Someone asked me recently why we (priests and deacons) never give homilies on sin. I was taken back for a minute as I thought about homilies I have given and homilies I have heard. Then it hit me as he stood there with his teenaged children at his side. What he truly wanted was for his children to hear a list of right versus wrong . He wanted them to hear from the church something to counteract what society was teaching them. He did not want a homily on sin he wanted a definition of sin.
See it is easy to define sin by thou shall or shall not; then detail the penalty for failure and the reward for compliance. In truth we know we can for a short while force someone to follow the law out of fear of punishment. But what this generally leads to is an opportunity to bend or stretch the rules. We learn to stretch the rules early in our childhood and carry this into our molding our decisions based on getting by doing the minimum of what God requires of us.
Years ago, when I was working, I traveled from Cleveland to Detroit by car two to three times a week. . I drove the Ohio turnpike and I always drove much faster than the speed limit. The law set the speed limit at 65mph but I ignored the law. But since I did not want to pay a penalty if I was caught , I purchased a radar detector in order to avoid being caught.
I wanted to violate the speed limit and avoid the penalty so I found a way to know when someone was watching. Then I would comply until they were no longer watching. Then one weekend while I was driving the turnpike with my kids in the car (they were still small enough to be at home) it struck me that by my using a radar detector I was teaching them that it was ok to break a rules – just don’t get caught while breaking it. I immediately yanked the radar detector off the dash, threw it out the window and slowed down. Yes on that day I littered and by doing so I broke another law. But I also had an opportunity to talk to my children about right and wrong. I talked to them about doing what is right because we desire to do right, not because the law says we have to.
Jesus was doing the same thing with the Pharisees as he chastises them about holding to traditions that were more adherences to pious customs than to God’s will. So does this gospel tell us to ignore all traditions? Not according to the scriptures or to Jesus. Paul tells us “to hold fast to the traditions you received from us, either by our word or by letter” (2 Th. 2:15). The traditions we hold important were handed on to us by the apostles or by divine revelation. What the Pharisees were doing was to elevate human dietary laws and human traditions to the status of divine law. Yet we would have to admit that with over 2000 years of history some human traditions have found their way into the church. In fact some of the practices and customs challenged by the reformation were exactly because they thought them not of God but of human origin.
What is important for you and I to grasp is that God has always been more concerned with the disposition of our hearts not how well we follow the law. You should understand that in my “radar detector” days my decision to stop breaking the law was due to a conviction of the heart not a fear of legal consequences. It was a desire to hand down to my children an understanding of what God expects of us is that we never stretch the boundaries of selfish desire versus what God desires of us as his children.
Jesus knows the deviousness of the human heart will always use piety as an excuse to evade the obligations of doing God’s will. Don’t you understand that we can sin even when we are following the law? Let that sink in for a minute; we can sin even when we are following the law. Jesus shows us this spiritual truth when he said “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28). We would argue that we have never committed the act of adultery but Jesus says the act is not the important thing. The important thing is what is in your heart matters. This is exactly how society today has redefined what the act of sex entails for our kids. These is exactly how society today has redefined a multitude of sinful acts as acceptable but they are sinful violations of God’s law.
Because we are made in the image and likeness of God we have his law written on our hearts. Our hearts will always tell us exactly what God requires of us if we are listening to God instead of humans. God wants us to listen to him and do his will in all things. Every day we have the opportunity to not sin by doing God’s will instead of our own. Every day we have the opportunity to choose to give God glory by the way we live our lives. Just like Joshua last week we have an opportunity each morning to say “as for me I will follow the Lord.”
Why don’t we talk about sin or clearly let people know what the requirements demand of us? Because the truth is our talking about it does not change anyone. We all know right from wrong and Paul tells us that the law can only point out what sin is. But if we talk about Christ and God’s promise to send the Holy Spirit who will change our hearts then perhaps someone will throw out their “radar detector” that helps them skirt the law and truly follow God’s law implanted on our hearts.