A Step in the Right Direction

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

When your brother does something wrong, go and correct him. If it’s your sister who’s sinning, go and correct her!

Before we rush off on a moral crusade to change the world, though, we need to listen carefully to this Gospel.An octagonal red sign with STOP written in white capitals

Jesus is teaching about “your brother”, which means a fellow-member of the Church community. If we are all committed Catholics, then we will want to live our lives according to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is calling us to correct other people who have signed up to the same standards as we have. When he preached his challenge to correct the sinner, he was preaching to a Jewish audience who had a shared moral code. In our First Reading, Ezekiel was called to rebuke Israel – the nation which had made a special promise to follow God’s laws – and those individuals God pointed out to him.

Note also that Jesus talks about your brother ‘doing something wrong’. Often we get upset about the things that other people haven’t done… we feel hurt, let down, disappointed. But we should be slow to rush to judgment on these matters, because there could be a thousand good reasons why your sister or brother couldn’t do that thing, even if they’d made a solemn promise. In these cases, we need to keep our anger in check and gently ask the reason why.

Many moral acts depend on our personal circumstances. Nevertheless, our bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and St John Paul II, taught that there are certain human actions which are always so bad that there can never be a reason to justify them. The technical name for these things is “intrinsic evils”.

It makes sense to me that God would give us a clear way to know right and wrong in each generation, when new moral questions arise. Jesus gave St Peter the authority to teach and strengthen his brothers, and I recognise that through this, God is asking us to trust each Pope to teach us morals. This needs a big act of humility to admit that I don’t know best by my own powers of reasoning – true Christian humility!

This week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked whether he believed abortion was wrong even when a woman had been made pregnant against her will. Rarely for a politician, he gave a straight answer – yes, even in those circumstances, he said, abortion was not permissible. Because it is an intrinsic evil, it’s not possible for any of the hard cases we can come up with to make it OK. Right now, the law still recognises this in Ireland, but there’s pressure for change there too.

There are other actions the Catholic Church says are always wrong: examples include use of a weapon of mass destruction, genocide, torture, human trafficking, any sexual act outside of a true marriage between a man and a woman, and any intervention which makes a fertile sexual act deliberately infertile. These, and more, are listed by St John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), who reminds us the idea comes from St Paul, who wrote (Rom 3:8) that we “cannot do evil so that good may come of it”.

We believe in a God who longs to forgive us, but before we can be forgiven, we must repent. And before we can repent, we must recognise that there is something wrong in our behaviour. Perhaps we’re not comfortable with some of these church teachings. At a human level, we can come up with all sorts of counter-arguments. But as Catholic followers of Jesus, the question that really matters is: “What is God’s teaching here?”

Some of us instinctively think of right and wrong in terms of rules and duties. If God says something is wrong, even though we foresee tough consequences in hard cases, we might be willing to swallow this bitter pill because it seems logical that there’s no other way around things.

Many of us will think of right and wrong in terms of consequences… we ask what decision would cause least pain to others? It’s right to want to minimise pain and maximise happiness, and when we are choosing between two possible good courses of action which may have side-effects, that’s the way we naturally make decisions. But intrinsic evils are different – we cannot choose to do evil directly so that good may come.

St Paul reminds us (Rom 8:28) that God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus. When we look at the possible consequences of a moral choice, do those consequences include God stepping in to help those who make a heroic decision to do the hard thing and follow God’s law? If we don’t believe that, what does this say about our lack of trust in God?

Meanwhile, we live in a world that doesn’t share these moral values. Sometimes members of our own family, even those who were brought up Catholic, won’t share them. And if you’ve ever tried to impose your moral values on someone else, you’ll know that’s a hiding to nothing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to correct those who are not our brothers and sisters in the Church. He asks us to share Good News with them. The Good News is Jesus is real, and willing to forgive anything they already sense they’ve done wrong. THAT must be our starting point. Later, they will ask about Jesus’ teaching, and then we can share hard truths, when they are ready and willing to hear it. But that’s not where we should begin.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most challenging instructions that Jesus has given us. In today’s Second Reading, we heard that all commandments are summed up by “love your neighbour as yourself”. True love is tough love – if you love a fellow Christian, help them to avoid sin and become a saint. After all, isn’t that what you would want for yourself?

