We have some very strong, even disturbing, imagery in the readings today. Our Lord commands us to remove body parts that cause us to sin. St. James compares the rich with animals that have been fattened up for the slaughter. These intense images are given to us today to demonstrate the danger of falling into sin or leading others into sin, and how sin separates us from the Body of Christ.
This is a message we need to hear today. When you look at the popular culture, it's clear that we have lost a sense of sin. Someone's sinful actions are excused if no one is perceived to have been hurt by those sins or if there is “consent” to the actions. Some sins are not only tolerated, but encouraged and promoted. The only sins that are publicly scorned are those which can be used to drag a political opponent through the mud. In fact, the only real sin, in the eyes of the popular culture, is daring to challenge someone's actions as sinful.
Contrary to what the popular culture might say, we are still a sinful people in need of redemption and forgiveness. Sadly, because the culture glorifies much which is sinful, we have forgotten what sin is and why it's so dangerous. Even Catholics, long ridiculed for so-called “Catholic guilt” over real or imagined sins, have all but neglected the Sacrament of Confession. There is a real need in the world today to restore an understanding of sin.
We can begin this restoration by defining sin. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” (CCC 1849) To put this definition much more simply, sin is putting ourselves and the gifts which we have been given by God over God Himself and those around us. Sin is the opposite of love, and where sin exists, truly self-giving love cannot exist.
With this definition, I hope we can begin to see why Our Lord used such strong imagery in the Gospel passage today. Jesus compared living a sinful life to being thrown into Gehenna, a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where fires perpetually burned. Due to the strict ritual purity laws in Judaism, Gehenna was considered the place that was the most unclean, and casting someone's body there would have been the strongest condemnation of that person, forever cutting him off from the rest of the Jews.
Spiritually, sin has much the same result. When we sin, we cut ourselves off from God and the Body of Christ. As I said before, sin is the opposite of love. In fact, sin is a turning inward on ourselves to the exclusion of others, even God Himself. We become fixated on our needs, desires, wants, and possessions. Other people become either objects to be used, or obstacles that prevent us from doing what we desire. This focus on ourselves is so strong that we are even willing to give up the eternal life promised to us by Our Lord.
If we truly understood the danger of sin, we would act immediately to separate ourselves from those things that regularly lead us to sin. These occasions of sin are things and situations in our lives which are dangers to our moral lives, leading us to perform sinful actions. Much as we try to avoid those things and situations that could cause us to be hurt or killed, we should make every effort to avoid the occasions of sin that we encounter on a daily basis. This is what Our Lord means when he says to cut off your hand or foot, or pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin. It is better in this life to give up some things that lead us to sin and gain eternal life in the next.
Sin is a reality in the world. It hurts us and hurts those around us. May we have a greater awareness of our sinful nature, seek to avoid sin, and ask forgiveness for those sins we have committed.