September 19, 2021: Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Original Sin. Coined by the great St. Augustine, the term and doctrine of original sin is often misunderstood, if not maligned. As we celebrate Catechetical Sunday and the beginning of faith formation for our families, children and parish, our readings challenge us to face the reality of original sin and its effects. Although both preacher and congregation might instinctively shy away from the topic of sin and its origin, only when we honestly admit sin and failure can we truly appreciate, receive and be transformed by God’s grace.
It is important to know that original sin is not personal sin. It is not any particular failure in the moral life, nor is it the sin of Adam and Eve in the famous Genesis story. Rather, original sin is the effect of our first parent’s transgression. As their descendants, we inherit a gravity towards selfishness. Recall that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We are intrinsically good and every human life is to be protected and valued, particularly the voiceless and vulnerable. At the same time, our nature is wounded. We have a proclivity towards self which tends towards unhealthiness. Consider “Murphy’s law:” whatever can fail, eventually will fail. Original sin is a sort of spiritual “Murphy’s Law.” We all possess those God-given abilities to know truth and love goodness yet, since these abilities can be twisted towards self-aggrandizement and pride, we have a gravity to fail in these areas. Through baptism, the wound of original sin is washed clean, yet the effects of this tendency toward unhealthy behavior still persists.
Our readings this weekend give us insight into the effects of original sin and suggest remedies. St. James asks a provocative question when he asks: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” St. James’ answer is more insightful than the superficial estimation that religion or any firmly held belief is the cause of war. Disagreement or divergent views do not necessarily lead to war and conflict. Rather, St. James says that exterior conflict is the result of inner conflict: “Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.” Both in St. James’ era and our own, war and conflict are a reality. The source of this conflict is our proclivity towards pride, selfishness and seeking our own happiness under the illusion that it necessarily comes at the expense of others. Even for the Catholic who is eager to live a life of virtue, we relate to St. Paul when he struggles to avoid the behavior he knows is selfish and fails to love as he knows he ought. The effects of original sin are all around us: we not only observe them in the street, we experience them in our own body and souls. St. James suggests that God’s wisdom is a generous spirit which is “peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits.” Generosity which is rooted in consideration of the other breaks the cycle of selfishness.
In the Gospel, Jesus further illustrates the power of generosity as an antidote to the effects of original sin. This comes in the form of service to others. He begins by revealing the mystery of salvation: “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.” Jesus is aware that his impending passion and death will be the means of conquering the devastating effects of sin and death. The power of his generous love transforms death from a moment of extinction to a moment of resurrection. Yet, the apostles are perplexed. In their confusion, they are afraid to ask Jesus to clarify his strange prophecy. Fear and ignorance darken their minds. In this state, they begin to get into an argument about “who is the greatest.” Fear and ignorance trigger this prideful boasting. Their selfish spat shows the inner skirmish sparked by fear and ignorance. Jesus responds with a lesson on service. “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all. Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.’” It is interesting to notice that, unlike times when Jesus instructs his followers to be childlike, here Jesus encourages his apostles to overcome pride and the effects of original sin by welcoming and supporting children, i.e. those who are vulnerable and voiceless. Service conquers selfishness.
As we celebrate Catechetical Sunday, we do well to take an honest look at where the effects of original sin have pulled us towards selfish behavior. Though our prayers often rightly take the form of asking, “God please see my need and respond,” Jesus challenges us to another way of prayer “God, help me to see the need of those around me and respond with your generosity.” Amen!
~ Fr. Michael