Hidden Figures, Hidden Faults

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

How can we know right from wrong?adam-eve-serpent-colour

Our Lord was tempted by the Devil, who even tried to trick Him by quoting Bible verses. But Jesus knew what was truly right, and resisted.

We’re unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with Satan. “But the serpent was the most subtle of all the creatures God had made.” What the Devil began, the World continues. Just as the serpent questioned whether God had forbidden eating the fruit, so the world around us today questions whether our Catholic values are the right ones.

Before Lent began, I preached about the challenge to tackle those temptations we know we have but don’t want to face up to. Today I want to talk about something different – about our hidden faults. There are things that we don’t recognise as sins because we don’t know the Church’s teaching well enough – or because we aren’t willing to recognise the Church’s teaching as correct.

I went to see a film last week. Hidden Figures is set in the USA at the time when there was still segregation between black and white people. It tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. There’s a memorable scene between Dorothy, the black woman who organises her team, and Vivian, the white manager who isn’t helping Dorothy secure a promotion to supervisor. “I have nothing against y’all,” says Vivian. “I know,” says Dorothy, “I know you probably believe that.” It’s a classic example of how a person can be blind to injustice because they have become so used to the culture around them.

When the world around us agrees with our Catholic values, that’s a mixed blessing. If we agree that a particular action is sinful, society quickly declares it shameful. This deters people from committing the sin, but also tempts the rest of us not to show mercy and compassion to those who couldn’t resist. One sad example is in this week’s news reports from the time in Ireland’s history when it was so shameful to be an unmarried mother, that the mothers and their babies were hidden away in special homes.

On the other hand, when society disagrees that something should be shameful, the church finds itself having to encourage us to swim the other way against the tide of people’s opinions.

The thing is, it’s not up to us to make the rules – that’s the point of the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you say the Eden story is about knowledge. After all, if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, how could they avoid sinning? But St John Paul II gave us a deeper way of reading the story. He explained it’s not about knowing the difference, but about who gets to decide what’s right or wrong. We human beings sometimes want to say that something is OK when God’s already said that it’s not OK.

For those of us who have responsibility as employers or managers, this Lent might be an opportunity to look at how we treat our staff. Do we treat our employees in the way we would want to be treated in their place? Maybe you’ve never stopped to see it from that point of view before, but that’s what the gospel requires. This is the heart of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching – which brings the call to “love one another” into the workplace and to wider society.

There’s a lot of talk about migrants at the moment. We might worry whether some immigrants might be terrorists, or be concerned whether there are enough jobs for British people. But it’s not OK for us, as followers of Jesus, to withhold good will from strangers, even when many politicians are voicing views about immigration.

On sexual matters, too, public views have changed. That old serpent whispers into our society that marriage is really about saving up for the big party. That’s not what we believe, as Catholics. What’s really important in Christian marriage is that a man and a woman make a public promise to each other, to God and to us that they will stay together through thick and thin. If your values are truly Catholic, you will get married in church before you start a family, even if you can’t afford the wedding of your dreams. By doing that, you prove that God is more important than money, or what your friends think of you. If you think it’s OK to start a family before you’re married, you’ve fallen for the subtle voice of the serpent, which can take something beautiful – love! – and put it in the wrong place. He failed when he tried to tempt Jesus to jump off the Temple’s pinnacle. The time for Jesus to ascend from the Earth only came after he vowed himself to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross.

Sometimes society changes for the better. Hidden Figures showed a time when racial segregation was slowly being overcome, and we can celebrate that. But society often changes to say that things are OK when they go against God’s law. We can’t always change the world, but we can always encourage one another to resist the world’s temptations. While the world celebrates hidden figures, this Lent is a time for us to find our hidden faults.

