Rev. Joseph Keating
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
This week’s readings give us occasion yet again to continue our short series on the seven deadly sins. We have covered pride, envy, and greed, and this week we come to lust.
In order to frame the message this week, I want to take a moment to talk about sin in general. The word “sin” in Ancient Greek is hamartia. And this word translates back into English as “missing the mark, especially pertaining to spear throwing.” And I think this is an important image to bear in mind when we speak of sin, because it is a perfect analogy for what is happening internally.
To throw a spear, we must identify the target, wind up, and let it fly. Hopefully we’ll hit the target, but maybe not. It takes practice. Sometimes we will miss the mark. And if you’re injured, you are more likely to miss the mark.
This is just like the relationship between virtue and sin. When we act, we try to act righteously, but without the help of our developed virtues, we will often fall into sin. Practicing the virtues help us to hit the mark more often. On the other hand, if our souls are limping along, injured by repeated sin, it will be even more difficult to act virtuously. We need the healing grace that comes from sacramental confession.
When we miss the mark, in sin, as in spear throwing, it’s because our aim was off. We wanted to hit the target, but we mistakenly aimed at some point that was off-target. This is what happens with the human will and the human intellect. The will is like the arm of the spear-thrower. It’s going to launch the spear, no matter what. It wants to aim for the good, but it’s only an arm; it can’t see. So, the arm needs to coordinate with the eye, which can see the target. The eye aims, so that the arm can throw accurately. The spear-thrower’s eye is the intellect. The intellect understands and judges what is truly good and right, and informs the will to act accordingly. If the intellect is ignorant of what is good, then it cannot inform the will of how to act. If the will is weakened by an entrenched vice or addiction, then it is not strong enough to obey the intellect. It is like the spear-thrower trying to throw with a broken arm.
So it is with the sin of lust. Lust is a sin, most certainly, and that means that it misses the mark. But what, then, is the mark? There is, after all, something good that we are aiming for.
We’re aiming for chastity. And chastity means to use one’s sexual faculties for the purposes for which they were intended. We can discern what they were intended for by simply observing the way our bodies are designed. I’ll sum it up in two words: babies and bonding.
Our bodies were designed to produce new life. When everything is working properly, we get new children—more people to love, more immortal souls that are destined for heavenly glory. And, as an added benefit, the love of husband and wife binds them together emotionally. They desire to do the good for one another, to help one another, and to stay in each other’s good graces. These two purposes of the marital embrace are naturally connected, and so we must not separate them unnaturally, especially by contraception and sterilization.
Our sexuality and fertility are gifts from God. They are extremely powerful gifts, by God’s design, and this is very good news. The bad news is that these gifts are so easy to misuse. We miss the mark when we misuse our sexual faculties.
The proper context for intercourse is within the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Why? Because our bodies speak a certain language to one another. Within Holy Matrimony, they say to one another, “I am completely and forever yours. I hold nothing back.” And this language of the body is attested to by the vows spoken at the wedding ceremony.
But when, for example, a man and woman live together without being married to one another, their bodies speak a lie. They seem to say, “I am completely and forever yours,” but they have not made the same promise with their words. They have not made a public vow of fidelity and commitment to their partner. They leave the back door open, in order to escape responsibility and commitment. This is not the way happiness. The way to happiness is authentic love.
Authentic love is a self-sacrificial love, that chooses to die to one’s own desires for the good of one’s spouse. Authentic love is a faithful love, that doesn’t tuck tail when things get difficult or when it ceases to be fun. Authentic love makes one completely available to one’s spouse, and closes the door on all other romantic relationships. Authentic love holds nothing back from one’s spouse, especially not one’s fertility. Authentic love does not force one’s spouse to mutilate his/her body to avoid having children, but rather, seeks to bear fruit and bring forth new life.
I speak in such direct terms because our culture does not understand true love. The romantic feelings expressed in Disney movies and romantic comedies are not love. Love is so much more than a feeling. It is action. Specifically, to do the good for the beloved, regardless of the cost to oneself.
Furthermore, our culture does not understand marriage. The message taught by popular culture, and sadly, many Protestant denominations, is that marriage is based on intense emotional love and not necessarily connected with the bearing of children. As a result, when emotions change, the vows of commitment become meaningless, and marriage is seen as just another temporary contract.
But Christian marriage is different, and the Catholic Church has always stood up for the true meaning of marriage. I’ve preached on this before, but it’s certainly worth repeating. What is essential to marriage?
1. Marriage is permanent. We insist on it, for two reasons. First, it is commanded by Jesus Christ himself. We just heard it in the gospel. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Same goes for women who seek a divorce. It’s directly and unambiguously commanded by Jesus, who is God. But if that weren’t a good enough reason, then consider what Christian marriage symbolizes. It is a symbol of the deeper reality of the marriage of Jesus Christ and his Church for all eternity. Jesus would never abandon his bride, the Church. He marries her again and again, each time he gives himself to her in the Holy Eucharist. And he prepares a wedding feast for her in the Kingdom of Heaven, where the celebration continues for all eternity. Marriage is permanent.
2. Marriage is exclusive. Once we make the decision to get married to one person, we close off the possibility of intimate relationships with others. I think for men, especially, the thought of marriage is scary, because it looks like we are giving up our freedom. We give up our ability to choose any woman who will take us. But it’s not giving up our freedom. It’s trading in an inferior type of freedom for a superior freedom. That’s the freedom to put all your energy into loving one woman. I can say that, as a priest, it is impossible to satisfy everyone at the same time. Especially in a homily! You only have to satisfy one person. That is incredibly freeing. It allows you to love one person in a focused and total way. Marriage is exclusive.
3. Marriage is open to children. Husbands and wives are not required to have as many children as humanly possible, but they always remain open to life. Sometimes I’ll ask a young couple, “How many children do you have?” and I am always concerned when, after they name all their children, they add, “and so-and-so’s our youngest, and she’s our last one.” I love to follow up with, “How do you know?” And I ask this because their answer immediately tells me that they are not open to new life. Did they lie on the day of their wedding, when they made the vow to accept children lovingly from God? I hope not. I think, more likely, they lost that commitment along the way. Other priorities creep in, and soon there is simply no room in their hearts for another family member. Imagine if Jesus had set a limit on how many Christians he would take with him into Heaven. As if God only had so much love to give. No. God is love. He is infinite love. There is always room for more children in the Father’s house. Marriage is open to children.
I began by speaking of the sin of lust, but we hardly need to be reminded that it’s a sin. What so much more needed today is the good news: that marriage is about authentic love. If the world seems consumed by lust, that is because it is starving for authentic love. The world knows it wants love, because we are made by love and for love, but it keeps missing the mark. If you want to aim for true love, look right thru the scope, and right at the crosshairs. Who do you see, but Jesus? His love is sacrificial. His love is everlasting. His love is exclusive. His love produces children of our Heavenly Father—you and me. It is the authentic love of Jesus Christ that is echoed in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
That’s the mark we should all be aiming for. Practice the virtue of chastity, and you will surely be aiming for Heaven.