The Problem with Little Sins

Friday in the First Week of Lent: Ezekiel 18:21-28, Matthew 5:20-26.

Most of us understand when something is evil because that word conjures the sense of serious moral wrong. Murder, for instance, is clearly evil, and hopefully we feel the same about stealing, cheating, and adultery. When we get to lying, things get a bit more vague. There’s that convenient category of “white lies” wherein we place our untruths not done out of malice but out of some other interest (sometimes even mistakenly thought of as “for the other person’s own good”). I’d like to ponder this category of white lies because it attempts to bring the spirit of Christ’s words today to weaken the law that He also upholds. It’s a good example of how crafty we are in trying to turn a blind eye to venial sins.

White Lie (2010), Erin Harper Vernon | Image from erinharpervernon.com.

In the first reading, Ezekiel explains the repercussions of following or not following the moral law set by God. God speaks through Ezekiel: “If the wicked man turns away from all the sins he committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” Now some Jewish scholars and rabbis did interpret this as an eschatological “life and death,” meaning that God was speaking of eternal life and death in the Kingdom with Him. But many Jews heard this as a life and death on this earth, which implies that God’s retribution was like an instant karma type of thing (for instance, the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection). God adds to this by speaking of His relationship with us: “None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the virtue he has practiced.” A few notes here: first, we hear the great tenet of the Judeo-Christian faith, what the Jews call teshuva, or the ability to repent and be forgiven by God. God promises that He will not remember — completely forget! — the sins of a wicked man who turns from his sins and practices virtue. We sometimes forget to stop punishing ourselves for past sins even after confession, so it’s important to realize that from the very first revelations to the prophets, God shares this aspect of His love for us. Second note: our spiritual life or death is inexorably tied to a relationship with God, not just our virtuous actions. It is not our virtuous actions by themselves that grant us spiritual life in the Kingdom, but God’s forgiveness and welcoming. This should make us want to avoid a “cold” virtuous life, where we are simply doing what is right because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We need to encounter Him at some point, in some way, and the more we encounter and embrace His love, the more we’re on the path to spiritual life in the Kingdom. God wants to make this personal. Ezekiel proclaims, “Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord GOD. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?” I just love the idea that God can derive pleasure and rejoice when we turn away from evil. Maybe it’s the thing in me that wants to please, but I can’t think of any greater calling than to cause delight in the Lord. As the source of good, He also reassures us that He’s not a deity who cackles with glee when it comes time to punish the evil. This causes Him no joy; He wants us all to join Him in Heaven.

The gospel reading plunges us again into St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. It starts with His call to be greater even than those who represent the pinnacle of Jewish observance of the law: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.” Whoa! What is a regular ol’ Joshua supposed to think of this? Today’s gospel doesn’t show us, but this comes at the end of the section where Jesus proclaims, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill … whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:17, 19). I want to examine His specific phrasing here — Christ is not speaking of just obeying the law but of (dis)obeying and teaching others to do the same. Why does this matter? Because Christ’s entry into history has started the End Times, where we all receive a share in His divinity. By being baptized in the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, we emerge from our baptismal waters new people, part of the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus, when we teach others something wrong, we are attempting to corrupt a very part of the divinity of Christ. Conversely, when we uphold the law and teach others to do the same, we are upholding our New Covenant with God, affirming the divinity of Christ in humanity, and bolstering the mystical relationship between our spiritual health, God’s love for us, and the love we pour out on each other in virtuous actions of charity.

The Light of the World (1853-54), William Holman Hunt | Image from pixels.com.

Then, Jesus delves into the seeming differences between mortal and venial sins. He acknowledges that we all are familiar with the law of mortal sin, that You shall not kill, adding, “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus seems to impose an impossible obstacle for our entrance to the Kingdom. He is equating unspoken and unacted upon anger with murder! How can we be this perfect?

It helps to dig into the heart. What these share is evil intent. Our anger puts us in a position of opposing another person to such an extent that we wish to enact some type of violence — a verbal insult, public scorn, physical violence, etc. This reflects an attitude of hate, not love, where we no longer consider that person a brother or sister but instead see an enemy or an opponent. In this state of anger, we no longer abide by the spirit of the law. Murder is just an extreme physical manifestation of the same spiritual low point.

