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September 26, 2021: Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary time -Associate Pastor’s Corner

“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the decree of the Lord is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.’” –Ps 19:8

The Psalm of today’s Mass is Psalm 19, and our repeated response is “The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.”  But as we repeat these words, it is worth asking if they are true.  Do the commands that God gives to us make us happy? Or, like the rich young man whom Jesus tells to sell all that he has and follow him, do we go away sad?  Sometimes it can feel that the commands of God are wearisome burdens that take joy from our hearts, rather than refreshing them.

But Psalm 19 continues to insist: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.”  Indeed, the Law of God cannot but be perfect because it comes from God who is totally perfect, the source of all Good, and indeed, Goodness itself.  So if we experience a heaviness of heart upon hearing God’s commands, it is because there is something else that is interfering, there is a stumbling block somewhere that is tripping us up.   The root of this stumbling block is always Original Sin, which damages human nature, causing in us concupiscence, a longing for what is evil, for what harms us. 

The Greek word for stumbling block is skándalon, from which we get the word scandal.  But whereas we tend to think of scandal as the shocking revelation of some wrongdoing, the real problem is not so much whether some bit of news offends us or not, but the way that knowledge of some sin can make us second guess the command of God.  And so the most scandalous sins are those that are so common as to not be particularly newsworthy.  To see how this works, it is helpful to look at a related phenomena, which sociologists call the “normalization of deviance.”

The prime example of normalization of deviance is the mistaken decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger on a very cold January morning in 1986.  While the engineers objected to the launch because other launches on cold days had damaged the critical O-ring seals, the managers argued that even with the damage, the backup seals had held on a number of flights, so it wasn’t a problem.  There were also political reasons to launch without delay, and so the managers did not deem the decrees of the engineers trustworthy and ordered the launch to proceed.  Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight; seven astronauts died.

 Sin always seems to be a shortcut to goodness, a way to bypass some inconvenience or suffering to quickly get something that we want. Each time we sin without experiencing immediate punishment, the precepts of the Lord rejoice our heart less and less.   But then the consequences of our actions burn us, and having learned through experience the wisdom of one or two of the Lord’s commands, we, like the Psalmist, can experience how refreshing are all his commands, because they give us the strength and clarity to reject the voice of temptation that seeks to normalized the deviance of our sins. 

What sins have you normalized? “Everyone does it.”  “It hasn’t been a problem yet.”  “Its only a small thing.”  “No one notices.”  But people do notice, and Jesus has harsh words in today’s gospel for those whose scandalous actions cause the innocent little ones to sin: “it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  Today is the day to take stock of those areas of our life where we normalize and excuse our own deviance, and, with the help of Jesus, instead rejoice in the law of the Lord.

-Fr. Christopher Wetzel, OP

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