How can we know right from wrong? It’s time for us to go deeper, and ask how God’s Law asks us to behave, in areas we haven’t thought of before or where the world has made us blind. Let’s behave as the saints that God is calling us to be. Let’s change – and let’s BE the good news!

Original Sin

Yesterday, I took part in a Radio Wales discussion to be broadcast on Sunday, prompted by the recent publication of a book.

Born Bad”, by Australian historian James Boyce, traces the idea of “Original Sin” and its influence on Western history. It got me thinking…

What is Original Sin? It’s a status that we have in God’s eyes. When God looks at the human race, He sees that we are all descendants of the Original Sinner, the first human who failed to carry out His will perfectly. We belong to an imperfect race – but God takes away our status of “original sin” when we are baptised.

How do we know this? It’s another way of expressing truths in the Bible which say we died through Adam but are made alive through Christ (Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:22).a red apple clasped by open hands

When I was asked to make a closing comment for the programme, I said that Original Sin was a true concept, but not one particularly relevant in the 21st Century. Why would I call it “irrelevant”? It’s because in the past we have tried to use “Original Sin” as an answer to several deep questions, an answer that may have seemed plausible then, but can’t hold in the light of what we now know.

In what follows, we need to understand that there are some questions to which the Catholic Church has an official answer (a doctrine), solemnly defined by the authority of the Pope, and other questions on which we are free to hold differing opinions.

As Catholics, we’re free to believe that the Bible story of Adam and Eve is literal, or figurative. But it is a doctrine that all humans descend from one original sinner. Now that’s not incompatible with the theory of evolution; indeed, evolution proposes that for any particular trait which we regard as making us human, we are all descendants from the original ancestor with that trait.

Why do human beings sin?

It’s a doctrine that our vulnerability to being tempted (the technical name is concupisence) came into the world because of the first human’s sin. But inheriting Original Sin isn’t enough to explain why we sin – after all, the first human sinned, and Our Lord experienced temptation, even though neither of them were marked by Original Sin!

There are many questions for modern biology and psychology about “nature versus nurture” and to what extent our good or bad behaviour is driven by the genes we inherit. But the doctrine of Original Sin doesn’t allow us to claim that we were “born bad” – at most, only that we were “born vulnerable”.

Why is there death?

The Deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom asserts that “death came into the world through the Devil’s envy”. But there’s plenty of evidence that stars exploded, plants died and animals ate other animals long before humans were around. How can we make sense of this doctrine? St Paul affirms that death comes to all humans because of sin, and we need to nuance this reference to death so it applies only to bodily death experienced by human beings, creatures with immortal souls.

Since all the biological evidence shows that human beings are part of a natural world with a cycle of life and death, we cannot plausibly assert that the first true human to evolve should have been immortal on the basis of their biology. But if we believe in a God with the power to work miracles, we could believe that God wanted to give the miraculous gift of “never dying” to the first human. We could also then hold that God in fact withheld this gift because the first human wouldn’t live in perfect obedience to God.

In the fullness of time, because of our “happy fault”, Jesus died so that we could become members of his body and be more closely united to God when we are raised after our deaths – a gift even greater than the undying bodily life which could have been given to the first human.

Is it sinful to have sex even within marriage?

Discussions about “Original Sin” often get caught up with a very old idea that there’s something inherently sinful about the way babies are made within marriage. This in itself confuses original sin (which is a status) with the question of whether it’s a sinful act to conceive a child. But in any case, the idea that marital sex is sinful was never an official doctrine of the Church. Marriage between two Christians is a sacrament, and St John Paul II pointed us towards the idea that the bed of a married couple is a holy altar on which this sacrament reaches its consummation – a sacred moment indeed.

Do unbaptised babies go to heaven?