Thus, Jesus wants to point out that it’s not just adherence to the outward details of the law, but an equal adherence to the spirit of the law that makes one righteous. He points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes throughout His ministry, and today’s teaching is an expansion of why He is upset over hypocrisy. His point here is the same as when He says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). The spirit of their actions is not God’s Spirit of helping the downtrodden. The Law is in place to help us become more God-like, and when they place “heavy burdens” upon others (i.e., religious prescriptions) rather than helping and loving others as God does, they are no longer operating within God’s law, even though they seem to be. To rephrase Christ’s lesson here, we must allow the Holy Spirit to re-orient us in everything we think, say, and do. Otherwise, we are just as far from God when we think hateful thoughts as we are when we act them out.

This lesson from the Incarnate Word of God is, as we would expect, the same that He shared with Ezekiel 600 years earlier. God wants to emphasize His intimate relationship with us and our salvation. He is trying to tell us that He wants a personal relationship with us; He wants us to get close to Him in mind, spirit, and action. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the great 20th century Dominican spiritual master, can help us understand why venial sins are so destructive and to be avoided. He points out that while mortal sin is like committing spiritual suicide, “He who falls into venial sin impedes the action of God from exercising itself freely on him, and little by little ruins his spiritual health just as the alcoholic ruins the health of his body” (Knowing the Love of God, 16). I appreciate the analogy here — I can see how venial sins are somewhat addictive in that we fall into the habit of doing them because we think they’re no big deal, and I can see how they are spiritually destructive. We constantly make excuses for ourselves when we commit venial sins, specifically of the vein, “I didn’t mean to do something bad.” We are trying to excuse the slight against God and fellow human.

Garrigou-Lagrange is unsparing in his assessment of what sin means: “Sin is not only a foolishness and a vileness, but considered in relation to God it is also the blackest ingratitude, the greatest injustice, and the gravest outrage” (21). This is where I want to go with this conversation: how do we hurt our relationship with God when we sin? Garrigou-Lagrange justifies his statements about ingratitude, injustice, and outrage against God by reminding us of his sovereignty as Creator of the Universe. He writes, “God, the Creator, has full rights over our life. As supreme overlord He has the right of possession over our mind and our heart, and this right, more absolute than any of our property rights, remains binding even if we forget it” (21). What a wake-up call for us. We are so used to imagining that we are independent actors in the world, sovereign over our own bodies and minds, that all our cultural messaging argues to the contrary of God’s primary sovereignty. Contemporary American rhetoric over “rights,” in particular, is an extreme example of how we imagine that the most inviolable thing in the world is our right to do as we see fit within the law (or change the law if it’s inconvenient). But how wrong this is! The most inviolable thing is God’s sovereignty, and we are His subjects. We owe Him our faith and loyalty and His law is not to be changed in any way. This does not sit easy with the contemporary imagination.

Of course God is no tyrant, and instead of forcing our obedience He gives us the free will to obey or disobey, to grow closer to Him or to push Him away. As we’ve observed in prior reflections, He has called out to us first and constantly offers us His grace. That is where we start. Thus, as Garrigou-Lagrange points out, “In the present, in the very instant in which it is committed, venial sin deprives the soul of a precious grace. In that instant, grace was offered us to make progress in perfection, to be charitable, fervent, and industrious … Now this grace has been lost by our neglect, our laziness, and our limited charity” (23). Perhaps if we start thinking of our venial sins in this way, as a moment when we pushed away the grace that could have perfected us, we will become more aware of the fact that they are sins.

Sorrowing old man (“At Eternity’s Gate”), 1890, Vincent van Gogh | Wikimedia Commons.

I want to circle back to the idea of “white lies.” This might be the most common type of venial sin and it is a real perversion of Christ’s teaching in the gospel today. We justify white lies by saying that we are operating under a spirit of goodness. We don’t want someone to get overly upset by the truth, or we want to shield them from difficult truths, so we lie. But Jesus doesn’t say that the spirit trumps the letter of the law. Upholding the spirit of God’s goodness is part and parcel of the law that also prescribes a specific way of action. The basis of these prescriptions are the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. We can’t justify breaking the command to be truthful by saying we meant well. Let’s remember St. Paul’s great words to the Ephesians: “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).

Both readings today display how God wants us to convert to Him, fully and unreservedly. Unless we’re in a monastery, praying constantly, it’s easy for us to be tempted to venial sin and turn our backs to God’s offer of grace. But that’s why Lent is so important, so that prayer, fasting, and acts of charity can help us fight temptations and remain close to God. 

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