The Most Reverend Glen John Provost,
Bishop of Lake Charles
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 27, 2009
Caxthedral of the Immaculate Conception

“The Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses.”  Numbers 11:25

Jesus says something in the Gospel today that hardly anyone takes literally.  “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mark 9:43).  I have never heard anyone say that that instruction should be followed verbatim.  Yet, Jesus repeats the refrain over and over again.  “If your foot causes you to sin, cut if off” (Mark 9:45).  “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Mark 9:47).  He is emphasizing a point.  If we were to translate the passage into more contemporary terms, then we might hear these words:  “If your computer is an occasion of sin to you, turn it off” or “If the company you keep endangers you, then avoid the association.”  Simply, Jesus is clearly saying that we are to avoid the occasion of sin. 

The Church concluded long ago that the best way to understand the Scriptures is context.  What is the context?  Here someone is performing a good deed in the name of Jesus but the apostles do not know him.  The apostle John became exasperated and tried to stop the man.  Jesus answers, “Do not prevent him….  Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39-40).  No one can do a good deed in His name and be opposed to Christ.  Doing good is what following Christ is all about.  So, Jesus says, avoid scandal and avoid temptation.  No sin is worth the loss of the kingdom of God.

The life of faith cannot be disconnected from the life of charity.  Our Holy Father emphasized this very point in his recent encyclical letter Charity in Truth.  We cannot live in God’s grace and still remain attached to sin.  Every sin destroys something of our relationship with God.  For this reason, sin must be avoided at all cost.  This is a basic exercise of charity in truth.  Therefore, the eye, foot or hand that leads you into sin must be cut off.  Nothing is worth the loss of so great a goal.  “Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna” (Mark 9:47). 

We all know that the struggle with sin is not an easy task.  It reminds me of the keen insight of St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  He once observed that “there are more people converted from mortal sin to grace than there are people converted from good to better.”  We go to confession.  We experience a religious conversion.  We repent of our sins, and we protest that we will never do it again.  Yet, a few weeks later or after a few months, we are right back where we started.  Or, even if we do change our lives in terms of some major defect or sin, we find it next to impossible to avoid the smaller defects.  We still love gossip.  We remain lazy.  We still lie.  We struggle with impatience.

At this point, we become discouraged.  We might even give up.  “Well,” we say, “God just has to take me the way I am.  I can’t do any better.”  Then, what Father Thomas Dubay calls “a remarkable resistance” sets in.  We settle for mediocrity.  We stop trying.  If we continue to go to the Sacrament of Penance, then we just repeat the same story, over and over again.  Sometimes, we just give up and hope for the best.  “Maybe before I die, I’ll get a chance to really repent,” we conclude.  Father Dubay asks an important question at this point.  “Why,” he says, “do people who love God to some extent knowingly choose not to love him completely?”  That is a good question.

Father Dubay observes that the answer to that question and our dilemma with mediocrity is found in the opening words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Mark.  They are six simple words, but they cut to the heart of the matter.  “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Repentance means renouncing the self and egotism and embracing the truth about God’s creation.  First comes repentance, because without change in one’s life grace doesn’t have a chance.  Without repentance, we will indeed be condemned to mediocrity.

The Gospel that Jesus preached and the Gospel of repentance is based in truth.  This is what Jesus said to Pilate.  “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).  St. Thomas Aquinas gives a brilliant definition of truth.  He says that truth is the conformity of the mind with reality.

Have you ever noticed how much trouble we have with truth?  We refuse to see things the way they are.  Remember the question asked by St. James in the second reading last Sunday.  He wrote, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?  You covet but do not possess” (James 4:1-2).  Again Pope Benedict has a lot to say about this topic in his recent encyclical.  Jesus proclaimed the truth about everything.  Truth means loving reality, loving things the way they are.  This love of truth begins with love of God, the way He is, not the way we would like Him to be.  Then that love of truth proceeds to loving others the way they are and moving to love creation the way it is, in all its beauty and goodness.  And, we might add, we must come to understand that God loves us in spite of our sinfulness.  As a matter of fact, if we are to believe the Gospel, as we should, God loves us in our sinfulness.  He leaves the ninety-nine and searches out the one who is lost.  That dynamic love calls us to repentance.

Deep conversion and true repentance begin with embracing the truth.  That truth is found in understanding our relationship with God and knowing what our true response should be to that relationship.  Then and only then can I truly “cut off my hand” or “pluck out my eye” or, better yet, “turn off the computer” or “avoid bad company.”  When I know the truth, nothing else matters.  When I pursue the truth, when I see myself more clearly and understand God more deeply, then I see sin and its attraction for the lie that it is, and I want nothing to do with it.  Then, the truth truly sets me free to be myself before God.