Rev. Joseph Keating
28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
For the past four weeks, we have been examining the seven deadly sins. We have covered pride, envy, greed, and lust. This week, I thought I would write a homily on the sin of sloth, but I decided to take a nap instead.
What is sloth? No, not the animal that lives in a tree, but the sin of sloth. Some pronounce it “slothe.” Sloth, or acedia, as it’s known in Latin, is defined as a spirit of oppressive sadness about spiritual goods. More specifically, sadness about Divine things. Now, perhaps you thought that sloth is simply another word for laziness, and you’re not far off; the two are certainly related. But sloth is more than just physical laziness. Sloth is laziness in our relationship with God.
In the gospel today, we just heard a story of sloth in the encounter between Jesus and the so-called “rich young man.” We just heard it, so I won’t repeat it here, but bear in mind the end of the episode, where the rich young man walks away sad, because he had many possessions.
You could easily file this story away under the sin of greed/avarice, because it has to do with money, but I think it belongs here, with the deadly sin of sloth. Remember, sloth is sadness about spiritual goods. Jesus wanted to share with him the greatest spiritual goods: true wisdom and true happiness. He wanted to share the theological counsels of poverty and obedience—“sell what you have… then come, follow me.” Jesus wanted the best for the young man, and yet he is sad, because he loves his worldly possessions more than the spiritual goods Jesus is offering.
In the first reading today, from the Book of Wisdom, the gift of wisdom is praised, and even personified, as if a beautiful woman. The author writes:
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire (Wisdom 7:8-9).
He’s praising wisdom—a spiritual good—above the most valuable worldly goods. The priest Erasmus of Rotterdam once said, “When I have a little money, I buy books; if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Fr. Erasmus evidently loved wisdom more than even the bare essentials. He rightly recognized that spiritual goods are better than worldly goods. And so he pursued the spiritual good first and foremost.
Back in the gospel, the rich young man, on the one hand, seems to be concerned with spiritual goods. After all, he is asking about heaven. But on the other hand seems to be overly preoccupied with himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off the commandments, and the man says, “yeah, yeah, I did that already.” As if he has already come to his own conclusion that he has checked all the boxes. And this reveals something of his character. He is focused in on himself. He is navel-gazing, as they say. He is not focused outward, with an aim to loving his neighbor. He is lacking in one thing—charity. Jesus perceives this fault of his, and so he prescribes a remedy—“sell what you have and give it to the poor.” But he just can’t do it. He’s trapped in the sin of sloth.
You see, the sin of sloth is opposed to the virtue of charity. Charity, also known as love, seeks the good of the other person, even at my own expense. Jesus was calling this man to focus outward, to stop being self-congratulatory and self-righteous, and to give of himself. To grow in charity, the greatest of spiritual goods.
Instead, he walks away sad. Now, perhaps some of us in this church may be sad today. And there are a thousand reasons why we might be sad. But not all sadness is sloth. Some sadness is grief; that’s not sloth. Some sadness is due to illness or loneliness; that’s not sloth. Sometimes we feel sad because we know we have sinned, or done something wrong; that is not sloth. That is guilt. And guilt is good, because it means that deep down, we desire holiness, and we know we have fallen short. Guilt leads to contrition and repentance.
The sadness of sloth is more like apathy. It is to resist progress in the spiritual life. It is to say, “I’m content with where I am in my spiritual life, and I have no need of improvement.” It is to give up on the project of holiness, on the goal of sainthood.
I think it’s perfectly expressed by Pat Green and Willie Nelson in the song, Threadbare Gypsy Soul, “I can’t change, and it’s a sin; hope St. Peter’s gonna let me in. Come on, Pete, won’t you let me in?” Well, Pat, that sounds like a bit of a gamble when it comes to your salvation. So let me just say it here first—Pat Green: good at country music; bad at theology.
We do have to change. It’s the whole reason we’re Christians. We know we are sinners in need of salvation. But Jesus doesn’t just save us by covering over our shame, like snow on a pile of manure. No, he transforms us from within, and allows us to participate in our own redemption. That means we make the effort to change, always, our whole lives thru.
If we are finding ourselves stalled out in the spiritual life, going thru the motions, but not really sure if it’s all worth it, asking what is the bare minimum I have to do to get into Heaven, then we just might be like the rich young man in the gospel today. But his story is already written. Ours in still in progress. We know how his story ends, but we have free will and we have time to change. It’s not a lot of time, but there’s still time.
What can I do today to resist the sin of sloth, to strive against spiritual inertia? Instead of worldly goods, seek the spiritual goods: wisdom, obedience, charity. Go, and give to the poor, and then come, follow Jesus.