Better to Enter into Life
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B) | Fr Robert Ombres expands our world by pointing to the challenges of today’s Gospel which calls us to accept the seriousness of sin.
Much of our modern way of thinking and of our culture wants us to believe, and many people do, in a small world. That kind of world has a shrunken sense of the real, in it life is pursued within limited horizons, and the expectation is of annihilation at death. This helps to explain why the lines from today’s gospel according to St Mark are so challenging.
We are challenged from two directions.
The first challenge is that we are presented with the seriousness of our moral lives and its consequences. An initial reaction to this challenge might be to look for ways of escape from such demands – surely this is mere exaggeration? Surely these are crude shock tactics? Could any moral failure require such drastic action?
The second challenge is to believe in a larger, deeper reality than much of our secularised culture wants us to. Today’s gospel tells us about devils, hell, miracles and the Kingdom of God. An initial reaction to this challenge might be to dismiss it as primitive cosmology.
To meet these two challenges means accepting the seriousness that sin can have, and to believe in a reality that can be undermined by sin yet is created and recreated by God. That there is for us redemption and forgiveness in Christ is a kind of miracle. Scandal, a word used repeatedly in today’s gospel, is one of the features of sin. It is an obstacle to faith, a stumbling block, and it can also affect others in a negative way.
Only someone who believes in God can truly speak about sin. Let me explain this. All human beings can understand and can talk about right and wrong, about good and evil. This is part of our human dignity and it shows the strength of our reason. But to talk of sin is to identify a further depth to wrong and to evil, based on an explicit involvement with God and a turning away from him.
God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us. If we agree with St Augustine on this, then we can begin to grasp the wonder of the gift of salvation and at the same time the demands that repentance makes on us. There is a seriousness to sin that can at times be described as mortal because it kills. Then the analogy will be clearer between a cutting off that in fact makes possible greater well-being, and a demanding repentance that leads to life eternal. At a biological level we understand that an amputation may be necessary to prolong life – in faith, we are to extend this to the spiritual level which is also part of who we are.
Christian faith also comes as a gift to the mind, and it is as nuanced and complex as the truth can be. From time to time, various complicated truths are summed up in short and memorable sayings. One that comes to mind here is that we should pray as though everything depended on God, and should work as though everything depended on us.
Without belief in God and life after death, living therefore in a shrunken world and with a diminished sense of what it means to be human, for the virtuous person as for the wrongdoer everything will end for them at their death. Once God and a larger and more lasting reality are accepted, then the moral picture changes too. The good we do, the merits we acquire, will make us flourish permanently in the Kingdom – unrepented mortal sin will block that, will be an obstacle.
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church is a great help in understanding all this. It explains that like a physician who probes the wound before treating it, God by his Word and Spirit, casts a living light on sin. Conversion requires convincing of sin. When this happens, we discover a double gift: the gift of truth of conscience and the gift of the certainty of redemption. The Spirit of truth is the consoler.
The challenge for us is to love God and desire the coming of his Kingdom so much that we will value the saving truth that what we are and do will not end at biological death. It is this that makes us nurture virtue and undertake what could well be a demanding life-long conversion. In today’s gospel, the essential point is repeated by Jesus: it is better to enter into life.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of the tympanum of St Nicholas Cathedral in Fribourg.