It’s a doctrine that infants who die before being baptised don’t deserve to go to heaven. But it is only an opinion suggested by scholars that God holds these souls in a place called Limbo which isn’t quite as happy as heaven. Pope Benedict XVI asked some top theologians to look again at this teaching and in 2007, their report said that we can believe that God does admit unbaptised children to heaven, but does so as an undeserved gift.

This case gives us a good example of how carefully we must express the Church’s teaching. Pope Innocent III taught that “the punishment for original sin is the loss of the beatific vision” – in other words, every human being born into our sinful race, because they belong to a sinful race, is not automatically entitled to go to heaven. It sounds like Pope Innocent III was saying that unbaptised babies couldn’t go to heaven. But the statement also leaves room to say that even though they are not entitled to it, God admits them to heaven as an undeserved gift, an act of mercy, a grace. In this Year of Mercy, perhaps we can comfort someone who has lost a child with the idea that the Church trusts in God’s mercy towards infant souls.

The only reason we can’t give a 100% cast-iron guarantee that unbaptised babies go to heaven is that neither the Bible nor the Tradition going back to the Apostles says anything definite on the matter – we can only extrapolate from our general knowledge of God’s love and mercy. Meanwhile, it’s right and proper that we do present our babies to be baptised because God wants us to work with him in the work of redeeming the world; every time we celebrate a sacrament, we do things God’s way, and heaven rejoices.

In summary…

Yes, we were born tainted by Original Sin. No, the act by which we were conceived was not intrinsically sinful. Yes, our bodies will die.

It was never logically coherent to blame Original Sin as the sole reason why we commit actual sins, but our modern scientific knowledge is beginning to allow a much more detailed consideration of how genetics shape human behaviour.

Empirical evidence rules out the idea that death (of plants and animals) only takes place because of the first human sin, and positing that the human body is meant to be intrinsically immortal is highly implausible.

Over the centuries, particularly concerning unbaptised babies, the Catholic Church has carefully nuanced its teaching so that statements which seemed to point in one direction are now taken as pointing in another. The very concept of Original Sin is therefore reduced to a status which a person acquires at conception and loses by baptism, but which has very little practical consequence when distinguished from concupiscence.

Born Bad? No – we are made in God’s image and Genesis assures us that we are very good.

Born imperfect? Yes – but we are invited by a merciful God to walk the path of the sacraments all the way to heaven.

Guilty!

Homily at St Philip Evans, for Ash Wednesday 2016.

Bang! Bang! Bang!A gavel banging on its stand

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?

This Lent, you are invited to a courtroom – a most unusual courtroom – called the Tribunal of Mercy.

In this courtroom, you are the accused.

In this courtroom, you are also the jury. And you have come to court for one simple reason – you already know you are guilty.

In this courtroom, a judge is waiting to pass sentence. But the sentence has already been served!

 

As Catholics, we are famous for our sense of guilt.

Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a snowstorm, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we did not have the power to do otherwise, such guilt is not a sign of culpable sin.

Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps our second thoughts chip in, saying, “but what if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!

Sometimes we suffer from true guilt. We have made a choice which is not a good and godly choice. Perhaps that was a once-in-a-lifetime major event which we’ve been trying to forget about ever since. Perhaps it was the beginning of a chain of addiction, to alcohol, pornography, or some other pleasure. Or perhaps it was some petty act of jealousy or spite towards another person. Whatever it was, it quite rightly causes us to feel guilty.

The great thing about being Catholic is that we have a way of dealing with guilt. Run to the confessional, plead guilty, let the priest pass sentence. The sentence is always the same – your sins, together with all the other sins of the world, deserve death. But by freely offering himself to die on the Cross, Jesus served that sentence for us. What we are called to, instead, is true repentance.

True repentance means running to the God who loves us, no matter what sin we have committed.

True repentance means having the confidence of the prodigal son, to return to the Father’s House – and trusting that a joyful welcome awaits us.

True repentance means trusting that nothing we can do, no sin we might commit, can cause God to love us any less than than God does already – any more than a mother can stop loving her wayward child.

