Loss of the sense of sin

Father John A. Kiley

Saint Augustine, the learned bishop of Hippo in North Africa, insightfully observed that the four restorations to life that Jesus performed during his public ministry form a handy analysis of how God can address sin whether sin be entrenched in the soul or sin be lurching as a temptation for the unwary.

The most celebrated restoration to life by Jesus was of course that of his close friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Lazarus had been dead for four days according to the testimony of his bereaved sister. An older translation had Martha remark to Jesus concerning her brother, “Lord, he stinketh!” So there is no doubt that rigor had set in and there was little hope for the mourned Lazarus. The son of the widow at Naim, whose restoration to life is this coming Sunday’s Gospel reading, had certainly died earlier in the day. He was evidently dead for at least some time since his bereaved mother and townsfolk had ritually prepared for his burial and a formal interment was underway.

The daughter of Jairus was at the point of death when her father, a synagogue official, approached Jesus and pleaded for her young life. Jesus obligingly started out for the official’s home in the interest of curing the girl’s sever illness. On the way servants approached the father with the alarming message: “Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any longer?” Jesus pushed aside their alarming concern and, entering the girl’s room, restored her to life, presenting her to her overjoyed parents. And again, the royal official who had been very helpful to the Jewish community had a servant who was “ill and about to die.” So he was not dead, but was definitely at the point of death. His days, his hours, were numbered.

Saint Augustine saw four stages of sin in these four restorations and he more importantly saw Jesus as the cure, the therapy, the treatment, for all stages of sin. Lazarus was dead for four days and certainly represents the hardened sinner, the individual overcome with greed, isolated through pride, or toughened through anger. Somehow, perhaps through the concern of a loved one, maybe through a thought-provoking illness, possibly through the re-awakening of childhood faith, Jesus can enter into the life of this sinner and a conversion can result. One thinks of the young Charles de Foucault or the storm-stricken St. Norbert. People can repent. The widow’s son at Naim represents not the hardened sinner but the careless sinner who compromises a basically good life by occasional but serious lapses. A casual attitude toward Sunday Mass, a willingness to harm another’s good name, extra drinks before driving home, questionable business practices, sexual indiscretions – a pattern of such behavior might co-exist with an otherwise respectable life but these sins can be death dealing if they are not recognized and repented.

The little girl who had just died, dying within moments of Jesus’ arrival, symbolizes the believer who endangers his soul by a relaxed attitude toward venial sin. Venial sins are not death-dealing but they weaken the soul, dull the conscience and diminish the will. Venial sins are the fever, the chill and the loss of breath which signify that death is never very far away. The prudent believer will attend to venial sins — to the irreverence, the profanity, the deceit, the dishonesty, the impurity, the neglect, and the rash judgments – that would come to light if an examination of conscience were a daily practice.

The royal servant was at the point of death. He connotes the believer, alive with the Spirit but facing the day’s innumerable temptations. The believer is not dead; but moral death lurks at the door through personal and societal temptations. The world, the flesh and the devil along with today’s fashionable embodiments – materialism, pornography and unbelief – are daily available to the unguarded and the imprudent. Yet the old remedies, like custody of the eyes, control of the tongue, a respect for virtue and authentic prayer, still can fend off the attraction of evil.

Pope Pius XII well said during the Second World War that the greatest evil of his day was the loss of the sense of sin. Sin and its various stages – hardened sin, mortal sin, venial sin and temptation – have been even more ignored since Pope Pius’ mid-century utterance. A fortified sense of sin is sorely needed today by both the godly and the godless.