One of the comments we make from time to time here is the absence of sermons on sin. I cannot recall hearing one. Yet, as we look at the world, we can see that if there was a questionnaire, the most common hobby of most people would be ‘sin’. Yet, with sin all around us, flaunting itself, we find an absence of comment on it from our priests. It is refreshing to find Pope Francis frequently mentions the Devil, and indicative of the preoccupations of the media which covers his every word that it never picks up this point, or, indeed, his outright and strongly worded condemnation of abortion. But I still have to hear a parish priest preach on the subject of sin.
I am told that in what my gran called ‘the olden days’ it was quite otherwise; I envision every pulpit breathing hell-fire sermons. There was certainly, if report is to be believed, more emphasis on the subject in the past. But to contemporary ears the topic is outmoded. It smacks of judging others, and the whiff of hell-fire invites a counter-charge of bigotry; there is something profoundly distasteful about the notion that unless I love God, He will consign me to Hell. Yet, as my dear friend Servus Fidelis reminded me yesterday, in my comments on God being love, I came close to the sin of presumption. He usefully reminded us all that: ‘Loving God is not as easy as it first appears and is a long walk to transform ourselves in ways that do not come so easy to most humans.’ This is a useful reminder of an important Gospel truth.
However much we might dislike it, Christ talks frequently about judgement and Hell; His whole message is the urgent one of repent and be saved. That is an invitation to abandon our sinful ways and to follow Him. No one ever liked being called a sinner, and in the modern West we simply have life-style choices, some of which are firmly classed as sinful by the Church. This presents Christians with a dilemma: do they simply pass by on the other side and say nothing when they know that, according to the teaching of the Church, their friends are in mortal peril?
Perhaps one way to approach this is from the point of view expressed by St. Isaac of Syria. He comes pretty close to believing that Hell ought to be empty, but turns away from universalism by acknowledging that individuals endowed with free-will can make the choice to reject God’s love. His emphasis is on God’s love, and it is the individual who, by rejecting it, consigns herself to Hell.
That would certainly explain the urgency of Our Lord’s summons. The choice belongs to us. We judge ourselves. Christ taught us to call God ‘Abba’, which is not just ‘Father’ but closer to the childish ‘daddy’ or ‘papa’. This is because we are His children. But like all children, we grow up, and we can reject our parents. That does not (usually) stop them loving us – but if we go astray, they cannot stop us.
That is why the parable of the Prodigal is so important. There Christ tells us that God’s love remains constant. He is always there, wherever we are. If we will but repent and turn to Him, He is there, waiting, and comes out to meet us. How far is that from the image, preferred by some, of the stern Judge. He is the only Just Judge, and He judges us with love and mercy. He does not condemn us to Hell and separation from Him – we do that to ourselves. It is our prideful refusal to repent and to take the hard road of repentance which separates us from Him.