True repentance means rushing to the Tribunal of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!”

We do not – we cannot – earn God’s forgiveness.

God loves us. God will never reject us, whatever our actions might deserve.

This is the God who commanded Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, who sent his only Son to die so our sins could be forgiven.

This is the loving Father who declares: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”

 

In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invites us to rush the the place of mercy, which is the Confessional, and do the most important thing necessary to receive the Father’s forgiveness – admit our guilt.

Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future. If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to begin to get help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous. If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love  is always there.

 

 

This is the Year of Mercy. The priests of our deanery are working together to make sure that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is widely available, on afternoons and evenings. The door of mercy is open wide at our cathedral.

Are you are suffering from guilt?

Rush to the confessional.

Plead guilty.

Be amazed at Christ’s love in dying to pay the price for your sin.

Rejoice that God’s love for you is solid and unshakeable.

Best. Lent. Ever!

Proclaiming a Year of Mission

People in a church holding candles, and the Sion Community logoHomily at St Philip Evans for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

This word is being fulfilled in your hearing!

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, he proclaimed a “year of favour from the Lord”.

Pope Francis has declared this year a Year of Mercy. And today I proclaim to you that in this parish, we are celebrating a year of Mission!

Oh no! More religious stuff!

Sometimes, religion has exactly the wrong effect on us. Our First Reading told how Ezra the High Priest read the Book of God’s Law to the Jewish People. They wept! Nehemiah the Governor and Ezra the Priest said “Do not weep today, rejoice!”

The psalm we have just chanted proclaimed “The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul.”

When God’s law seems heavy, it’s because we are not listening properly. We are broken people, wounded by the failings of others and our own sins, so we zero in on those parts of the law which tell us we are unworthy, we are sinners. We totally miss those parts which are about God wanting to bless and restore us. Yet what was the main work of a priest in ancient Israel? Performing rituals to make unclean people, clean!

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, he proclaimed a “year of favour from the Lord”. What does the Lord’s favour look like?

“The blind will see.”

Some of us come faithfully to Mass because it’s what “we do”. We’re part of the tribe of Catholics, and besides, our friends come to this church. So we turn up and try not to think too much about God. But you have a Father in Heaven who thinks you are amazing. He wants to open your eyes!

“Captives will be released.”

Some of us are here today because we’re afraid God will be angry with us if we don’t show up at Mass every Sunday. If we’re in bed with flu one weekend, we rush to confession because we haven’t “done our duty”. Now it’s true that we are called to show “fear of the Lord”, but that means a healthy respect for God, not quaking in our boots thinking we have failed to meet impossible demands!

“The downtrodden will be set free.”

Some of us are here today out of another kind of duty. We’re not afraid of God punishing us, but we are here out of a rather cold sense of “ought”. Coming to Mass is “the right thing to do”. That’s better than fear, but it’s still not the best God has in store for us.

“I bring good news to the poor.”

Do you think you are worthy of God’s love? Do you think you deserve to be part of this Church? If you are a Reader, or an EMOC, or a catechist, do you think that other “more qualified” parishioners should be doing those jobs? Jesus has news for you. You have been chosen. Not because you deserve it but because he loves you. Look at the people he chose to start his church: tax collectors and prostitutes, fishermen and reformed terrorists. Pope Francis has called the Church “a field hospital for sinners”. There is only one condition for membership – you must be willing to live your life in the way Jesus asks you. And when you fail, because Jesus doesn’t stop asking, pick yourself up and have another go.

These are big ideas – far too big to explore in a few minutes on a Sunday morning. This is why, at the end of October this year, we are holding a Parish Mission. This will be a whole week to take a fresh look at who God really is, what God expects of us, what we can expect of God – and above all, to help ourselves accept that God’s message really is soul-reviving Good News.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, he proclaimed a “year of favour from the Lord”.

This year we are invited to move from belonging to believing, from fear to love, from duty to joyful service. This word is being fulfilled in your hearing!

 

Room for One More!

