or level of education. Or it is because we have been wounded by someone, and understandably harden our hearts toward them. We covet, and hold onto, these attitudes because it allows us to avoid the hard work of loving them, and loving God in them. But loving others does not mean liking them, but adoring the fact that God is as active in their lives as he is in ours.
Let us, by the grace of God, have the self-awareness to recognize when we are being ungenerous in our attitude toward persons or things that bother us, or even that we hate. Let us remember that when we love God, we, by definition, are loving all that God loves—and God loves all his creatures and all his creation, without exception. To begin to conceive the scope of God’s love throws us away from Pride and into Humility—a love that is abundant beyond our comprehension, for God loved all his creatures in the beginning, loves all of them now, and will love all his creatures for ever, world without end. Amen.
[*] Taken from Martin Thornton, The Purple Headed Mountain, chap. 5.
Cover image “Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator)” is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.