A common characteristic of the saints is they know they are sinners. Paging through the Lives of the Saints, we find a dramatically diverse cast of characters. They are all unique. They are all very much themselves. Yet, without fail, wherever we sense the odor of sanctity, we can be sure that humility is part of the fragrance. Every saint is profoundly aware of his or her own brokenness. They are often even vocal about it and we should take them at their word. As one draws closer to God, the more one perceives how much he falls short.
In our gospel this weekend (Mt 5:17-37), we see what happens when we draw close to holiness (or, when the Holy draws close to us). The awareness of sin increases. It used to be that “whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But with the appearance of God on earth, now “whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” Talk about kicking it up a notch. This tremendous change in expectation can only be explained by a change of situation. In Christ, we have received a great gift, a place in the Kingdom of God. But “much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Lk 12:48). As God draws near to us, as he shares his life with us through Baptism and the Eucharist, the expectations are elevated, not diminished: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
In drawing close to God, if an increase of his Kingdom brings a greater sensitivity to sin, the opposite is also true. Pope Francis recently remarked, “when the Kingdom of God is lessened, when the Kingdom of God decreases, one of the signs is that the sense of sin is lost.” Moving away from God, whether as individuals or as a society, our sense of sin diminishes. Perhaps this explains our empty confessionals. It is not that people don’t want forgiveness, or don’t think it is important. They simply are not aware of their sins. They don’t think they have any. This is not a sign of spiritual maturity or personal enlightenment: “to none does he give license to sin” (Sir 15:20). It is a sign of a soul who has drifted from God (or perhaps even become his own god).
In our first reading this weekend we read, “before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him” (Sir 15:17). When we drift away from God, it gets harder to make the right choice. But if we lose sight of him altogether, then the choice is made for us.