25 squares in a grid, all but one are purpleHomily at Nazareth House for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Sometimes, religion has exactly the wrong effect on us. Our First Reading told how Ezra the High Priest read the Book of God’s Law to the Jewish People. They wept!

Nehemiah the Governor and Ezra the Priest said “Do not weep today, rejoice!”

The psalm we have just heard proclaimed “The law of the Lord is perfect, it revives the soul.”

When God’s law seems heavy, it’s because we are not listening properly. We are broken people, wounded by the failings of others and our own sins, so we zero in on those parts of the law which tell us we are unworthy, we are sinners. We totally miss those parts which are about God wanting to bless and restore us. Yet what was the main work of a priest in ancient Israel? Performing rituals to make unclean people, clean!

Nehemiah the Governor and Ezra the Priest said “Do not weep today, rejoice!”

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see time and again this combination of a Governor and a Priest.

Abraham was the head of his tribe, but God sent the mysterious priest Melchizidek to receive his sacrifice.

Moses received the Law for Israel, but his brother Aaron was the ancestor of the priestly line.

Solomon built a Temple, but Zadok was its High Priest.

In the books of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the governor Zerubbabel and high priest Joshua are called to rebuild Jerusalem together.

It is the task of a Governor to give us a Law for what to do and what to avoid.

It is the task of a High Priest to offer sacrifices when we have failed to keep the Law, because God wants us restored to a spiritual cleanliness we simply cannot achieve on our own.

Only in Jesus do the two roles come together. Jesus preached the Law of God with unusual authority. He gave his own body on the Cross to be the perfect sacrifice, at once High Priest and Victim.

Although every Catholic bishop and priest “stands in” for Jesus, it is very difficult for one person to embody both things. You will either be known for being demanding, or for being soft. In our age, the Catholic Church has a reputation for very high moral standards – and then the Press work hard to catch priests and bishops who have not lived out those high standards. Rightly so, for the Lord hated hypocriscy!

But because we are known for proposing the highest moral standards, it was crucial for Pope Francis to proclaim a “Year of Mercy”. Yes, the Church is against abortion – but we also have organisations that provide practical resources to women otherwise unable to keep their babies. Yes, we warn people against trying out fortune telling or “New Age healing” practices – but we also offer prayers for spiritual cleansing for people who’ve discovered that turning to these things can leave you spiritually messed up. Always, the Church wants to be seen as a loving mother ready to give a word of warning, and to kiss us better whenever we fall over.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth, he proclaimed a “year of favour from the Lord”. Our task this year is to communicate a clear message: the Catholic Church is a field hospital for sinners. The church is, in fact, full of sinners and there is always room for one more!

The Road to Hell

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Sixth Sunday of Year A.Torcello - Registres 5 & 6 - Les damnés

Today’s Gospel is a lesson on how to go to Hell. We are being given a sermon by Christ Himself – and He is serious!

Have you deliberately insulted a fellow Christian by calling that person a fool? You will answer for it in hellfire.

Have you failed to restrain lust in your life? You will answer for it in hellfire.

I wish Our Lord hadn’t said those things. It would make my job as a preacher much easier. I could stand up here and say: “Don’t worry folks! God loves us all! We’re all going to heaven, and we’ll all live happily ever after.” But that wasn’t quite the message Jesus came to bring.

A little later in this same speech he will echo a message which John the Baptist gave earlier in the Gospel, that unless we bear good fruit, we are in danger of being cast into the fire.

If we look later in St Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 18, we find Our Lord repeating his warning that we must cut off our eye, hand or foot if any of these cause us to sin. He means, of course, that we should cut off the behaviour, rather than the limb, but the meaning is clear: If you’re going somewhere you shouldn’t go – if you’re touching something you shouldn’t touch – if you’re looking at something you shouldn’t look at – STOP IT! Stop it right now, and cut it off for good, or face the consequences.

In chapter 23, Jesus will warn us that those who teach one thing but do another – the hypocrites – deserve to be punished in Hell.

