Fr. Bryan Howard
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B – 2 September 2018
Throughout the Bible sin is compared with a disease, most often the disease of leprosy, and there are a lot of parallels between what diseases do to our bodies and what sin does to our soul, and about the strongest comparison I can make is with cancer. Cancer can take many forms, some that are easily treated and some that are deadly. Our chances of getting cancer can be increased by the way we live and the things are us. If we live in an unhealthy way or spend a lot of time around things like asbestos, then we have a much higher risk of getting cancer. Ultimately, though, cancer comes from inside us, from our cells mutating out of control. Similarly, our chance of falling into sin can be increased by surrounding ourselves with bad influences, but it comes from within, from our own free choice to do something that we know is wrong. That’s also where the main difference is. It’s impossible to sin on accident; it always starts with making a choice to pursue the bad instead of the good, wrong instead of right. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
When you get cancer, it doesn’t always make you sick immediately; it’ll start to spread from one tissue to another and one organ to another. Then, you’ll start to get weaker, to get sick, to feel the effects of the cancer, and if you don’t catch it early enough, it’s too late. Sin is often the same way. It pretends to be something good and to give us something good, like influence, power, wealth, or simply pleasure. That’s how it spreads, slowly taking over, unless we’re fighting against it. Then, we start to notice the effects. It starts in the will, as we find it harder and harder to control our choices and our desires. Then it affects our minds, our ability to reason, making it easier to make excuses for actions. Finally, we see the sin is not just broken rules, but broken lives and broken relationships, as sin will eventually damage or break our relationships with the people around us, with our family and friends, and with God.
Once you know that you have cancer, you have to treat it. First, you have to find out how far it’s spread, and once you know that, you can remove all of the infected tissue, either through radiation therapy or through surgery. If we want to be rid of our sins the first thing is to be honest with ourselves and admit the extent of the problem. This is what confession is for. People always ask, “Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? Why can’t I just confess directly to God?” One reason is because, it usually doesn’t work. The Sacrament of Confession is given to us by God for the forgiveness of sins and it has the power not only to forgive our sins, but to strengthen us against them and begin to bring healing to our wounded souls. With cancer, the treatment isn’t finished until all of the cancer is gone, and even then, you have to keep track of it for the rest of your life to make sure it doesn’t come back. Well, we’ll never be completely rid of sin in this life. It’s a constant battle against it, but we can make progress and push it back, but only if we truly desire to be free of it.
Finally, as the saying goes, “ An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” With our physical health, there are certain things we do to combat a specific disease, and other things we do to just generally stay healthy. For example, you don’t need to take antibiotics unless you have an infection, but you always need to eat healthy and stay physically active. The same thing is true in the spiritual life. To stay spiritually healthy, that is to strengthen our relationship with God, we need to go to Mass and confession regularly, pray and fast, do spiritual reading (especially the Bible), and practice charity, as St. Paul says in our second reading, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Doing these things will give you a healthy spiritual life, keep you close to Jesus, and help you to avoid sin.
For most things, we accept that there’s a right and wrong way to go about things. There are only a few right ways to paint a house, but there are a lot of wrong ways, and if you take short cuts in preparing the wall, then you’ll get an inferior product. There are only a few right ways to swing a golf club, but there are a lot of wrong ways, and you know immediately which one you’ve done. For some reason we find it hard to accept that the spiritual life is the same way. Living by these principles, given to us by Jesus, worked out by the Sacred Tradition, and seen in the lives of the saints, gives us a trajectory that will get us to heaven. If you veer off course you may not see the results right away, it may look like everything is going just fine. It’s like the time my uncle was cooking some okra and he wanted to get rid of the slime, but he used baking soda instead of vinegar. You’ll eventually figure out that you made a mistake somewhere, and hopefully it’s not too late to save the okra. In case you couldn’t guess, the okra was ruined.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.