26th Sunday in OT
Today we hear something pretty radical from Jesus. If you hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin gouge it out. Etc. I don't know about you, but I have been trained to read this passage metaphorically. "Don't worry: Jesus doesn't literally mean that we are supposed to cut off our hands." In some sense, this is true. Make no mistake, no one should go home today and amputate anything. But, I don't really think that Jesus is being metaphorical.
Listen again to what he says: if your hand causes you to sin. Let's think about this for a minute: does your hand really cause you to sin? As many of you know, in addition to being the chaplain at Marian I am also the girls golf coach. And it is a lot of fun to work with the girls teaching them the game of golf. One time I was working with a girl at the driving range. She was struggling to hit her driver, it was going everywhere but straight. So she says to me, “I think I need a new driver.” So I asked her if I could borrow the driver for a second, and I hit one straight as an arrow, which if anyone has ever played with me knows that a straight shot is a bit of a miracle. So I said, the driver looks fine to me…
In golf it is usually pilot error not the plane that causes something to go wrong. If it was really the driver that causes the ball to fly poorly, I would certainly recommend that they get a new one. But, usually the clubs are just fine. If we want to fix the ball flight we need to fix the real cause, something in the golf swing.
I think the lesson Jesus is telling us is similar. But is it really the hand that causes the sin. No. Something else causes the sin. There is a deep truth that Jesus is getting at here.
First, sin is terrible. Listen to the starkness of the terms here. Cut it off and throw it away, better to go to heaven maimed. The stakes are high. Jesus is not simply trying to frighten us, I think he is trying to open our eyes to the absolute horror of sin. While we are all sinners, there is nothing good about sin. It is terrible. It causes grief and turmoil in our lives. We should learn to despise sin, pray for its eradication, strive to do better each and every day. God is certainly loving and merciful, but that is not to say that sin doesn't matter. I've heard people say: Oh, God doesn't care if I'm a sinner... Really! Jesus says today that sin is so bad that we should take radical steps to cleanse ourselves of sin. So the first lesson we learn is that sin is terrible and we should get rid of it.
Secondly, what is the cause of sin? As I have been saying it is not really our hands, or tongues, or eyes, etc. Even if we use parts of our bodies to sin, these parts are not the cause. What is the cause? It's our hard hearts, it's pride, it's selfishness. Jesus says in another place that it is not what enters a person from the outside that causes us to be defiled, rather all sin starts within and comes out. Basically this means we all need to jettison our hard hearts and replace them with warm hearts full of love.
This might be a bit discouraging. In some sense it would almost be easier to chop off something. Sometimes is it quite painful to come to terms with our weaknesses, to come to terms with our hardness of heart. Very often, our hardness of heart comes from years of pain and mistreatment. How do we get rid of something so deep? On our own, this would be impossible. But for God nothing is impossible.
We heard in the first reading that Moses prayed and the spirit of God was put into the hearts of the people. This is exactly what we believe happens at baptism. The spirit of God was given to each of us. And if we allow him to do so, the Spirit can reach down even to the hardest heart. The Spirit can cleanse and purify us.
Indeed our weakness, our sinfulness, our hardness of hearts cause us to sin, but the good news is that we can get rid of these things. By the power of God at work within us we can be renewed and transformed. But, we have to be open to this power. Today as we receive Holy Communion we approach humble and contrite, we approach recognizing our weakness, and we ask Christ to give us new hearts. The girls on my team don’t need new golf clubs, and none of us need to amputate any part of our bodies. But we all need new hearts full of love, and only Christ can give them to us.