6th Sunday of the Year (a) 2017
This Gospel can make many people feel uncomfortable. Christ tells us what we should and shouldn’t do, and we know we fall short: does our virtue go deeper than the scribes and Pharisees; or are we, like them, hypocrites at times; have we ever got angry with our brother or sister, called them a fool or worse? Do we always keep our eyes under control? Not let them wander where they shouldn’t sometimes so that our thoughts are not always pure? Do we always keep our promises and the vows we make?
If we use this as an examination of conscience I am sure that most of us will have something to confess. A priest’s life is kept busy with confessions; at least it used to be. Not so much these days Today, it seems that people don’t sin as much. When I was a child I used to go to confession twice a month. There was a long queue. Another feature of confession in those days was people used to travel to confession see ‘strange’ priests; obviously they didn’t want to confess to their local priest. My mother used to travel up to Westminster Cathedral; I know because she used to take me with her sometimes. She must have been bad. But if people stopped sinning we priests would be done out of a job. However, don’t keep on sinning just to give us something to do.
Have you noticed how our sins become habits? We repeat the same things in the confessional time and time again. Some people have been confessing the same sin for decades. Others who never go to confession will admit that they have sins, and sometimes those sins recur over and over again. Sometimes these sins can be really big ones, try as one might they can’t seem to stop. And they do try, it’s not as if they don’t try. There are people who simply feel out of control; in other words that they cannot stop themselves doing things they know are wrong. They feel powerless to stop sinning.
For these people the first words of this morning’s reading, from Eccelesiasticus should help: written a long time ago; it says, ‘If you wish you can keep the commandments.’ And then the next line reinforces that statement: ‘To behave faithfully is in your power.’ I know that most people really do wish to keep the commandments, really do wish to lead good and sinless lives. Well, God is telling us that if we really wish to then we can. The secret is in the second statement from Ecclesiasticus: ‘to behave faithfully is in your power.’ In other words, you have within you the strength and will to overcome whatever your faults and failings are, your life time habitual sins, even those sins you feel you are powerless to overcome. What is this power within?
Notice first of all what it isn’t. It isn’t self-control or self-discipline, as if the power to overcome sin lies in us being more self-controlled or more disciplined. These virtues are good and important but they are not sufficient. The person who is always self controlled and disciplined can be critical of others who are not like them; who do not have their strength; such a person can suffer from pride; and it was never truer to say, that pride comes before the fall.
What the power within is, is grace. And grace is a free gift from God. Given to those who ask Him. So, if you are troubled by your sins, then pray about them. Pray in such a way that you believe you have the power within you to overcome any sin. Now, I know some people will say that they do pray; that they have been praying for years to overcome habitual sins. And it just doesn’t seem to work; they keep on sinning.
But the Lord tells us over and over again, do not give up. Keep on praying and keep on believing. Nothing that is worthwhile comes easily. And who knows, if you overcame sin too easily would it be helpful; supposing you prayed once and all your problems were resolved. Wouldn’t it not only seem all too easy, but also, what would we have learned from this? We need to learn one of life’s hardest lessons, that is: all is grace; all the good we do, all the times we don’t sin, all the temptations we manage to overcome, is not down to self discipline alone, but above all to a free gift from God which we call grace. And we must pray for this grace, and continue to pray for it. For most of us it takes a lifetime to begin to understand that all the good we do is gift.
So, when you are struggling don’t give up. The Lord has given us his commandments, but he has also given us to power to fulfil them. We have within us the power to overcome our sins.