Today, Holy Mother Church presents to us one of the most memorable passages in all of Sacred Scripture, memorable because of the language with which Jesus speaks. He is blunt; he is direct; he offers little comfort.
His message is clear and unmistakable: we must repent of our sins and change our lives so that we will avoid sin in the future. We must, as we sometimes hear on Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
One of the many Acts of Contrition concludes with the words “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” What is this “near occasion of sin”? It is anything that might easily lead us to sin, that might lead us away from the faithful following of Jesus Christ. Today Jesus warns us to avoid whatever leads us to sin, going so far as to pluck out our eyes, if need be. Nothing is to be spared in the pursuit of holiness.
Although sin, in its variety of forms, often seems appealing to us and so entices and lures us, it only truly yields one thing: death. Often enough sin appears to us as something good, as something worth having or worth doing, but it is false; it is a great lie and deception. What do I mean here?
Several months back as I was returning from Springfield I stopped at a gas station to fill up my car. I was dressed like everyone else that day as I went to visit friends. When I entered the store the cashier said to me, “Watch the store; I’ll be right back.” I have no idea why she said this to me but there I was, all alone in a store filled with goodies and a full tank of gas, none of which had yet been paid for. Next to the counter was a cooler filled with ice cream delectables, most notably, several Snickers ice cream bars.
I thought to myself, “I could pocket one of those bars and nobody would ever know.” I was hungry and the Snickers ice cream bar would fill me up. It was a hot day and the ice cream would cool me down. At the same time, these bars are quite delicious and would satisfy a craving I have for them on occasion. One stolen ice cream bar would do all of these three things. To be fed, to be cool, and to be satisfied are all three good in and of themselves, and so the stealing of a candy bar seemed to me a good idea. I could even count it as a favor for having watched the shop in the clerk’s brief absence.
Now, let it be known that I did not take a candy bar that day – nor any other day. In fact, I did not even buy one; I abstained from the goodness of the treat as a small penance for my sinful thought. I paid for my gas and a DrPepper and off I went.
That candy bar was for me that day a near occasion of sin. A simple matter, perhaps, but it demonstrates the point. It starts with a candy bar, but where does it end? Sin seems at first to be good, but it is not. It does not yield life or lasting peace and joy, but only death, misery and torment. It separates us from the love of God because we choose in sin to abandon him, to turn from his love and to embrace our own desires and temptations. Because in sin we choose to separate ourselves from the Lord on earth we will be separated from him in eternity. Those sinners who refuse to repent of their sin and who do nothing to avoid sin will find themselves in Hell, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48).
This is, undoubtedly, a disturbing message and a most uncomfortable one, for the prospects here are not good. It ought to instill a certain fear in us for “the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever” (Psalm 19:12). You do not want to hear of Hell or of punishment any more than I do, any more than I want to preach it, but I must preach it for Christ has commanded. It is true enough that Jesus promises his love and mercy to those who follow him and heed his message, but all too often we grow lax and lazy in following him. We grow comfortable in mediocrity and say, “I’ve done enough; I’m a good person,” and yet this is not enough as Jesus clearly says today. We must daily take up the battle against sin, carrying with us the standard of the Cross, trusting in the victory of Christ and depending upon his grace. The battle with sin is not easy, and its consequences are either deadly or life giving. If we fight well we are victors with Christ; if we fight poorly sin conquers us.
Even so, do not lose heart, for the victory over sin and death has already been won through the Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. The graces and fruits of the Cross are available to us when we call upon the mercy and love of him who died for us.
Through the reception of his Body and Blood he cleanses us of our venial sins and through Confession he cleanses us also of our mortal sins. His mercy is readily available to us! We must come to him confessing our sins with the intention and deep desire “to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.”
How then do we avoid the near occasion of sin? The answer is both quite simple and difficult: we must keep custody of our senses. That is, if something we hear leads us to gossip, we should keep custody of our ears and refuse to listen to such words. If we find ourselves tempted to lie about someone or some situation, we should keep custody of our tongue and refuse to speak such lies. If we see our neighbors possessing something and we begin to covet it, we should keep custody of our eyes and avert our eyes. If we someone walk down the street and we begin to lust after them in our heart we should keep custody of our eyes and look away. If we spend too much time watching the television and do not have time to pray, we should get rid of the television. You get the idea.
Jesus did not literally mean for us to pluck out our eyes or to cut off our hands and feet. “His meaning is that the incentive should be cut off, not the members. The causes which allure to sin are to be cut off, in order that our thought, borne up on the chariot of sight, may push toward the love of God, supported by the bodily senses” (Clementia, Recognitions of Clement, 7.1.37)
Let us then beg the Lord to give us the grace we need to avoid the near occasions of sin which each of us experiences. When we sincerely ask him for this grace and cooperate with it, we will avoid sin and so move towards the prize of everlasting life in heaven. Amen.