When I was a kid, I read a hilarious book called “Growing up Catholic.” Perhaps you have heard of it or one of its two sequels. If you haven’t, then you are missing something in life because these small volumes are laugh-out-loud funny. They take a look at some of the nuances of what it means to be a Catholic and pokes gentle fun at some of our various traditions in a way that is both endearing and perplexing.
I bring all of this up because one of my favorite sections in this book concerns sin and the various problems that come up because of it. In this particular instance, the authors examine all of the possible pitfalls that can occur during a routine trip to a ball game. I am paraphrasing here so that I don’t get accused of plagiarism, but you’ll get the idea:
Imagine that it is a Friday night during Lent and you are at a ball game. There is a vendor in the stands hawking hot dogs. Although you are not supposed to eat hot dogs on Friday, you still want one. Without moving an inch, you have sinned twice – once by considering it and once by actually wanting to act on it. Now imagine what would happen if you bought one, then regretted it and threw it away. You’ve sinned by buying one and then by wasting perfectly good food. Now, if you actually eat it, choke on it and die before you can get to confession, will you go straight to hell for such an action? Can you really reconcile an action that was committed in such a deliberate manner?
Mr. Owl, how many venial sins does it take to earn a mortal transgression against your soul?
I was roughly 12-years-old when I first read the above scenario, but I will never forget the impact it made on me. It occurred to me that just about anything could be considered a sin under the right circumstances! It seemed to me that although sin appears to be a black and white proposition, in reality, there are a lot of shades of gray.
For example, we all know we are not supposed to lie, but are we really supposed to make someone feel badly by telling them what we really think of the outfit they are wearing? If we say nothing or offer a comment that can be “spun” a couple of different ways, are we not guilty of the sin of omission? If we are blunt, isn’t that the same as being mean, which falls into the larger category of Anger? Perhaps the only way to “avoid the narrow occasion” is to put on blinders, wear earmuffs and remain mute. (See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.)
For what it’s worth, even Jesus had trouble with this “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” proposition as well. In a world that was consumed with rules to regulate every aspect of one’s life, He discovered that there was no wiggle room for doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Here He was doing farm work on the Sabbath in order to make sure others were fed and yet, the Pharisees were focused on the wrong problem. If I were in His sandals, you can bet I would not have been as calm in my response. I probably would have said, “If you have time to crow, you can work the row!”
Don’t misunderstand…I’m not going to tell you that it’s OK to eat a hot dog on Friday during Lent, but if you are battling the flu, I’m pretty sure chicken soup is not bad for the soul. When it comes to sin, there are certainly a few hard line items such as Thou Shall Not Steal and Thou Shall Not Kill that really have no loop holes, but we can drive ourselves to distraction trying to rack up a few brownie points on the little details while missing the larger picture.
Today’s readings for Mass: COL 1: 21-23; PS 54: 3-4, 6 and 8; LK 6: 1-5