In chapter 25, Jesus will present us with the image of the sheep and the goats – with the goats condemned to eternal fire being those who never gave food, drink, clothing or comfort to persons in need. In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will illustrate the same theme in the parable of the rich man who went to Hell because he did not feed the beggar, Lazarus, at his gates.

Are we feeling uncomfortable yet?

There are four kinds of sin which Our Lord is explicitly warning us about, because they put us on the fast-track to Hell.

First of all, there is expressing our anger against our brother or sister. It’s no sin to feel angry – but it is a serious sin, to let the anger dominate our reaction. Indeed, we must make the first move to bring peace, even if the fault is not ours. That’s why I devoted a whole sermon, a couple of weeks ago, to the importance of forgiving our enemies.

Second, there are sins connected with the lustful look. With modern printing, television and computer technology, there’s now a whole industry based on treating people as objects, an industry which satisfies lust on demand – for a price. As Christians, we can have no part of it. Jesus is warning us there is no room for compromise here; any answer other than a resounding NO sets us on the road to Hell.

Third, hypocrisy. No Christian should ever need to dismiss a child or an underling with the message “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Fourth, the sin of the goats, a total failure to love those who need our charity.

But take heart!

The picture becomes less bleak when we realise that Our Lord often uses exaggeration to get his point across. If the goats sent to Hell are those who never helped the needy, and the sheep taken up to heaven are those who always helped, where does that leave the rest of us who have offered charity at least sometimes?

There’s clearly a big warning about Hell in today’s passage. But we must read it in the context of the greater message which Jesus came to bring, an invitation to repent of our sins and be carried, by his grace, all the way to Heaven. Any warning from God is an invitation to turn our lives around while we still can. If any of these kinds of sin which Jesus identifies are present in our lives, we can choose today to reject them. We can set out on the road of conversion, the road of virtuous living.

We may need to ask help from a trusted friend so we are not alone in the struggle against temptation. We are invited to make use of the great Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which God forgives our sins and gives us strength to struggle against temptation. We need to fix our eyes not on the warnings of Hell, but on the great teaching that we have a Forgiving Father who welcomes us whenever we come to our senses and return to him. 

The direction we choose determines the destination where we shall dwell. We are called to be people of virtue – passionately committed to living the right values. To behave faithfully is within your power. If you wish, you can keep the commandments. Always seek to repair broken relationships, avoid lust at all costs, shun hypocrisy, and be as generous as you can to the poorest of the poor.  But be careful with the next move of your foot, your hand or your eye – for if you set out in the direction of Hell, you can be sure where you will end up, unless you turn around on the way!

Acknowledgment is due to Revd Ifor Williams for an inspiring Bible Study on “Hell in the teaching of Jesus” which I attended some years ago.

This sermon does not intend to imply that the sins listed above are the only ones which can consign a person to Hell. The Catholic tradition has evolved a broader understanding of what constitutues a “mortal sin”. My intent above is to identify those sins which Jesus explicitly linked to hellfire.

Bonus material for the web:

St Paul knows that God’s wisdom is different from that of the world. The psychologists will give us reasons why it is healthy to vent out our anger, and why we should move on from broken relationships. The adult entertainment industry wants to persuade us that everything is permissible between consenting adults. But the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus is as valid today as it was thousands of years ago. We can choose cooling water or searing fire, eternal life or everlasting death for our souls.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus dangles hope in front of us, too: if we’re in dispute with another Christian, we must make it our business to make peace, even if the dispute wasn’t our fault in the first place. If we fail to make peace, says the Lord, we may be “in prison until we have paid the last penny”. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s not as dire as being condemned for eternity. Could that be a hint about Purgatory?

When Our Lady appeared to three children in Fatima nearly 100 years ago, she warned them: “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart” – and she taught them to add a prayer to each decade of the rosary for the conversion of sinners. Let’s pray for the conversion of sinners – and act for the conversion of the sinner called “me”!