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Rooting out sin

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GOSPEL COMMENTARY SEPT. 26, MK 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Jesus uses very strong language in today’s Gospel passage to challenge us to root sin out of our lives: Cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin.

Jesus does not really ask us to resort to such extreme physical measures to avoid sin and remain close to him. He is using hyperbole, a common technique used in speech and writing, employed for the sake of emphasis and effect.  For instance, a young person might say, "I am so hungry I could eat a hundred hamburgers" or a longtime Washingtonian might say, "The Washington Football Team has improved so much, they will not lose a game this year." Neither person intends to be taken literally; rather, they want to state that they are very hungry or that they are convinced that the local team has improved and should be better than last year.

Jesus does not desire physical mutilation of the body. However, he does desire that we take very, very earnestly our commitment to remove serious sin from our lives.

When we come before Jesus to repent of our sins, we seek to bring him true contrition, a deep, gut-wrenching sorrow of the soul for having offended God and neighbor. In fact, we should desire to bring perfect contrition to that encounter with Christ. Perfect contrition flows from a profound love for God; my soul aches for having offended the one who loves me more than I can imagine and who deserves to be loved above all else. Perfect contrition obtains the forgiveness of mortal sins if it also includes the firm commitment to go to the sacrament of confession as soon as possible.

Imperfect contrition, also a grace of God, is born more from an awareness of the ugliness of sin or fear of impending penalties, including damnation, for the sins I have committed. It also is a prompting of the Holy Spirit and can initiate a movement of the heart that will be brought to completion by absolution in confession. By itself, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of mortal sins, but disposes us to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of penance.

Another critical element of genuine contrition for our sins is a firm resolve to avoid those sins in the future. All of us need to improve on that resolve. It takes a large dose of humility to come to grips with how seriously we should be addressing that resolve.

We must start with being honest with ourselves — do I really want to avoid that sin in the future? Maybe the first place to turn is to beg God for a genuine desire to turn from that sin and never commit it in the future. Honest prayer goes a long way in our walk with Christ.

Secondly, we need to commit to implementing effective means to root that sin out of our lives. This always includes a dedicated effort to avoid the near occasion of sin. When does it happen? Where does it happen? With whom does it happen? What internal triggers cause me to turn to that sin in those moments? Avoiding sin, especially habitual sin, demands that we take very seriously the necessity of avoiding the places, times, people and triggers that prompt me to turn to that sin.

Thirdly, we need to be accountable. A good spiritual director is an enormous help in this realm. So, too, is a good spiritual friend who shares our commitment to grow in faith, virtue and charity, and is willing to hold us accountable to a plan for that growth. It is amazing how we can so quickly fool ourselves and rationalize our behaviors; a good friend or spiritual guide will call us out and help us to see the folly of our ways.

One final aid to consider in this challenging process is to fill the hole that is left from cutting a certain sin out of our lives with good things — people and activities that renew, restore and rejuvenate. It is critical to fill the hole with prayer, exercise, good reading, Christ-centered friendship and service of our neighbor. If the hole is not filled in with life-giving activities, we will easily slide back into old, bad habits.

Jesus does not want us, in truth, to cut off our hand or foot, or to pluck out our eye. Rather, he wants us to be very serious about demonstrating true contrition by increasing our resolve and using effective means to root mortal sin out of our lives.

Fr. Peterson is director of mission and development for the Youth Apostles.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021